Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Movie Review - Harrison Bergeron

This little known film, made in 1995, is loosely based on a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (If you’re never read it, there’s a link to this story at the end of the review). I remember reading this in a sci-fi anthology years ago (ooooooh, that makes me feel old… :-C) and being impressed by it – so impressed that I remember it vividly even after the aforementioned years have past…

The Plot

Anyway, the basic idea of the story and the film is that the world has a completely egalitarian society – taken to its ultimate conclusion. Everyone with special talents and abilities is given handicaps – i.e., the strong are forced to carry weights permanently, the intellectual have buzzers fitted to their ears to constantly distract them – the cleverer they are, the more frequent the interruptions , etc – to bring everyone down to the same level. This way nobody can feel superior or inferior. No-one can rise above anyone else, and even the world’s leaders have no advantages in nay way over the lowest society member.

Or so everyone believes, including the eponymous hero of the film. Harrison (played by Sean Astin (Sam in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy), who does pretty well with his role - I can't really understand why some of the other reviewers have slated his performance here) has the largest handicaps of anyone in history – so obviously he cannot reach anything like his full potential. Things are not going to change until he visits a “brothel” – where women satisfy intellectual rather than physical delights – and takes his handicaps off during a game of chess. But then the brothel is busted – and that’s when things start getting interesting…

For of course you need people in full possession of their faculties to run the world. (Step aside G Bush and T Blair…) But it’s not an official government of any kind – it’s a secret organisation, where the un-handicapped control the lives of the handicapped – who think that there is no-one above them, and that the system of handicaps is to everyone’s benefit. As Harrison gets more involved in their operations, he also finds their methods and attitudes more and more distasteful… and falls in love with one of the leading class, played by Miranda de Pencier.


Enough of the plot – I have only told you that much because some of my comments on the film would make no sense if you didn’t know that much. The acting is pretty good – okay it’s not brilliant, but the basically unknown cast does a pretty good job. The scriptwriters have also done a good job of turning Vonnegut’s short story into a full-length film. There definitely wasn’t enough material in the original story to turn into a film, but this manages to follow the spirit of the original despite some radical plot changes and additions. They also don’t take the easy “feel-good” options on some of the plot devices, which helps to keep it feeling realistic.


Other reviews have criticised the acting – I admit it’s not brilliant, but it’s certainly not terrible. I didn’t personally find that it detracted from my enjoyment watching the film – after all, it’s quite an unusual experience to hardly recognise anyone when you’re watching a film!

The REAL reason to watch this film…

The strength of the film is its ability to make you think. Not just about the societal structure, but also the abuse of power, repression, and what it would be like if the great artists etc had not been allowed to express themselves without constraints on their natural abilities. A particularly nice scene is where Harrison watches old movies (before the regime of equalisation was brought in – these movies are of course banned to the normal people) - and marvels at the artistry, plot intrigue, and acting ability he sees. He listens to music so unlike any of the drab and mundane melodies he had been used to (that could well be a commentary on today’s music scene!). He is moved in was impossible in his former existence. And he wants to share these expressions of human accomplishment with others, with all people if possible – but this, of course is not allowed… people might start to realise what they were missing, and what is being held back from them so that a few can retain complete control…

In Conclusion…

Overall, I feel that this is really an unsung hero of science fiction filmography. It deserves a lot more recognition than it is every likely to get. I would recommend it to fans of science fiction and movies that make you think. Fantasy fans and action junkies are better off looking elsewhere.

There are some flurries of bad language in this movie, so watch out if that's going to be a problem for you. When I saw it again recently there was actually a lot more swearing than I remembered - probably because it is isolated to three or four places in the film, but when it comes there is a whole stream of it. I could have done without the profanities, and they didn't really add any kind of emphasis to the film other than to show one of the characters as unthinking and incapable of rational thought - which we already knew anyway.

This film made it into my Top Ten Sci-Fi Films List

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