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Film Review: 12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys (1995; Directed by Terry Gilliam)

The films of Terry Gilliam (more of which obviously need to be written about in this space by your humble critic) frequently find themselves returning to the same themes and attendant supporting images. The imaginative individual, whose fantastical visions seem at odds with rational reality, is dismissed and even actively oppressed by a petty-minded, intensely bureaucratic authority that labels this divergent agent as mad, frivolous, or counter-productive. Fantasy and reality, time and memory meld and trespass upon each other; a porous membrane appears to separate them, rather than a hard wall. Most memorably, the entire experience of confronting these slippages, this representational no-man’s land between the concrete and the abstract, is marked not by an old-fashioned, quasi-epiphanous aesthetic wonder at the revelation of the sublime but a disorientation and discomfort at the irruption of the magical realm into the definite boundaries of our recognizable quotidian reality.

12 Monkeys might be Gilliam’s most fully realized and coherently narrativized expression of these ideas that fascinate him and pervade his films. More recently contextualized as the middle chapter of a decades-spanning dystopian trilogy including 1984’s Brazil and 2013’s The Zero Theorem, 12 Monkeys is of a piece with not only the rest of Gilliam’s works but also with contemporaneous genre cinema like Seven and The Matrix, offering a harsh portrait of social decay and impending apocalyptic catastrophe that clashed provocatively with the optimistic prosperity of the Clinton boom years of the 1990s. But it’s also a less era-specific illustration of the madness of memory, as well as one of the great time-travel films (greatly influential on the more superficially clever Looper, for example, with which it shares not only a generic subject but a male lead) if only because it jettisons the paradoxical trickery and presents the stream of time as immutable and ultimately unchangeable, if fairly muddy.

12 Monkeys shifts forward and backward in time, without any flashy visual cues, along with its protagonist, James Cole (Bruce Willis). A barcode-tattooed convict, Cole is taken from his cage and tasked with a mission. It’s 2035, 40 years after a viral contagion killed 5 billion people, and mankind’s remnant dwells in a half-salvaged makeshift subterranean world, unable to return en masse to the surface of the planet. Sent to the frozen ruins of Philadelphia in a bubble-plastic hazmat suit to collect insect specimens allowing underground scientists to study the upper world, Cole surprises the egghead committee that assigned him to the task by actually returning alive (though only barely, after running across a grizzly bear in Philly).

Having proved himself both expendable and cleverly observent, Cole is chosen for a very different but much more important mission. He is to be sent back in time via a crude (and, of course, vaguely sexual) method of the scientists’ devising. He will arrive in the months before the virus began to spread, in 1996, where he will track down the terrorist organization called the Army of the 12 Monkeys, believed to be the responsible party for the contagion. If he can obtain a sample of the virus so that it can be studied and perhaps provided against so that the surface can be accessible again, that would be good; if he can stop the Army of the 12 Monkeys and avert the whole catastrophic turn of events, that would be great.

Unfortunately, time travel is not an exact science. Cole is first sent to Baltimore in 1990, where his insistence on being from the future gets him institutionalized. In the asylum, he makes the acquaintance of psychologist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who seeks to understand his delusions, as well as that of Jeffrey Goines (a young and unhinged Brad Pitt), who has a formidable set of delusions of his own. Eventually returned to his own time and finally arriving in 1996 (after a brief, nude appearance on the Western Front of WWI, where he receives a bullet in the leg), Cole tracks down Railly, then Goines, and begins to unravel how they are connected to the end of human life as we know it, as well as to a recurring dream/memory from his youth whose elements begin to look more familiar the longer he stays in his past.

Gilliam’s films are always wonders of production design (this time by Jeffrey Beecroft), and both his future and our present are resonantly discomfiting in their knarled, inhuman detail. 2035 is patchwork metal, concrete and electronics; Cole’s debriefings by the committee take place with him strapped to a metal chair raised high above the ground, a probing sphere with screens showing the disembodied eyes and mouths of his inquisitors floating before him. In the 1990s, both Philadelphia and Baltimore are pictures of advanced urban decay (the film was shot on location in both cities and Gilliam’s lens is far from flattering). Homeless people stagger among piles of refuse, Cole saves Railly from assaults in a grimy abandoned theatre and a roach-friendly motel room, and the rare clue presents itself inevitably in the form of graffiti.

The asylum is a bad old-fashioned madhouse that probably didn’t exist anymore in 1990, high whitewashed vaulted rooms filled with the unwashed insane, cartoons and Marx Brothers movies (Monkey Business, natch) running hysterically on the television, the jabbering Goines 12_monkeysnarrating and extrapolating on every detail and more for Cole like Dante’s escort through Hell, everything shot with unbearable closeness through Gilliam’s use of fresnel lenses. Even when his settings move up the social scale, Gilliam throws the viewer purposely off-kilter: in 1996, Cole finds and confronts Goines at a fancy dinner party at the mansion of his famous virologist father (Christopher Plummer), and the time-traveller then fights for his escape from Goines’ security thugs down and around a vortex-like grand wooden spiral staircase.

The disorientation of this sequence and the discomfort of Cole in an unfamiliar time where he is quickly labelled as a mentally ill criminal fugitive represents what Gilliam, as always, understands as the disorientation and discomfort of the individual in the face of a rational capitalist social order that mandates productivity and normalized behaviour. Goines’ paranoid rantings, inside and outside of the asylum, return to this theme of centralized control of behaviour and thought, often within the framework of leftist anti-consumer invective. He’s unstable and other characters label him as such, but Goines see the strings more clearly than anyone else.

Much more resonant is the way that 12 Monkeys presents memory itself as a form of madness. Like a good psychologist, Railly works to convince Cole that his mission from the future and the epidemic that will mostly wipe out the human race are delusions, symptoms of a past trauma or a general, untenable reality that he’s fleeing from. Cole even begins to want to believe her, but instead she comes around to his line of thinking and aids in his quest. Her conversion to his accomplice comes in a movie theatre screening an Alfred Hitchcock marathon; as they don disguises eerily similar to those in his haunting vision of a shooting in an airport concourse, Scottie and Judy trace decades on the tree rings of a felled redwood in Vertigo. Railly completes the rapprochement of memory and perceived reality when she dons a blonde wig; she emerges as a dark mirror image of Kim Novak’s first appearance after being transformed into the spitting image of a woman long dead, the red light that saturates Stowe marking the moment as a clear warning to Cole in contrast to the queasy desire of the green light that bathes Novak in Vertigo. This is not merely a namecheck homage, but a metaphorical reference that deepens 12 Monkeys‘ treatment of memory and perception by evoking another great film about the disorientation of the past, the madness of memory.

12 Monkeys is possibly Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece because its jumble of clues and images and metaphors crystallizes into a clear, tense, and emotionally satisfying final act and not simply a flattering intellectual/aesthetic exercise. Just as the legendarily Quixotic and supposedly wasteful auteur delivered a complicated film on time and under budget (and turned a major profit for Universal in the process), Gilliam’s film displays a lean hunger and focus without sacrificing any of his idiosyncratic visual grace notes. It’s such a compelling fable of memory and madness because it keeps the madness at bay, or at the very least on a tight leash.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. August 12, 2014 at 1:27 am

    Worth also noting that Gilliam was inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Jet%C3%A9e)

  1. November 2, 2014 at 1:04 pm

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