Skip to main content

It’s a very stressful thing, time travel.

12 Monkeys
(1995)

(SPOILERS) Gilliam goes maximum sell out. And yet, even though this is undoubtedly the soberest and least quirky film in his oeuvre, it’s much, much more satisfying than his Terry-Goes-Tinseltown The Fisher King. 12 Monkeys is the evidence that he could have been – not that I’m suggesting he should have been – an entirely creditable studio director had he taken the bit between his teeth and buckled down. As it is, 12 Monkeys still manages to exude enough of his personality and wide-angle visual sense that you’re never in doubt who is calling the shots, but never to the extent that it gets in the way of its lead character’s emotional journey. Or indeed, the fairly wrought conspiracy plotline at its core.

Of which. Yes, 12 Monkeys is a virus movie. And therefore, to some degree, it needs to be categorised as a piece of predictive programming. And propaganda. The latter in terms of validating and underlining the terrifying potential of this invisible, un-isolatable, pervasively unconscionable threat to our very existences. The former, in similar manner to zombie movies, prepping its audience for the inevitable downfall of society, be that downfall characterised as nefariously engineered or due its own wilful disarray. I don’t necessarily think either of these elements need to be conscious on the part of the makers. Far from it; most of society – and filmmaking is a ready and willing proponent of the same ­– trundles ever onwards, parroting unquestioning fundamentals at every opportunity. Why should Gilliam have doubted viruses exist?

And why would he necessarily have thought an apocalyptic tale was exactly what his masters wanted? Because he’s nominally anti-establishment? Only nominally. He worked for the BBC, after all. And got his own Hollywood agent in time for The Fisher King. He’s only relatively a rebel. He even sports a prominent black eye on 12 Monkeys making-of doc The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, apparently through a near fatal horse-riding accident on a weekend break from filming. It can’t help but raise an eyebrow, given his next venture would be the adrenochrome-laced Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Even the horse part of the story has resonance, since it would be his first attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote that killed the stride of his career, with largely unsatisfying subsequent results. And on that, he’s widely reported to have actively participated in the starving of the title character’s horse for reasons of realism. Was that act his subconscious revenge? And then that of the horse’s on his later career?

However keenly or not so the makers were aware of the debatable biology at the root of their concept, 12 Monkeys, through its plays on perception and subjective reality – even if it settles on a concrete version – invites interrogation of accepted truths. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back from 2035 – by the looks of things this future’s Agenda 2030/Great Reset didn’t go quite as planned, although the resultant depopulation of rural areas surely amounts to much the same thing – in order to trace the original form of a deadly virus. This will enable scientists in his time to take a “pure” sample.

Title: …five billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997… The survivors will abandon the surface of the planet… Once again, the animals will rule the world…

Time travel is a loop in David and Janet Peoples’ telling, such that, while there are paradoxes of the Grandfather variety, the essential act cannot be used to change the future; time will conspire to produce the same result, unwittingly illustrated by the behaviour of psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) as she attempts to disprove Cole’s story. In doing so, she becomes an intrinsic part of his future evidence (her phone call and the graffiti clue). Indeed, the best one might say is that, prior to the airport climax, Cole and Railly’s actions obfuscate the future path, leading to a focus on the Army of the 12 Monkeys rather than the actual culprit, Doctor Peters (David Morse).

Notably, great pains are not spent discussing time travel theory in this “Outbreak meets The Terminator”, as one test-audience response put it. That’s likely in part down to Gilliam’s desire to avoid leading his viewers by the nose wherever possible (it’s easy to come away from the movie on first viewing assuming the future scientist is there to save the past; one has to presume they long since realised such attempts are self-defeating).

