Doom, Madness and Dreams: Detour for 12 Monkeys
Director: Terry Gilliam
My rating: Class B, bright blue-white star (2/7). Dark, somber, mysterious, intriguing—12 Monkeys depicts a grim future and how that future came to be, and does so in a character-driven time travel story which is captivating and depressing at the same time. Strong performances, solid direction and a layered script make this one to see.
12 Monkeys was a difficult film for me to review, for reasons both intrinsic to the film and for reasons having to do with me as an individual. First, the film is a deceptively complex and layered work, in which image and plot, theme and sound, work together in sometimes surprising ways. Second, I passionately dislike time travel stories (there are, of course, exceptions) because they often bog down in time paradoxes, reset the action back to the initial state, or involve ideas of predestination and inevitability. Finally, a theme of madness runs throughout the film, and I always find such themes disquieting. So bear with me as I work my way through a difficult film for me.
12 Monkeys has Gilliam’s signature touch—visually and thematically—all over it. How strange, then, that Gilliam was brought in to direct the film after executive producer Robert Kosberg convinced Universal Studios to make a movie based on the short French film La Jetee, and after script writers David and Janet Peoples (David was one of the co-writers of Bladerunner) had finished their work. But this was a match made in heaven; the movie script was perfect for Gilliam. Gilliam himself was fascinated with the script, stating that it was “a study of madness and dreams, of death and re-birth, set in a world coming apart.”
Make no mistake—this is a bleak film, though it is also a complex one with intriguing—and doomed—characters who draw you into the story. It makes the most of its time travel plot device, and gives an intriguing view of the hoary old science fiction device of time travel. And while the shape of the narrative becomes clear fairly early in the film (there is substantial use of foreshadowing), 12 Monkeys manages to surprise along the way.
Critical and commercial reception of the film was quite good—the film grossed about $57 million in the United States alone. It has an 88% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 74/100 over at Metacritic. Roger Ebert praised the film but also stated that “it appeals more to the mind than the senses.” That probably puts the film into context: not everyone will like it.
Short summary: Boy lives in a disease-ravaged 2035. Boy travels to the surface to get biological samples to combat the disease. Next, Boy travels back in time to collect additional samples, but is sent to the wrong year. Boy meets girl. Girl thinks boy is crazy. Girl puts boy in the sanitarium. Boy meets Boy 2, who is definitely crazy, in the sanitarium. Boy returns to his own time. Boy travels back to the correct year and meets Girl again. Boy abducts Girl. Boy makes Girl take him to Boy 2. Boy returns to his own time. Boy decides he is crazy, and that his present is a hallucination. Meanwhile, Girl discovers evidence that Boy is not crazy, but a time traveler. Boy travels back in time once more and finds Girl. Romance ensues. Boy and Girl decide to go to Florida. At the airport, Boy receives new instructions to kill a particular person. Boy attempts to do so, and is shot. Boy dies in Girl’s arms as his target flees and a younger version of himself watches. The day is saved! Er…actually, not so much.
Setup: It is 2035, and mankind has been nearly extinguished by an artificial viral plague (5 billion died, and the world population in 1996 was about 5.8 billion). The survivors live underground, sealed off from the surface, where animals prowl the ruins of decaying cities. A group of scientists has a plan, however, to send a convict back in time to collect samples of the pure virus at the time of its release, before it mutates, and use it to create a vaccine or cure, and thereby save the human race. Enter Jack Cole, a convict and a not totally willing volunteer, who agrees to first go to the surface and then later to go back in time to get the information the scientists require…
He meets two key figures on his first journey back in time: Dr. Kathryn Railly, a psychologist, and Jeffrey Goines, son of a prominent virologist and a fellow inmate of the sanitarium. Both will be instrumental in the events which transpire throughout the film.
The film has a unique visual look, and though it lacks explosions and fancy sets, it definitely sets the tone. The future settings, all underground, are uniformly grimy, dirty and industrial in appearance. The glimpse we get of the surface is frozen and deserted, an empty Philadelphia ruled by the animals. Settings in Cole’s past, the 1990 police station and sanitarium in Maryland, and the 1996 scenes set in Philadelphia, are equally unpleasant and decaying. The only bright spot in the entire film is the Goines mansion.
