Big Brother is watching you
Film review: 1984 (adapted from the novel by George Orwell)
In a totalitarian society governed by the voices behind “Big Brother”, Winston Smith found his secret escape in the form of keeping a journal. In a life so contrived and regimented, where men and women were forced to rewrite history in order to obey their oppressors, Winston Smith dared to fall in love. In a soul-destroying landscape of rotting children and burning debris, where his every move was accounted for by the giant glaring eyes of Big Brother, Winston Smith faced an ultimatum in a torture cell numbered 101.
1984 is a tale of the time – a horrific dystopia envisioned in George Orwell’s 1948 novel of the same name. Whether this film aims to reflect a fictional time or one that could easily be recognised in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, it warns the audience of the possible deterioration of society. In it, Director Michael Radford effectively displays key themes of Orwell’s story, such as propaganda, media manipulation, and the power of language in shaping human thought.
First impressions count, and this is certainly true of this film. The opening sequence is harrowing, and enough to induce nightmares. Hundreds of citizens of Airstrip One, enslaved, indoctrinated and mesmerised by the Party are seen shouting “Traitor!” at a screen presenting the face of the ‘enemy’. They are taught to believe wholeheartedly in the propaganda that shapes their lives. Their minds are manipulated in such a way that the most positive report of all is the fact that their chocolate rations – yes, poverty has struck – have risen by twenty five grammes. The citizens are brainwashed in every aspect of their lives; children are taught to monitor their parents for thought crimes so that they can report disloyal behaviour to the Thought Police; they are forced to wear dreary, boy-scout-style uniforms to make them feel united in a youth group, mirroring those of the Hitler Youth that existed in Nazi Germany. People are trained to be suspicious of each other from a very early age, and are encouraged to report acts of defiance against the Party.
Winston works in a corporation with a name as ironic as the Ministry of Truth, in order to eradicate the past and re-write history as the Party wants it to be told. Winston claims that “Freedom is the freedom to think that two plus two equals four,” but in the extreme case of his torture in Room 101, he must undergo the process of brainwashing until he believes that two plus two may not equal four, but five. If the Party tells him it is five, then the answer is and will only ever be five (or at least, until they update the last edition of the Newspeak dictionary).
As part of the Party’s agenda, publicity is essential in promoting the values of their ideal society. There may be a war going on outside, but it is designed to be a constant, continuous struggle, and not to be won, in order to bring Society together for one cause. Publicity of the Party means that Big Brother’s unforgiving face is on posters plastered everywhere, to remind people that they are forever being watched. The blood red colour in the background of the posters is another stark contrast to the otherwise bleak landscape of Airstrip One, and it acts as a warning to the citizens who cannot escape their lives governed by this figure. Furthermore, a distinct female voice constantly recites statistics through speakers, supposedly to encourage people that the situation is improving. The effect in reality is the opposite. The voice is a reminder of the eternal struggle of the people under the Party’s regime, and the depressing world in which they live.
The lack of freedom is expressed throughout the film, either through the almost monochromatic visual tones, or the destructive imagery of inconceivable living conditions (such as Winston’s room), created to shock the viewer. Colour is used sparingly in the film, so that when an extreme close up of Julia’s red lips or a wide shot of the lush green hills of Winston’s dreamscape appears, the viewer is left with an uncomfortable sense of danger.
Despite the wealth of the Party, the population is left to believe that they are no less worse off, and left to suffer with limited rations of food, as well as dormitories resembling prison cells, and tentative relationships. No one is ever allowed privacy, as helicopters hover endlessly around the dilapidated landscape, as a constant reminder that “Big Brother” is watching them, like their conscience. Most iconically, George Orwell created the term “Newspeak” for 1984: an abbreviated language used to make communication more precise and less liberating. Parsons, Winston’s neighbour, is the character who engages the most significantly with this, and often uses the term “doubleplusgood” to express satisfaction. As well as spoken language, there is no freedom in thought, as they are taught that individuality leads to rebellion and disobedience.
Can you imagine your work colleagues spying on you, or your own children reporting you to the police for illegal, illicit thought patterns? Perhaps not. But how about interactive flat screens fixed to walls, or cameras following you on the streets? How is it possible that in 1948, when flatscreen televisions and closed-circuit television cameras were not yet invented, Orwell could conjure up such ideas? To what extent have we somehow fulfilled Orwell’s prophecy in our times, and how can we ensure that we do not create a reality for his most unbearable dystopic dreams? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.