Jeffrey Goines: You know what crazy is? Crazy is majority rules. Take germs, for example.
James Cole: Germs?
Jeffrey Goines: Uh-huh. In the eighteenth century, no such thing, nada, nothing. No one ever imagined such a thing. No sane person, anyway. Ah! Ah! Along comes this doctor, uh, uh, uh, Semmelweis, Semmelweis. Semmelweis comes along. He’s trying to convince people, well, other doctors mainly, that there’s these teeny tiny invisible bad things called germs that get into your body and make you sick. Ah? He’s trying to get doctors to wash their hands. What is this guy? Crazy? Teeny, tiny, invisible? What do you call it? Uh-uh, germs? Huh? What? Now, cut to the twentieth century. Last week, as a matter of fact, before I got dragged into this hellhole. I go in to order a burger in a fast food joint, and the guy drops it on the floor. Jim, he picks it up, he wipes it off, he hands it to me like it’s all okay. What about the germs, I say. He says, I don’t believe in germs. Germs are just a plot they made up to sell you disinfectant and soaps. Now, he’s crazy, right. See?

While the bulwark narrative is consistent, if one looks closely enough, there are cracks in it that do give one pause, though. Even with regard to my earlier comment about the makers not necessarily being aware of the “subtext”. Because Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the looney tunes red herring, is given the not uncommon movie opportunity to voice dismissible truths via the guise of the babbling madman, per above. Now, Jeffrey’s example is slightly misleading, as good hygiene is not a crazy position to advocate (although excessively so, such as currently, is another matter). But his example leads us directly to Pasteur and the mess he made with virus theory, and the contrasting position of Bechamp, who denied Pasteur’s position (reputedly, Pasteur admitted on his death bed that Bechamp was correct).

The false equivalence of equating Semmelweis’ concerns over the health impact of decaying organic matter with virus theory reached its apotheosis in March this year, when he became a Google Doodle in favour of the roundly embraced handwashing scam. Ironic for someone who was not a proponent of contagion in respect of his area of study. Given the scorn Semmelweis’ theories received from his peers at the time, and the scorn heaped on any who don’t toe the party line now (such as advocates of German New Medicine) Goines’ “Ah! Ah! There’s no right. There’s no wrong. There’s only popular opinion” doesn’t seem so lunatic at all.

As noted, the virus – The Hamster Factor footage suggests it’s a Black Death strain – part of the picture isn’t key to its premise, but it’s interesting to see Gilliam and the Peoples’ address the baggage that comes for the ride. During the climax, Cole receives new instructions from Jose (Jon Seda) and realises “This part isn’t about the virus at all, is it? It’s about following orders. Doin’ what you’re told”. It’s difficult not to read in to such a remark in the time of an imminent Great Reset. And Cole being asked “Why do you think there aren’t any germs in the air?” out of context (he’s free to breathe outside in 1990) would be the standard question to any virus denier. If there was any interest in the response.

Railly gives a lecture about the Cassandra complex (complete with claims of time travel) and at the subsequent book signing, following a fan’s hilariously flippant “I’m going right out to get vaccinated”, she is approached by Dr Peters, trotting out the standard tropes of the depopulation agenda – “Surely there is very real and convincing data that the planet cannot survive the excesses of the human race?” He’s Gates if Gates could create a deadly airborne pathogen, one that would also leave him/her standing. Even Cole is up on that plied verdict (“The human race deserves to be wiped out”). Railly, the voice of rationality and reason, has her bedrock belief disrupted in the face of the inexplicable, such that she volunteers at one point, echoing Goines’ ramble about popular opinion, “I mean psychology, it’s the latest religion”.

Gilliam’s future, industrial decay dressed up with absurdist contraptions, is very much in the lineage of Brazil (not for nothing has it, this and The Zero Theorem – not by Gilliam, it must be stressed – been described as his dystopian trilogy). Here, the existence of a virus equals – is an excuse for – a totalitarian, penal regime. Aside from the scientific elite, we don’t see anyone who isn’t a coerced criminal, but it wouldn’t take much to perceive the digital bar codes and implanted tracking devices (“It’s in the tooth”) as endemic. Just the kind of thing they have planned.