Gilliam’s use of wide-angle lenses and unusual angles serves the film quite well. Gilliam creates unusual visual perspectives and images, many of which serve to emphasize the themes and plot elements. For example, during a sequence in which a drugged Cole attempts to escape the mental ward, the unusual angles give you a sense of what Cole might actually be seeing, and serve to distort reality in visually interesting ways.
One of the more fascinating visuals in the film was the subject of a lawsuit. In some scenes, when the group of scientists are receiving Cole’s reports—or interrogating him, if you prefer—the scene uses a chair set into a wall some little way up from the floor, and there is a sphere, apparently of wood and with television screens inset, on a metal arm. That vision was allegedly taken from a work by American architect and artist Lebbeus Woods (you can see his original sketch here). Woods won a lawsuit against Universal Studios, but allowed the scenes to remain in the film in exchange for a monetary settlement.
The music is also first-rate. The film opens with a piece that can only be described as “French” in tone, and it resembles a polka played on an accordian. Given the film’s roots in a short French film, that’s entirely appropriate. But the piece also manages to convey a sense of the absurd and ridiculous as well as menace, and it works quite well. In actuality, however, the recurring theme is based on an Argentinian tango nuevo called Suite Punta del Este by Astor Piazolla….
The film also makes substantial use of modern music, because Cole loves music and doesn’t get to hear it in his time. “Sleep Walk,” first recorded by Santo and Johnny, is an instrumental piece on the steel guitar with an eerie and haunting quality; it recurs throughout the film in reference to an advertisement enticing the listener to visit the Florida Keys. In a strange coincidence, this particular version was recorded by B. J. Cole (Willis’ character is named James Cole). And other popular music, most notably Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill but also including Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World, The Comanches’ Pipeline, and Tom Waits’ The Earth Died Screaming make their way into the film, and are in some ways part of the plot as much as they are background music.
Gilliam’s deft direction ensures that the music never overwhelms the viewer or interferes with dialogue, and the soundtrack never becomes too loud, a welcome change from many modern movies.
The performances in this film are more than merely solid. First, of course, there is Bruce Willis as James “Jack” Cole. Willis—assisted by a very clever script—does an extraordinary job of making a violent and brutal man, who is probably crazy and definitely a menace to the people around him, into a sympathetic character. In spite of any number of clues as to Cole’s nature, when he explodes into on-screen violence it actually took me by surprise. I knew he was an angry man capable of killing, and yet I felt for him even as I recognized his lack of sanity. Willis truly shines in this film.
So, too, does Brad Pitt, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Pitt visited a mental institution and sought the advice of a psychiatrist in order to get his role down, and his research paid off. Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines is full of nervous energy and spastic tics, and can’t settle into a single stream of thought. He is wildly verbal as well, effortlessly spewing insane diatriabes at the drop of a hat—twice providing a distraction during which Cole escapes. Many of the characters are, ultimately, rather predictable, but Pitt’s Goines transcends predictability as he descends into madness.
Madeleine Stowe’s portrayal of Dr. Kathryn Railly is also quite good, if not as explosive on the screen—a condition created by the script rather than the actress. Stowe brings an understated, almost serene, quality to Dr. Railly, but as the film progresses, and she is drawn deeper into the madness surrounding Cole, that serenity begins to crack in a series of compelling emotional outbursts. While Railly never becomes truly insane in the sense of mental illness, she does respond to the events sweeping her up with some unusual choices.
The plot of the movie is quite well constructed, though, like many good stories, the Peoples’ script and Gilliam’s direction leave plenty of room for interpretation. Between the fact that the film involves time travel and liberal use of foreshadowing, the ending of the story should be clear to the viewer before he actually reaches it. Along the way, though, the movie manages to slip in some surprises, even if the viewer identifies the red herring and deduces the identity of the person who spreads the virus. In particular, the motivations of Railly and Cole after they realize that neither of them is insane, and that everything is happening exactly the way that the scientists in 2035 said it would, is open to interpretation and question. Does Cole go to his death knowing exactly what will happen? If so, why? Is it only the threat that Jose will kill Railly that motivates him, or is there something deeper at work? When Railly realizes her world is doomed, why does she try to take Cole to the Florida Keys? The film doesn’t spoon-feed us with the answers to these questions.
