There are plenty of movies I saw as a kid that not only affected my skewed, horrid way of thinking, but I’m also quite aware of how those movies affected me as such. I’m pretty sure my love of over-the-top violence comes from seeing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom five times in the theater during the summer of 1984 coupled with having a Gremlins-themed birthday party, complete with Stripe (Not Gizmo, Stripe) cake the same summer. Those moves are etched into my brain. I know where the deviance occurred.
Time Bandits is another beast entirely. I’ve always remembered the demented ending. Kid is standing outside his burning house. Parents find an EVIL ROCK. Kid tells them not to touch it. Kid says the rock is EVIL. Parents touch it anyway. KABOOM. Parents blow up. Dead. The End. No happy ending. No “but they just turned into frogs and will get better.” Dead. Done. That’s it, kid.
That stuck with me, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember much of the rest of the movie. I knew the main kid was hanging out with a bunch of time-traveling dwarves. I knew they were fighting some evil god-like being. I knew crazy stuff happened. But that was it. I had that overall impression, but I didn’t remember stuff the way I vividly remember the heart-ripping scene from Temple of Doom or the gremlin getting microwaved in Gremlins. Doom makes sense, since I watch the Indy Jones movies almost yearly, but I hadn’t seen Gremlins all the way through since the 80s until I got it on Blu-Ray last X-Mas (Second best X-Mas movie, right after Die Hard.). Gremlins burned into my mind on a detail-by-detail level, while Time Bandits just left this image-less, macroscopic impression.
So I went back and watched the thing, and everything is so much clearer now. Damn, this movie messed me up as a kid.
Time Bandits came out in 1981. I’m not sure if I saw it in the theater or if I saw it on VHS or HBO. I know my parents were taking me to see movies that early, since I vividly remember seeing the likes of Empire Strikes Back and For Your Eyes Only when they first came out. Regardless, I saw this thing at a pretty damn early age.
The crux of the story is pretty damn existential. The main kid gets commandeered by these time-hopping dwarves. Yeah, the kid is ignored at home by his listless, neglectful parents– and he definitely longs for escape and adventure like most boys his age– but his “whisked away to another world” moment is tantamount to kidnapping. No “I’m here to take you to a magical school, Harry Potter” moment of secret destiny revelation. No accidental “Oops, you slipped into this magical book and you’re lusted after a bunch of hot dudes, Miaka” bit. The kid’s kidnapped. He’s placed into a series of dangerous situations beyond his control: Napoleon sacking a city in Italy, the sinking of the Titanic, a man-eating Ogre and his wife who starred in Who’s the Boss and Soap.
Never does this kid actually do anything. He doesn’t hold any secret magic. He’s just a kid whose closet just happened to have a time portal inside of it. He’s not a dumb kid, and he comes up with a smart idea or two, but that’s about it. He doesn’t save the day, except by accident when he lands in Crete and helps Sean Connery defeat The Minotaur. For the most part, he’s just along for the ride and surviving purely by chance and the whims of the Supreme Being.
This kid ain’t a hero, except in that Vonnegut sense of it, where you identify with the hapless dupe being tossed about space-time for no damn good reason.
So this kid travels through time, suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, becoming “buddies” with his amoral, roguish captors. And there lies the other messed up part of this movie. These dwarves aren’t heroic. They stole a map from the Supreme Being– essentially GOD– and are using it to rob people during different eras for their own gain. They steal shit from a drunk, sleeping Napoleon after gaining his trust. They let a noble couple get robbed blind twice because they just don’t give a damn. The only reason why they end up trying to save the world is because they get tricked into going to the main villain’s fortress, since said villain mind controls one of the dwarves to suggest his era as a place to make the biggest score in history. They’re in it for themselves, and when it comes time to take on the villain, literally Evil itself, they do it out of self-preservation and a little nagging on part of the kid. That’s it. Survival and nagging. No sense of justice. No desire to save the universe. Just one part desperation and one part obligation.
And Evil. The main villain. Damn. This guy gets a couple of good speeches. His first appearance in the movie is a long-winded spiel ranting about how God made the universe wrong. What kind of Supreme Being wastes time making useless things like slugs? Why has it taken so long for the world to develop such domineering technology like computers? Why didn’t God create lasers at 8 am on the first of the seven days of creation? Evil’s evilness is defined less by maliciousness (although there’s plenty of that) and more by practicality. It’s evil to demand that only the necessary things exist, and that if something becomes bothersome, you blow it up or turn it into a pig. The bottom line is the true evil of the world according to Time Bandits.
Then again, the Supreme Being isn’t much better in those regards. Despite Evil’s protesting otherwise, God made Evil. Evil is God’s creation, and everything that happened in this movie was God’s intention. The Supreme Being wanted to test out his creation– Evil– and see if it worked. It worked perfectly well by his standards, so the project was a success, and now that this was done it was time for his helper dwarves to clean up the mess and get back to their old job that they had quit to go pillaging across the universe. With reduced pay retrograde to the beginning of time, of course.
As for the kid? He wasn’t even supposed to be here. He can’t go back with the dwarves. He can’t go back to his father figure in Crete. He has to go back to his home, which is now burning, and return to his mundane, futile life that will soon be shattered with the death of his parents.
Yeah. This is a movie about a kid who discovers that he can’t trust his parents. He can’t trust God. Evil can only be thwarted at the whim of said untrustworthy deity. Your friends will ditch you if it means getting a decent check in the mail. Any fleeting happiness you obtain will be robbed from you, and no matter how much you plead, pray, and try you’ll never gain it again.
This world isn’t just a rough, lonely place, it outright doesn’t give a damn about you. It’s structured to actively not give a fuck. That’s how the world has, does, and always will function, and there’s not a fucking thing you can do about it, kid. Even if you do your best to enjoy it while you can, nope, the world’ll find a way to screw you over soon enough.
That’s the lesson that got ingrained into my little kid mind, and I’ll tell you, it’s lasted with me. Not in a soul-crushing way, though. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to look at the world and say “Yep, this place is effectively out to get me.” That isn’t a sign to give up, it’s a sign to tell the world to fuck off and tell it you’re gonna do your own shit regardless. Or whatever.
Yep. Glad I finally rewatched this thing. I can finally file it along with all those other early 80s movies that helped mold me into the monstrosity that is me.