Harrison Bergeron (1995) — Brainy kid fights back against intellectual dystopia

“Can you imagine how I must feel, knowing that I’m striving to create a world in which no Beethoven will ever be born?”

Justin’s rating: A 2.5 out of 5. No more. No less.

Justin’s review: Based on an early short story by acclaimed author Kurt Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron tackles the weirdly relevant issue of equality — specifically, equality enforced by the government. Here, it’s not a question of race or wealth but rather of intellect. If everyone’s comfortably average, does it make for a more peaceful and equitable society?

A post-Goonies, pre-Lord of the Rings Sean Astin plays the titular Harrison, a high schooler who’s been unfortunate enough to be born with a rather high intelligence quotient. You see, he lives in 2053, where Second American Revolution resulted in a nation that’s hellbent on conforming everyone right to the middle of the intellectual pack. Kids and adults wear headbands that help condition them to mediocrity, except that the tech doesn’t seem to be working for Harrison.

Initially, this society looks like it’s doing OK, a sort of reprise of 1950s Americana. Yet it doesn’t take long for the dystopian cracks to emerge: everyone who is talented has to be saddled with handicaps and executions for misdemeanors are broadcast live. Everyone is paired up with a mate through a computer to help them breed average kids.

On the eve of getting a surgery to make him dumber, Harrison instead stumbles upon a “head house” — a kind of underground MENSA society where people can get their smarts on. This indiscretion leads him to falling for a girl named Phillipa (Miranda de Pencier) and being recruited into the government — which is, it turns out, full of smarties keeping the stupid man down. It’s all an attempt to “level the playing field” through deliberate design, threats, random election results, and force.

Harrison doesn’t really like this setup and attempts to rebel. Peace and equality at the cost of liberty and excellence doesn’t sit right with him. Nor does lobotomizing his girlfriend, I guess.

Ironically, this Canadian TV movie manages to be fairly average. Its admittedly intriguing premise and fun world-building are offset with a plot that isn’t as biting as it should be. Astin is a little too bland to be believed as a great brain or a revolutionary-in-the-making. When Christopher Plummer (!) shows up in the same scene with him, it’s obvious he’s pretty outclassed. But still, we got Plummer, and that’s not nothing.

It also kind of threw me for a loop that a “TV movie” could include some pretty harsh language and even a smattering of graphic violence. I guess Canadian TV standards are different? Were different? It isn’t very consistent, so when Eugene Levy shows up to start spouting F-bombs, it’s a bit of a mental whiplash.

I’ll conclude by saying that there’s some merit to Harrison Bergeron. Forcefully molding society to “level the playing field” is as well-intentioned and terrifying today as when Vonnegut wrote his satire. This might even be seen as a companion piece to Gattaca, presenting as much food for thought. Scifi can be an amazing lens through which to examine difficult and complex real-world issues, and this flick certainly fits that bill.

As Aristotle once said, “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.” It’s better we learn this through a movie than life, I think.

Didja notice?

  • This film clearly purchased its font at a discount bin
  • John Astin at the golf course
  • Shoplifting, illegal left turns, and tax evasion are capital offenses
  • Hello awkward date!
  • Chess flirting
  • Politician burn
  • LASERDISCS!
  • Macaulay Culkin name drop as King Lear
  • Showering with clothes on is so weird
  • This soundtrack is so cheesy-bad
  • The footage of real world atrocities is hauntingly awful
  • Eugene Levy as the President

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