12 Monkeys is hard sci-fi with a soft center 

12 Monkeys is hard sci-fi with a soft center 

“The movie never changes. It can’t change. But every time you see it, it’s different because you’re different. You see different things.” —Bruce Willis, 12 Monkeys

In his superb recent novel 11/22/63, Stephen King follows a man who travels back in time to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy and thus change the course of modern American history, from the Vietnam War to whatever fates, consequential or petty, the flaps of a bazillion butterfly wings might yield. Yet the true villain of the book isn’t Oswald but the “obdurate past,” some vague yet uncanny and overwhelming force that protects the future from being rewritten. The bigger the hoped-for alteration—and none could be bigger than a watershed event like the Kennedy assassination—the more obstacles are thrown in its hero’s way. The only real pleasure this knockabout time traveler gets comes from approaching the past as a tourist rather than a sculptor: the taste of root beer, the thrust of a 1954 Ford Sunliner convertible, a sock hop in small-town Texas. 

Cleverly fashioned from the bones of Chris Marker’s 1962 experimental classic La Jetée—a 30-minute science-fiction reverie constructed almost entirely out of still photographs—Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys approaches the past with a similarly intoxicating mix of romanticism and dread. It’s also about a time traveler who goes back to a period before a world-altering tragedy, but The Terminator it ain’t. Changing the obdurate past here isn’t merely difficult but an exercise in futility, the road to madness. To a certain extent, the hero has to take that road—5 billion lives are at stake, after all, even though his mission is to learn about how they were lost, not put a stop to it—but the past is even more resistant to alteration than it is in 11/22/63. (You could call the past a “character” in the King’s book, a beast with claws; in Gilliam’s film, it’s more like a brick wall.) So the film instead is more thoughtful and reflective than its action beats might suggest: It’s about the mysteries of the past and the frequent seductiveness of it, too, from unexpected new passions to the simple pleasures of fresh air and 20th-century music. 

Generally, hits (or modest hits, anyway) like 12 Monkeys don’t appear much in New Cult Canon—crazed fiascos like Gilliam’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas are more common—but almost 20 years later, it counts as one of the rare examples of true science fiction in Hollywood cinema. We get space adventures all the time, and half-philosophical ones like Prometheus if we’re lucky, but the thriller elements of 12 Monkeys are wholly in service of ideas about time travel, memory, and subjective reality that are remarkably heady for an American movie. More remarkable still is that Gilliam, the mad studio-busting visionary of Brazil and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, doesn’t curb his aggressive, alienating style for the purposes of mass entertainment. He slaps on the fisheye lenses and dives into a dense, frenetic dystopia in which the audience is made to feel just as disoriented as a character who hasn’t spent time above ground since he was 8 years old. Gilliam didn’t make a commercial appeal with 12 Monkeys—it just worked out for him for once. 

It helped that Gilliam had solid ballast in the screenplay by David and Janet Peoples, the former of whom did brilliant work with Blade Runner and Unforgiven, among other projects. (Peoples’ last credited screenplay, for 1998’s Soldier, is a prime example of a clever minimalist conceit—the lead character speaks a total of 104 words—spoiled by terrible direction.) From La Jetée, the Peoples lift three potent ideas: the recurring memory/dream of an incident at an airport, the appearance of a mysterious woman who was part of that memory, and the idea of scientists sending a man back in time to get information that might help rescue the present. The opening crawl reveals that a virus in 1996-97 decimated the world’s population, killing 5 billion people and leaving the few survivors to scurry permanently underground while wild animals once again reclaimed the earth. The origin of the virus is unknown, but thought to be the handiwork of an anarchist group called The Army Of The Twelve Monkeys. 

Enter James Cole, a hard-nosed prisoner played by Bruce Willis in a performance that initially reads like Die Hard revisited, but gets much rangier as the film goes along. A board of scientists, framed like the bureaucratic/authoritarian ghouls from other Gilliam films, persuades Cole to “volunteer” to go back to Baltimore in 1996 and gather information, but a tech malfunction sends him back to 1990 instead. Immediately arrested and institutionalized, Cole befriends fellow mental patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, ostentatiously twitchy), the son of a wealthy scientist (Christopher Plummer) who professes radical animals-rights and anti-government views. He also finds a sympathetic ear in Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychologist he later kidnaps in a bid to find Goines, whose involvement in The Army Of The Twelve Monkeys, a seemingly violent group in the Weather Underground vein, may hold the key to the virus. 

The true mission of Goines’ army is a magnificent red herring—nothing to do with Chris Marker and completely in line with Gilliam’s particular sense of whimsy—and a great indicator of how well the film relieves its grim portents of unstoppable, world-killing tragedy with wit and generous humanity. 12 Monkeys makes a running joke of the inexact science of time travel: In addition to the initial cock-up of sending Cole to 1990 instead of 1996, he accidentally spends enough time in the trenches of World War I to get one seriously perplexing bullet in the leg. It also develops a real love story out of Cole and Railly’s relationship: La Jetée may provide the framework (and key images) for 12 Monkeys, but Gilliam pays equally fond homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (an important Marker influence, too), going so far as to appropriate a whole scene at a Hitchcock film festival where Railly emerges in a blonde wig while Bernard Herrmann’s all-time-great score swells in the background. 

From that little moment out of time, 12 Monkeys snaps back into the urgent business of Cole at the airport, confronting the true source of both the virus and the memory/dream that has haunted him his entire life. And that means returning to his prescribed role in the Cassandra complex, a prophet who’s cursed with a foreknowledge of events he’s powerless to stop. Though the incident at the airport is a mind-blowing twist, courtesy of La Jetée, the true strength of 12 Monkeys is owed more to the swooning spirit of Vertigo than any plot details extracted from Marker. The reality that mankind will face a viral apocalypse is something Cole cannot change, despite his best efforts, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be changed by the way he interacts with the past. What Cole says about Vertigo—“every time you see it, it’s different because you’re different”—may be the best accounting I’ve heard about why that film currently sits atop the Sight & Sound poll: because it’s simultaneously elusive and seductive, and offers viewers a new experience every time they watch it. Gilliam treats the past the same way, as a movie that doesn’t change but is nonetheless surprising, revelatory, and even elating. 

It may seem perverse to accentuate the positive in a film about the certainty of mankind’s obliteration from the planet and the madness of trying to stop it, but Gilliam’s lightness of touch throws all that bleakness in sharp relief. For a convict like Cole, stuck in some authoritarian underground hellpit of the future, just breathing the air or hearing Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” on the radio is an intoxicating sensation—to say nothing of literally meeting the woman of his dreams. 12 Monkeys is hard sci-fi with a soft center, a film of ideas that’s nonetheless flush with outsized passion and emotion. Gilliam gave Hollywood a movie with adventure and heart, after all—he just did it his way.

Coming Up: 
September 27: Bound
October 18: People Under The Stairs
November 8: Memento