Back in time with Time Bandits
When asked what movie I watched more times than any other as a child, my answer isn't Star Wars. It isn't one of the Star Trek entries. Nothing Disney's ever produced even comes close.
It's Terry Gilliam's 1981 film, Time Bandits.
Part of this is due to the fact that, throughout the '80s and early '90s, the thing was a constant staple of HBO, but, honestly, I didn't have to watch it — I always came across it and stopped on it.
The film follows the adventures of a smart young English boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock) who's swept away through time adventuring with six eccentric yet dimwitted little people who use to work for The Supreme Being and helped create the universe.
Feeling unappreciated for their efforts, they've stolen a map which reveals the locations of all the holes in time and space. Their goal: riches through robbery.
But they've got more than their own dimwittedness to deal with. The Supreme Being continues hunting them through time and space, while the far more sinister Evil (David Warner) begins putting a plan in motion to attract the time travelers to his fortress so he can steal the map and use it to conquer all of creation.
Gilliam, the sole American member of Monty Python and the creator of the comedy troupe's ultra-absurd animation sequences, has, in the ensuing years, become known as one of the most visionary directors in the industry, with such films as Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Twelve Monkeys and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus under his belt. Time Bandits is no exception as a series of historic excursions give way to journeys through lands of fantasy and, ultimately, a battle against frightful monsters in Evil's Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.
To the eyes of a child, what unfolds is a sort of ultimate cinematic fairytale full of adventure and silliness and monsters that is guaranteed to capture the imagination. But Gilliam and writing partner — and fellow Python member — Michael Palin have more than their sharp, sometimes bizarre senses of whimsy and humor at work. Underneath all the gags about the infamously short Napoleon taking joy in watching people smaller than himself slap each other silly and ocean striding giants wearing galleons as hats is a playful thematic exploration of humanity's various perceptions of what the important things are in life — what their priorities are.
From a more mature perspective, the film seems mostly to be, plausibly, little more than an overnight dream of the imaginative boy Kevin, who's stuck in a household with two stodgy, disconnected parents busy rating their social status in terms of how nice their kitchen appliances are as compared to those of the neighbors.
The themes of the stupidity of materialism and unethical obsession with technology are tight threads woven through the film. Evil himself mocks the work of the Supreme Being, pointing out that, while his antithesis created such boring and/or useless things as slugs and nipples on men, he would have have mastered digital watches, tape recorders, computers and would have started with lasers on day one.
The film culminates in a battle between the Time Bandits and Evil that attracts the attention of the Supreme Being. When little boy Kevin finds himself face to face with the creator of the universe — his own creator — having just seen the damage and death that Evil can wreak, asks the Almighty, "Why do we have to have evil?"
The Supreme Being acknowledges the question but doesn't answer immediately as he mulls it over.
His answer, when it comes, bears both truth and triviality, fact and frivolity. It's a perfect statement because it's an imperfect one — and, thus, the sort of thing guys like Gilliam and Palin can deliver when their intellects are firing on all cylinders. It's that old Python cynicism with a smile and a winking shrug.
With a new Blu-ray out from the Criterion Collection, there's no better time to revisit Gilliam's bizarre triumph of the imagination, and fans will be thrilled to open that case and discover a replica of the film's map printed on the opposite side of the fold out liner notes.
Use it at your own discretion. Just remember, if you find any of that blackened, foul smelling charcoal stuff, make sure not to touch it.