12 Monkeys (1995)
Written by David and Janet Peoples
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Having recently re-watched Chris Marker’s short film La Jetee I decided it was time to watch the feature adaptation, 12 Monkeys again. I had only seen 12 Monkeys once before in college and enjoyed it a lot. It is what led me to Marker’s short, which has gone on to become one of my favorite pieces of film. I also developed a love for Terry Gilliam during my college years, with Brazil becoming one of my favorite pictures, even reading up on the complicated history of how it came to the screen. 12 Monkeys is expectedly a strange film, merging the underlying narrative of La Jetee with Gilliam’s own aesthetic sensibilities.
James Cole is a prisoner living beneath Philadelphia in the early 21st-century decades after a virus forced humanity to journey underground. Now animals roam the surface immune to a disease that would kill humans in hours. The scientists that oversee the prison complex are looking for volunteers to embark on esoteric time travel experiments that use the subject’s own subconscious and memories to send them back. They know the timeline cannot be changed, but they hope to find information that can help develop a cure in the present. Cole is arrested as a mentally ill vagrant when he ends up in 1990 and meets Dr. Katherine Reilly, a psychologist who has odd notions that she knows him somehow. Cole also encounters Jeffrey Goines, a deeply disturbed individual whose father is a well-known virologist drawing controversy for experimentation on animals. The nature of Cole’s mission sends him ping-ponging between his past and his present, eventually coming to a fateful moment in his childhood.
The tone of 12 Monkeys is pitch-perfect, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Gilliam. The denizens of the future are intense & bizarre, shaped by a nightmarish world. There’s also the trademark junky tech Gilliam loves, devices cobbled together from refuse that performs a task in the most awkward and clunky way. I absolutely love the nature of time travel developed by Chris Marker in the short and carried over to the feature. The technology of how is never explored, which is perfectly fine, instead it is a metaphysical process using the subject’s own psyche. Cole mentions at one point that he was selected for his strong memory.
Memory and misconception are a big part of the story, including the difficulty of communicating with others in a deluge of technological advancements. Cole ends up half a decade too far back and can’t use the messaging service his future handlers have put in place. There’s an encounter with a man in the asylum who has “divergent memories” and knows that his second life as a being on an alien world is false. This puts doubt in Cole’s mind about the future blight he comes from. Eventually, Cole becomes convinced he’s mentally ill and has imagined this entire virus scenario. This occurs at the same time Dr. Reilly encounters evidence that proves Cole really does come from the future. Because people are never aligned in their thinking, because they continuously misunderstand each other, the dark future comes to pass.
The part that fell flat for me was the over-arching emotional aspect of Cole’s childhood trauma, his memory was watching a man get shot at the airport. I know I’ve seen Marker’s short film multiple times and have seen 12 Monkeys once, but I feel that it was so obvious what really happens. The very first flashback, with the angles on the murdered man, obscuring his face made it feel incredibly obvious what was going to happen in the end. I love tragic time travel, Netflix’s Dark is a significant example of how powerful that type of story can be. But it needs to be handled with more skill, crafted and shaped with subtlety, which not something that has ever been a trait of Gilliam’s. He’s more comfortable in broad, jarring, bombast, which he does well. This story needs the quiet contemplation that Marker brought to La Jetee.