12 Monkeys (1995)
Dir. Terry Gilliam
Written by: Chris Marker (inspired by La Jetee), David Peoples, Janet Peoples
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt
This particular movie is a great one to start off with, because it is likely to be fairly emblematic of the nature of this project. Many of the films that I’ll be writing about in this series are ones that I haven’t viewed in years, however they always remain on the periphery of my film viewing consciousness. The physical presence of the cases on the shelf a reminder of half a life of serious film viewership and a latent urge towards criticism. Many of the films that will come are not essential or classic, but they helped to shape my journey into the world of cinema. In the age of streaming where there are countless films available at the press of a button, and it’s possible to spend as much time surfing through titles trying to choose a film to watch as you actually spend watching the film, it’s easy to get swept up in searching for new, unfamiliar titles. That access has been wonderful, if sometimes daunting, but it has also led me to ignore some of the formative films that I had regarded as important or valuable earlier in my life.
12 Monkeys is a time travel thriller alternating between a dystopian future where the last remaining humans on Earth have been forced underground and a present on the brink of an extinction level event. James Cole (Willis), a prisoner who has been volunteered to go back in time on a fact finding mission, is our entry point into this world. Initially sent to the year 1990, Cole is admitted to a mental hospital, where he meets psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe), as well as fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Pitt), who is later revealed to be the leader of radical environmental activist group the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Cole eventually escapes the mental hospital and is returned to his present before being sent back through time to track Goines and the Army of the 12 Monkeys, who are believed to be behind the virus that will eventually nearly wipe out humanity. Back in 1996, Cole finds and kidnaps Dr. Railly, enlists her help in locating Goines and preventing the release of the virus, and eventually convinces her of the truth of his story. All the while, Cole is plagued by vivid, recurring dreams of a boy witnessing a foot chase and a shooting in an airport.
I picked up this movie sometime around 2003 I would imagine, when I was a junior in high school. I had seen the movie on cable, and I would imagine I probably picked it up because I liked Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt as the leads, and maybe to a lesser extent because of Terry Gilliam. At that point I was probably most familiar with Gilliam as a member of Monty Python, and for directing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which is still a favorite but not in my collection anymore, apparently. I still like Willis’s performance in this and most of his movies, Brad Pitt less so. I feel like his performances from the 90s haven’t always aged well. Although I haven’t gone back to it in probably seven or eight years, 12 Monkeys is still a very enjoyable sci-fi movie. The steam/cyber-punk aesthetic seems a bit dated, but Gilliam’s trademark imagery and directorial style are on full display, and he steers the complex narrative through its temporal slips with relative ease. The film’s twist ending is still poignant, even if it is a bit predictable.
The biggest difference in watching 12 Monkeys for me now, is that I can now watch it with the experience of having seen Chris Marker’s 1962 experimental short La Jetee, which inspired the film. 12 Monkeys borrows liberally from the earlier film, lifting its concept of a prisoner who is enlisted to return to the past in order to prevent a future apocalypse. Cole’s dreams of the shooting in the airport are also directly inspired by La Jetee. Marker’s film is great in its simplicity, as it is presented as a series of still photos with voice over narration explaining the story of the time traveler. Gilliam’s film is to be commended for taking as its source material something that is decidedly anti-cinematic and ballooning it into a richly visual cinematic world. While the world of La Jetee is purposefully obscure, allowing the story to exist outside of both time and place, 12 Monkeys is very clearly rooted in both a time and a place. Gilliam takes the philosophical core of La Jetee and fleshes out the narrative, providing a context and specificity not present in the original. Because of these adaptations, 12 Monkeys stands on its own as an engaging thriller. Familiarity with the film’s source material helps to add a bit of symbolic weight that Gilliam doesn’t fully explore when depicting Cole’s dreams of the airport, but 12 Monkeys is a wholly original film built on Gilliam’s memorable visual style and a strong lead performance by Willis. I feel that La Jetee is certainly an interesting film, but 12 Monkeys is ultimately the more entertaining and satisfying movie experience.