The 1995 Project continues with the release of Terminator Genysis -which is by most accounts a pretty bad movie- making me think of time travel in movies, and more specifically, of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.
The movie is based on Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée, and despite their superficial plot similarities, the movies have pretty different themes, which are approached in pretty different way. It’s not just that Marker is more interesting in telling his story almost purely through suggestive images and Gilliam has a more traditional approach (this was, after all, a Hollywood production), but the fact that the filmmakers are saying different things. But this is not the place to compare the movies to each other. And if I’m being honest, I haven’t seen La Jetée nearly enough times as to even pretend that I know what Marker was trying to say with that movie. Instead, let us focus on 12 Monkeys and what Gilliam has to say.
But before we get to the movies themes, and while we’re on the subject of time, let us think of the movie as a piece of history. This is still the most commercially successful movie in Gilliam’s career. Being somewhat of an action thriller starring Bruce Willis in the mid-nineties must have helped, but even then, anyone who is familiar with Gilliam’s filmography will recognize 12 Monkeys to be in the “lighter” side (by which I mean a movie that isn’t overwhelmingly soaked in Gilliam’s personal aesthetics). Quite tellingly, this is one of the few movies Gilliam didn’t write himself.
Screenwriting credits go to David Webb Peoples (writer of Blade Runner and Unforgiven) and his wife Janet Peoples, and what they’ve created here is a clear example of the “puzzle movie” that first captured the zeitgeist in the mid-nineties and has been reliably popular with teenagers getting into film. These are confusing movies that play with time and only reveal their real meaning with a brilliant twist in the third act. The most popular example would be Memento, which is partially responsible for the sub-genre’s popularity in the 2000s. In any case, 12 Monkeys falls pretty comfortably in that category.
Let’s get the plot out of the way: a deadly virus has poisoned the earth and forced humanity underground. Scientists send a “volunteer”, James Cole (Bruce Willis) back in time to try and discover what set off this sequence of events and try to prevent the earth’s grim future. Cole is sent back in time multiple times as he gradually discovers how this whole thing happened, but just as the plot gets clearer to us, Cole’s brain starts to get damaged by all the time travel. Living different realities has rendered him unable of distinguishing what is real and what isn’t, and he starts questioning if he is actually a time traveler or if this whole crazy adventure is just in his head.
It’s a pretty fascinating way to explore the effect circumstances and environments have on our psyche, and watching a movie unfold from that horrifying perspective would be incredibly fascinating. And while 12 Monkeys does present us with these themes, it is not focused on Cole’s perspective. Some side-plots and a pretty unambiguous introduction let the audience know that this is all reality, that Cole is actually a time traveler. It’s not healthy to look at a movie -let alone criticize it- based on what you wished it had been instead of what it is, but I do think a more narrow first-person perspective could have turned 12 Monkeys into Gilliams’ masterpiece.
Now, it would have certainly resulted in an even less commercial movie. I mean, considering 12 Monkeys‘s grim and surreal production design, it’s aggressive camera angles, and the unhinged attitude in many of its performances (especially Brad Pitt’s Oscar-nominated turn as a psychiatric patient), it’s almost a miracle that the movie made any money at all. Or it would be, it it were a bad movie. Because even if I just said it isn’t a masterpiece, 12 Monkeys is a really solid piece of science fiction. Despite its confusing nature, its attitudes towards time travel are clear, and the character arc strong enough to provide us with a very satisfying ending.
But if we circle back to the movie’s themes, then you’ll understand why I brought up the whole point-of-view question up in the first place. If 12 Monkeys is a movie about questioning reality and sanity, then I think it would have benefitted from the audience sharing said confusion with the main character. As it is, we are always a little bit ahead of Cole (especially after so many such “puzzle movies” have been made). Still, 12 Monkeys is a damn solid movie, and a unique piece of commercial filmmaking on its own right.