AKA 12 Monkeys
“I think we should try to avoid defining things precisely. Too many films are packaging the world too neatly for us, and I don’t think the world should be packaged neatly. But hidden things and unknowns… The more you can encourage that on the screen, the better for the mental state of the world.” –Terry Gilliam, “FilmScouts” interview
DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam
FEATURING: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt
PLOT: The future is a grim world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus and the rest live underground. James Cole, a prisoner in this future, is recruited to travel back in time on a mission to discover the source of this virus and help his present time develop an antidote. Thanks to unforeseen mishaps and the shaky technology of time travel, his mission goes off track.
- This feature was inspired by La Jetee, Chris Marker‘s 1962 experimental science fiction short film done almost entirely with black and white still photographs and narration. Terry Gilliam knew the structure of the film, but did not view it before making Twelve Monkeys (obviously, screenwriters David and Janet Peoples were intimately familiar with the earlier film). The core story of James Cole witnessing an execution while stuck in a time loop is the main element surviving from La Jetee. The virus, Brad Pitt’s character, and Madeline Stowe’s role are all the scriptwriters’ invention, as well as an updating and cultural shift to an American setting.
- One scene that does survive from La Jetee is a character tracing the timeline of their existence on a cross-cut tree stump. Gilliam makes a double-homage by showing the scene from Vertigo during a convenient Hitchcock film marathon showing at the theater where Willis and Stowe hide out.
- Gilliam cites a trip to the dentists’ office, with its multiple layers of protection for everything to keep it sterile, as inspiration for the protective gear—including the “body condom”—Bruce Willis wears in his trips to the world’s surface.
- Brad Pitt had never played an unhinged lunatic before Twelve Monkeys; Gilliam was excited at the prospect of casting him against type. Later, Pitt would become known for his manic portrayals in films such as 1999’s Fight Club.
- On-set rumor has it that Gilliam got Pitt to be a more convincing crazy person by confiscating his cigarettes during filming; Pitt was acting while experiencing nicotine fits.
- There are TV screens present at some point or another in nearly every scene of the film; Gilliam’s intended to show us as dehumanized by media. Gilliam firmly asserts his place in the cyberpunk genre with the quote: “I’ve always had a problem with the belief that technology was going to solve all of our problems.” Twelve Monkeys continues this theme from 1985’s Brazil.
- Twelve Monkeys received two Oscar nominations: Pitt for Best Supporting Actor and Julie Weiss for Costume Deign. It won neither.
- The SyFy Channel original series 12 Monkeys is a spinoff of this movie.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Insert the obligatory lament that there are so many indelible scenes that it’s hard to pick one. We’ll go with the giant “video ball,” a metal sphere festooned with lenses and video screens, which is always hovering in front of James Cole as the scientists interrogate him in between time hops. It’s a signature of the film’s “complex style over function” motif and the most sure moment where you can walk into the film cold and still say “Aha, this must be a Terry Gilliam movie!”
THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Mentally divergent” Cassandra Complex; tooth surgery; giraffes galloping down the freeway
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Besides Terry Gilliam’s trademark rococco visuals, off-the-wall plotting, and larger-than-life characters, Twelve Monkeys has something else that sets it apart from other time travel movies: it is completely without plot holes, and even without paradoxes except that of the stable time loop which gives us the story. Upon first viewing, the story seems to be chaos. Repeat viewings are necessary to assemble a clear story out of the puzzle pieces, every single one of which fits perfectly down to the tiniest details. It’s such a flawless whole when fully mapped that constructing it was a cerebral feat on the order of Fields-medal mathematics.
Original trailer for Twelve Monkeys
COMMENTS: Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Make no mistake: Twelve Monkeys is a very clear, coherent narrative. You just need a wall of pushpin charts, a ball of yarn to connect all Continue reading 344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)