Revisiting Dystopian Epic ‘1984’ More Than 35 Years Later

Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer

On October 10 British dystopian Sci Fi film 1984 celebrated its 37th anniversary. Now I usually like to revisit films with rounder anniversaries like 35th or 40th and so forth, but the film is timeless and its themes of control, surveillance, information control and manipulation are very relevant in this present day.

Based on George Orwell’s seminal novel of the same name, 1984 (which came out, you guessed it, in 1984) tells the story of a low level civil servant named Winston Smith living in a bleak, war-torn London ruled by a totalitarian state called Oceania. The film was directed by Michael Radford and stars the late great John Hurt as Smith and veteran actor Richard Burton as high-ranking Inner Party member O’Brien in what would be his final role. With a Big Brother-sized SPOILER ALERT let’s briefly revisit 1984.

Fornicating? No, we haven’t been fornicating. Why would you ask that?

If you are looking for a film to put you in a good mood, then 1984 is not it. This movie is very dark and very bleak, both literally and figuratively. The cinematography was done by the masterful Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner 2049, 1917) and the towering images of “Big Brother”, the tight, cramped shots, and the desolate war-ravaged areas all combine to instill a feeling of crushing oppression and utter desolation. I adored the opening scene of the citizens shouting hate at the “enemies of the state” and the beautifully idyllic dreamscapes of Winston’s mind during the mental breaks from his torture sessions.

And speaking of Winston, John Hurt is so very good in this role. I’m normally not a huge fan of narration in film but I didn’t mind listening to Hurt’s rich tones. And he perfectly captures the resignation of a man who is living under the unflinching eye and terrible boot of the state, but who seeks a spark of hope through his clandestine romance with fellow party worker Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). Hamilton is pretty good though not on the same level as Hurt (but then again, few would be). And she spent a whole lot more time in the nude than I remembered. They have a sweet, passionate, thoughtful relationship which makes their forced betrayal at the end all the more heartbreaking.

Now come on. Hold still. This tooth is not going to yank itself out

The third main player in this menagerie of dystopian horrors is Burton’s O’Brien. Oh my goodness, what a villainous role he delivers. This guy is one of the most calculating, vicious and remorseless bad guys I have ever seen, and his mental and physical torture of poor Winston at the ironically named Ministry of Love is downright chilling. Those scenes were extremely difficult to watch and the visceral intensity put some torture-porn horror flicks to shame. Hurt and Burton are a fine one-two punch of victim and torturer here and their realistic performances make it all the more harrowing. Just thinking of that rat face trap makes my blood crawl. As an aside, O’Brien trying to convince Winston he was seeing the number of fingers he was told and not what he was physically seeing reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Chain of Command. There are four lights fingers!

One of my favourite aspects of the film was Winston’s day job at the Ministry of Truth where history is regularly rewritten to better fit Oceania’s propaganda. From changing who Oceania was at war with at a specific time to reusing people’s faces, the twisting of the facts is ridiculous on the surface but it scarily shows that people will believe anything if they have no other choice. While this is science fiction in some countries it is not too far from the truth. And the constant surveillance of Big Brother may have been farfetched in 1984 or 1949 when the novel was published, but with the internet we are being monitored more now than ever in human history. Welcome to 2021 folks.

Hey you! Yeah you! You with the chess set. I’m talking to you wise guy

And speaking of the novel, I read it years ago but it definitely left a strong impression. The film does not delve as deeply into the world as the book but it’s two different media and I get that. I still would have liked to seen a bit more of Oceania but it is a small gripe. And the ending of the film is very close to the unforgettable ending of the book with Winston’s broken mind and spirit professing love for Big Brother, and I appreciated that.

What else can I say but 1984 remains a superb dystopian Sci Fi classic that deftly and frighteningly captures Orwell’s perennial themes. And it is definitely a must-see for lovers of cerebral Sci Fi. And whatever you do, don’t forget; Big Brother is watching you!

Editor Jules’s Score: 8.5 out of 10

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Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.