In some ways, the movie reminds me of the Robert A. Heinlein story “By His Bootstraps,” a wonderful little time travel story in which a man uses a time gate to make himself the dictator of a far-future society. In that story, the protagonist—all four versions of him—acts upon himself to create a paradox in which there is no first cause, but instead a temporal loop. This story is somewhat reminiscent of that one, and it presents the idea that, whatever Cole and Railly and Goines may think and feel, 2035 is the present and everything they experience is the past—already set in stone because it’s already happened, and can happen in no other way. It’s a sobering and rather unique view of time travel.
In two places, characters in the film quote from Revelations in the Bible—specifically, Revelations 15 and 16, in which seven angels carry seven golden vials filled with the wrath of God, and which represent the seven last plagues. The first such scene puts the Biblical quote in the mouth of Dr. Railly, and thereby links doom and madness together as she lectures on the Cassandra syndrom (a fictitious psychological illness). Nevertheless, given the context of the film, it is chilling. And in the mouth of a street preacher, who somehow recognizes Cole as “one of us,” the words are even more chilling and more prophetic.
Certain images recur throughout the film, as a sort of visual motif. Animals are perhaps the most obvious of these: in the ruined and frozen city of Philadelphia in the year 2035, for example, there are a bear and a lion. Patients in the mental institution sometimes display animalistic qualities reminiscent of monkeys, chimpanzees or gorillas. The television in the mental ward displays news footage of animal testing on rabbits, as well as the Marx Brothers’ film Monkey Business. Cole uses the phrase “never cry wolf” when discussing the plight of the boy trapped in the pipe (later revealed to be a hoax), and in an attempt to help the boy, authorities lower a monkey with an infrared camera attached to it, carrying a roast beef sandwich for the little boy. The scream of a hawk, never seen, serves as a backdrop for Cole’s flight through the woods. The animal liberation group, the Army of the 12 Monkeys, seems to deliberately ape the behavior of monkeys. And once the Army strikes, releasing the animals from the zoo, we see a flock of flamingos, as well as giraffes running across a bridge.
The recurring animal motif serves to draw attention to the animal rights movement. It would be hard to guess which side Gilliam favors, as both sides seem to be satirized, but any way you slice it, the question of man’s domination of the planet, and what that means for the animals who share that planet, is the warp of the film’s tapestry (as well as an oblique reference to Genesis).
If animal rights are the warp of the film, then surely madness is the weft. Two of the major characters are clearly insane—Goines with a frenetic, highly energetic insanity focused on animals, and Cole with an explosive propensity for violence. Another character, Dr. Peters (David Morse), also displays more than a flash of insanity. Railly is a psychiatrist, and many scenes take place in a mental ward in Baltimore. The depictions of insanity are chilling and realistic, and definitely made an impression on me.
The science of the film is difficult to evaluate. Many physicists are convinced that time travel will never be possible, even though there are certain solutions to equations underlying theories such as relativity which appear to permit some kind of time travel. Accepting that time travel might be possible, however, none of the rest of the science presented in the film is unduly ridiculous.
Dark, complex, layered…strong acting…well-written script…excellent direction which takes film-making into the realm of art. What, really, is there NOT to like in 12 Monkeys? Well, it’s pretty bleak, and rather depressing. But if you’re not afraid of that, then you should definitely take a look at 12 Monkeys. I guarantee it will make you think, and it will entertain.
- Lebbeus Woods’ home page
- Time travel paradoxes from The Future of Things (includes some slight discussion of 12 Monkeys)
- Time travel paradoxes from The Proceedings of the Friesian School (includes mention of “By His Bootstraps”)
- La Jetée: The Inspiraton for 12 Monkeys (and Probably The Terminator) [Movie Night] (gizmodo.com)
- Watch La Jetee: The Inspiraton For 12 Monkeys (And Likely Terminator) (gizmodo.com.au)
- Time Travel Movies (mrmovietimes.com)
- Gilliam’s doubts over directing future (hollywood.com)
- The Talks: Terry Gilliam (hypebeast.com)