DIRECTED BY: Michael Radford
WRITTEN BY: Michael Radford (screenplay); Based on the novel by George Orwell
PEW PEW: If you’re looking for action, adventure, and thrills, you’ve probably picked up the most terribly wrong film you could have possibly picked up.
CAT FOOD: Nineteen Eighty-Four, in its every facet, is a grand social statement, and I will not belittle its profound art, but it should have remained a seminal piece of science fiction literature.
Here’s the thing about art: the common misconception surrounding art is that it needs to be aesthetically pleasing. I don’t believe this at all, and the 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s, erm, Nineteen Eighty-Four is my proof.
Based in an alternate 1984, in a dystopian nation called Oceania, a totalitarian regime rules with an iron fist, essentially using left-wing ideals to implement right-wing dictatorship. John Hurt plays Winston Smith, who maintains a minimal existence by censoring the news to ensure that it fits with Big Brother (the personified government)’s vision of history.
In time, Winston falls victim to ‘thoughtcrime,’ which is essentially coming to trust the validity and reality of one’s own independent thoughts instead of those preferred by Big Brother. In a world where love for anything but Big Brother is forbidden, sex is viewed as an abominable act. As if Winston doesn’t have enough problems, the striking Suzanna Hamilton shows up and proves that au naturel can be a really sexy thing from time to time.
Beyond their initial carnal relationship, Winston and Hamilton’s Julia develop what this film’s oppressive gloom underlines very clearly as deep love for one another — a love which Julia, in the movie’s single significant romantic moment, claims no one can take from inside the worried Winston’s heart. After their love and sex acts are discovered by government agents, Big Brother goes to work extensively to prove the lovely Julia quite wrong.
So yeah, the beginning of the film is essentially just a setup for us to witness Winston’s being savagely whittled down to become a mindless prole like all the rest.
Now, I do believe this film, like the novel, is a work of art, regardless of its lack of beauty. Unlike similar films, like THX 1138, which feature bright whites and sterile environments, this thing is designed to look like war-ravaged Romania, adding to the bleak and oppressive nature of the autocracy. These people look like prisoners of war and are bombarded with blatant jingoism on a daily basis, and the creepiest thing is, everyone mostly carries on as if this is normal, and life is somehow good this way. There is absolutely nothing pretty about this picture, besides the fact that the female lead remains attractive, even when reduced to plain.
My views on art aside, I do believe that films are made to be enjoyed, and there’s not much to enjoy about Nineteen Eighty-Four. So while it may be a work of art, this is not really a movie so much as it is an exercise, and I can’t abide that. It’s not that I don’t like bleak pictures, Blade Runner is a film that I will go on record to state is perfect. What it has over Nineteen Eighty-Four is that there’s a lot to enjoy and feel in its narrative. Nineteen Eighty-Four is ugly and sadistic to the core, not even managing to make the love between Winston and Julia even mean anything by the end of the film.
I understand that this utter helplessness in the face of such reckless oppression is necessary and fundamental to the story being told, but then maybe this story didn’t need to be a film as much as an educational read. I don’t go to the movies to see drunk driving ads where entire families are shown mutilated on screen, and I likewise don’t go to hear John Lennon singing his Christmas song over images of starving African children.
These things have their place in educational media, but they shouldn’t be movies. Take horror film as the ultimate example. It is true, I am guilty of enjoying watching Jason Voorhees slaughter countless horny teenagers, but there’s a certain whimsy to Friday the 13th and similar films that make them enjoyable, as opposed to vile and mean-spirited horror films like Saw, Hostel, and Human Centipede.
Essentially, Nineteen Eighty-Four is art for the big screen but nothing more. It says heaps about humanity, but what shreds of actual humanity it shows are blown away in a wash of uncompromisingly brutal, and wholly unenjoyable sadism.
If you enjoyed Nineteen Eighty-Four, congratulations, you’re the kind of person who’d take photos of loved ones in their caskets at funerals and carry them around in your wallet to remember them.