When I first heard about 2081, an independent film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," earlier in the year, I had high hopes that something good would come of it. I am always skeptical of adaptations of science fiction works largely because they have been periodically butchered by Hollywood producers for decades. But after seeing the trailer, I had a feeling that this would be a film to see, and when I was offered the chance to review the DVD, I jumped on it.
And? I'm happy to say that I am not disappointed. 2081 is both an excellent adaptation of Vonnegut's short story and a visually arresting, emotionally-charged film that makes the most of its modest runtime (25 minutes). It succeeds where, sadly, most full-length science fiction films have not by presenting a self-contained, complicated (but not convoluted) plot in a developed and fully-realized future.
2081 is set in a world where true equality is mandated by law. The strong must wear weights so that they aren't stronger than anyone else; the intelligent wear transmitters that send loud, distracting sounds into their heads to keep them from being more intelligent; and the beautiful must wear masks, lest their beauty afford them an advantage over others. Vonnegut's vision of the future conjoins equality politics and government intervention, pushing them both to their limit.
2081 presents Vonnegut's world in detail, changing the original story only when necessary and leaving the main thrust of Vonnegut's narrative, and the ultimate social critique within it, intact. From a film perspective, this is risky, because faithful adaptations (or even semi-faithful adaptations) often flounder due to the untranslatable elements that exist within stories. But 2081 succeeds, partly because of its length and partly because of the cleverness of the creators; instead of drawing the story out into a full-length film or drastically changing the plot or characters, the creators of 2081 instead add minor details to thicken the social critique and keep the story contained within a thirty-minute time span, which prevents already thin narrative elements from being dragged out to infinity. These two elements create a vision that is perhaps darker than the satirical "Harrison Bergeron," but equally as poignant and gripping. Much of what I perceived as the humor (dark though it may be) in the original story seems to have been lost in the film, but to the benefit of the story, rather than to its detriment. 2081 is supposed to threaten our sense of security, both in our biological makeup and natural right to advantage, and in our strong hold on the protected nuclear family (social Darwinism vs. capitalism's influence on the nuclear family as the family unit we see today). Drawing out the influence of family on Vonnegut's narrative and making it far more central and troubling than in the original story makes 2081 into a powerful family tragedy, since the struggles of a family (and father) to remember a lost loved one amidst handicaps that make such remembrance impossible suggest undertones of Alzheimer's disease--the primary difference being that 2081's future is preventable. But the strength of the narrative is not the film's only strong point.
From a visual perspective, 2081 is modest, but expertly crafted. To be fair, "Harrison Bergeron" is not an intergalactic tale, nor an extravagantly scenic one. All of its scenes are set in relatively simple locations: a home and a theater, for example. But these locations are handled well and serve to enhance the more technological aspects of the presented world--the high point of the visuals for me. Televisions are updated to be slightly more interactive and noticeably more advanced (one of the characters fixes the television at the beginning of the film to highlight this); even the programs on the TV are shifted so that we get a sense of Vonnegut's world both from the interaction of the two primary characters and from the world outside as relayed from a proxy device (the TV).
Likewise, the machinery that makes everyone "equal" is marked by lighted displays (CGed as far as I can tell), presumably to suggest that there are details to be seen there that we don't actually need to see to get the point (except, perhaps, to remind us that the removal of these devices comes with a heavy penalty, which implies that the government is always watching). All of these minor changes to the objects are handled with care in a way that many science fiction films are incapable of doing: they are not gimmicks or CG-extravagant monstrosities to light up the screen, but accessories to heighten the impact of the world.
However, the film does not stop there. It becomes obvious throughout who the central figure is, not just because the character in question receives the most screen time, but noticeably because the screen itself distorts as the "equality" machinery works to keep his intellectual capacities at bay. These distortions are nothing new in science fiction (let alone film in general), but are used, much like the slight alterations to the technology presented on screen, to highlight the severity of the reality of 2081's future. We, like the characters, are regularly disoriented by these shifts, but only for a moment; the result is that we are left with the truth, while the characters are subjected to full disorientation.
But effective disorientation requires good acting, and 2081 delivers just that. James Cosmo (as George Bergeron) is superb here; Cosmo has moments where we can both hear and see the tremendous weight left on his character's shoulders by a tragic past and the world itself (literally and metaphorically). For a story with very little dialogue, 2081 has to relay a great deal of its emotive power through facial and bodily expression, which Cosmo displays with great aptitude. Even Julie Hagerty (known best, perhaps, for her role in Airplane! some thirty years ago) fulfills her role as Hazel Bergeron with such success, playing the somewhat dimwitted un-handicapped wife/mother with skill (Hazel even has a kind of charm that both amuses and annoys). Armie Hammer as Harrison Bergeron, though in the film for only a brief moment, is also enjoyable, and slightly creepy; he plays the role with a sense of desperation and insanity (and hopefully I'm not the only one that sees allusions to Malcolm McDowell's portrayal of Alex in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange).
No film, however, is flawless. Certain aspects of the visuals did feel a tad shaky (which is why I suspected that they were CGed, as indicated above). In the end, this didn't bother me enough to see it as a serious problem, and I think it would be fair to say that I am extraordinarily picky when it comes to CG use (Michael Bay has effectively destroyed CG for me). There are also some issues to be had with the structure of the plot. While I applaud the creators for sticking to the source material, I still feel as though the ending lacks a full sense of closure. Perhaps this is a personal hangup, but since 2081 shifts minor elements in the story to make the ending more climactic than Vonnegut's original story, there seems to be a greater need for a more effective closure beyond that of the source material. I suspect that this is part of the reason some critics have had minor issues with the film. Personally, I think the lack of closure is both problematic and interesting, and worth exploring should anyone be interested (I may do just that). Still, 2081 feels constrained by a larger story sitting underneath Vonnegut's narrative--a story that never fully gets told, but probably shouldn't be simply because of Hollywood's obsession with expanding short stories into grander projects (see the plethora of Philip K. Dick monstrosities on IMDB).
(Even as I write about this last "issue," however, I get the sense that it isn't actually a problem so much as a bit of narrative genius. You'll have to watch the film to understand, because I'm not particularly interested in spoiling films, let alone books or stories. When you see the end, though, you should do as I did and try to consider why it exists as it does, and what it says about the world, the characters, and the satirical critique being presented.)
Whether the changes alluded to here should have been written out or fulfilled is up to debate. In the grand scheme of things, however, it doesn't really matter, because despite this single flaw, 2081 is an excellent short film. Any fan of serious science fiction should consider giving this film its due space, whether by buying it on DVD or renting it on YouTube (yes, they do that now). Despite the high DVD price ($11.99, or $1.99 to rent), this film is absolutely worth it (a claim I cannot make for most Hollywood SF productions). It's the kind of film that a critic feels compelled to write about, and that a fan will cherish for years to come (I am both at the same time).
If you'd like to learn more about 2081 and the creators, check out their website at Finally Equal.
Value: $10.50 (based on a $10.50 max)(this number is based on movie ticket value)
P.S.: I should note that the packaging for 2081 is quite beautiful. Whoever did the DVD case design deserves recognition for keeping it simple and elegant at the same time. They should then be hired to do all DVD case designs for every Hollywood and independent production company in the world.
--This review originally appeared on my personal blog, The World in the Satin Bag.