The Last Jedi and Brazil

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired or help us better understand George Lucas’ iconic universe. In this edition: Brazil.)

The 1985 release of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was nothing short of a miracle. The executives at Universal were so disappointed with Gilliam’s grim vision of the future that they wanted to recut it and give it a happy ending, but Gilliam refused to be beaten down by the system. He fought and fought and fought until the executives were forced to relent. Ironic that a film about trying to beat the system from within and losing (mostly) was only released because a filmmaker fought the system and actually won.

Brazil tells the story of Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) as he navigates an Orwellian hellscape with bliss until his dreams become too much. When he decides he needs to follow those dreams, the society he’s lived in with aplomb actively works to destroy him. While they might destroy his body, though, they’d never destroy his spirit.

Arguably, Brazil is Gilliam’s definitive masterpiece, evoking everything he is as a filmmaker and storyteller and boiling it into one dystopian nightmare. It’s a study in stark contrasts as well. In one particularly funny (and disturbing scene) Sam Lowry is dining with his mother (Katherine Helmond) and her rich and decadent friends when a terrorist’s bomb explodes in the background. None of the rich folks seem to notice and the restaurant staff erects accordion walls around them so they don’t have to witness the world literally falling apart around them. For as big as the film is, it’s always oppressively personal. For as funny as it is, each laugh threatens to become a sob as you realize just how bleak the universe really is.

This is Terry Gilliam’s view of the human condition, it seems, and it’s as hilarious as it is terrifying.

The Last Jedi and Brazil

Rian Johnson, the filmmaker behind Star Wars: The Last Jedi has long touted his love of Gilliam’s Brazil. In an interview with i09, he explains that he found the film at the right time in his life. “I discovered Brazil in my freshman year of college, around the same time I discovered 8 1/2, and they’re obviously very different movies but they both cracked my mind open in a specific way…they both opened up the potential for intimacy through bigness. All the visual opulence of Brazil was not just spectacle, it was all one very small and relatable human emotion, writ large.”

It’s a highly influential film for many filmmakers, but Johnson was able really boil down its themes and aesthetic into The Last Jedi in a way that rivals the cinematic semiotics George Lucas was known for.

“To me,” Terry Gilliam said in an interview with The Believer, “the heart of Brazil is responsibility, is involvement — you can’t just let the world go on doing what it’s doing without getting involved.

And that’s exactly what happens through Finn’s story in Canto Bight. He’s chasing a dream — Rey — the same way Sam Lowry chases the mysterious woman in his dreams and they come to the realization that the only way to save these women in their lives is to get involved. For both, that realization might have come too late when they’re forced to finally choose sides. For Sam, it’s at the cost of his mind and his freedom. For Finn, it comes at the cost of risk for the Resistance.

Canto Bight and the 27B/6

Another theme throughout both Brazil and Canto Bight sequences of The Last Jedi is the ambivalence of the wealthy in the face of a world falling apart. Not only does Rian Johnson evoke these same feelings with the music (more on that later) he does it with the same zeal as Gilliam when filling his frames. On Canto Bight, so many of the shots match those ultra-wide and cluttered frames that Terry Gilliam is known for. And instead of the place being rocked by explosions, they’re rocked by the impact of the fathier races. Until the fathiers are literally stampeding over them, they’re content to stay in their own world and ignore the plight of everyone else. Their ambivalence to the world in the face of such evil feels well-represented in Michael Palin’s character in Brazil, Jack Lint. Lint is the torture master working for the state, but he’s such a happy family man, living in bliss despite all the evil he’s wrought.

Another theme through Brazil is the oppressive nature of bureaucracy. Every time Sam is about to win, some bit of paperwork is shoved back into his face. In fact, the rescue attempt by Robert DeNiro’s Tuttle is ultimately foiled when he’s consumed completely by the debris of passing paperwork. This is exemplified in The Last Jedi with the parking tickets and violation 27B/6 that land Finn and Rose into jail. That bit of paperwork is an overt reference as well. The 27B/6 is the form that allows Central Services to fix Lowry’s heating unit.

It’s easy to see DJ as being a character that could have been the Tuttle sort, swooping in to save our heroes in a time of need, and that’s what’s so brilliant about the subverted expectations that a thematically inherent in Johnson’s Star Wars film. For those of us who know Brazil, we see DJ explaining to Finn the reality of the world and we think that he might be a good guy since he’s helping. When he isn’t, the rug is pulled from us as drastically as it is from Finn and Rose.

The Music

John Williams stepped up and offered a Star Wars-y version of Aquarela do Brasil which was a piece of music that inspired the title of Brazil, but also informed all of its musical choices. Gilliam recalls a story about why it became so influential in his imagination: “This place was a métallurgie city, where everything was covered by a gray metallic dust… Even the beach was completely covered by dust, it was really dusky. The sun was going down and was very beautiful. The contrast was extraordinary. I had this image of a man sitting there in this sordid beach with a portable radio, tuned in those strange escapist Latin songs like Brazil. The music took him away somehow and made the world seem less blue to him.”

For the world of Canto Bight, the music has that same quality, a sharp contrast to the Korngold notes of the standard Star Wars soundtrack. Thanks to Gilliam, the sound of cognitive dissonance is Brazil and instead of fighting it, John Williams embraced it and I can’t imagine anything else fitting in that space of the movie so well. The political and historical charge of the music adds to the ambience, subconsciously or otherwise, to the Canto Bight sequences in a really wonderful way.

The Odessa Steps

One other roundabout connection to Star Wars in Brazil is the tie between Revenge of the Sith, The Last Jedi, Brazil, and Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein’s seminal silent film saw a sequence on the Odessa steps burn into the work of films of the future for all time. Brazil has a sequence patterned after this infamous sequence as Tuttle is rescuing Sam in his dreams. George Lucas made use of it in much more sinister ways, as Darth Vader marches on the Jedi Temple at the outset of Order 66 and the Emperor’s purge. Rian Johnson mirrored these shots in The Last Jedi as Kylo Ren and his First Order troopers march into the rebel base on Crait. Was this a result of influence from a prior Star Wars film? The original source material? Or was Johnson referencing Brazil once more? With the feedback loop of inspiration, it’s possible that it could be all of those at once.

Gilliam’s Brazil

As a work of art, Brazil is something that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s just a film that works on you in subtle ways and infects your brain, but in a good way. The sense of humor is so unique, but familiar—this was Gilliam’s first real project after the dissolution of Monty Python, so it has Python-esque feel, but it’s a purer strain of Gilliam’s concentrated bleak lunacy. In our current political climate, it feels, somehow, even more relevant than it did during the midst of the Reagan years when it was released. The aesthetic and production design is a spectacle to behold, but it’s in such beautiful, stark contrast to the emotion contained in the film. There’s something oddly noble in Sam Lowry’s ending, where it’s better to be tortured by the system than give in to it and give up your dreams. And, for a movie that ends as bleakly as Brazil, it packs a powerful, positive punch that lands squarely on your jaw and you won’t know if you should laugh or cry.

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Brazil is currently streaming on Prime and available to rent on other streaming platforms, but if you can get your hands on a copy of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of the film, you owe it to yourself to see it that way.

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