David Peoples boasts a strong if sparse pedigree through the likes of Blade Runner and Unforgiven – and er, Salute to the Jugger and Leviathan – giving one the impression he’s a writer who, if his work is left to shine, is rarely bettered (but then you look at Soldier, and know there’s nevertheless alchemy involved). He was inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetée as a starting point, in which the core is less motivation than self-realisation, of a boy witnessing his own death as a man (there is no virus in the short, and the intention of the travellers is to discover a means of changing the future). In Peoples’ three best-known works, existential crisis is key to the text. The tragedy of 12 Monkeys is that of a deterministic fable, and Gilliam rightly understood that, because of this, everything hinged on the central performance.

James Cole: I am mentally divergent.

Gilliam worked with Bruce and Brad when they were hungry. A few years later, Willis had drifted into stoic – some might say constipated – somnambulance (the line “All I see are dead people” here would be a harbinger). But at this point, he wanted to stretch himself beyond the wisecracking (still his best persona, although it’s increasingly difficult to recall now). There are a couple of movies where he succeeded. 12 Monkeys might may be his best straight performance, certainly his most affecting outside of Die Hard (ironically, he wanted to play Die Hard 2: Die Harder entirely without quips, evidencing typical star vacuity). Cole isn’t that bright, but he’s bright enough (something the character has in common with Butch in the previous year’s Pulp Fiction).

Willis must have bristled that Brad’s cuckoo turn got the most attention, certainly awards wise (The Hamster Factor notes that between Pitt signing on and the beginning of the shoot, both Interview with the/a Vampire and Legends of the Fall had been released). It’s still one of his most interesting performances, showing a dedication to the art his more charisma-led star turns tended to spurn. Stowe is the straight man in all this, navigating a less showy role with consummate skill. Elsewhere, it’s fun to see Frank Gorshin (the Riddler), Simon Jones (Arthur Dent) and Christopher Plummer (who would later reunite with Gilliam for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus).

Gilliam called 12 Monkeysa study of madness and dreams, of death and re-birth…” and he thus ensures the finished film feels like a natural part of his oeuvre. However, he also impresses in his dexterity at embracing a narrative outside of his usual toolbox. None of his prior pictures are very complex in plotting terms (even if The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is metatextually intense), but this one requires a rigorous attention to servicing the material’s coherence while avoiding over explanation. Gilliam initially resisted the airplane scene, feeling it would weaken the emotional ending – which he saw as Cole the boy seeing Cole the man die. It’s a delicate balancing act, and I believe he achieves it.

One might have presented an argument for the “all-in-Cole’s-head” reading without that final scene, especially given the picture ambiguously quoting an anonymous mental patient in the opening lines – shades of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day – as a verification of future events. Gilliam and Willis present Cole’s subjectivity with sufficient woozy earnestness, as he switches from believing to not believing while Railly undergoes the reverse, that Peters on the plane is both providing something concrete and telling us that, yeah, Cole did succeed. In a way.

Adding to the potential pitfalls, Peoples avoids make things easy in terms of driving the plot, with Cole leaping back and forth in time the way he does; such a construction could easily have killed the picture’s momentum. Gilliam manages to sustain the tension, mostly because he also sustains the conviction of Cole’s emotional state. There are of, course, virtuoso Gilliam touches: the distorted angles and wide lens; showstoppers like Cole and Railly’s exposure on a wall of TV screens in a shop window; the oddball Vertigo homage. And sporadically very funny bits too. Pitt is highly amusing as a bug-eyed loon (his reaction to Cole eating a spider). Joseph McKenna is great as a demonic pimp (“I was attacked by a coked-up whore and a fucking crazy dentist”). Paul Buckmaster’s quirky score provides the perfect offbeat accompaniment, woozy French carnival music leading you on a merry dance.

It's curious how little Gilliam managed to capitalise on 12 Monkeys’ success. Perhaps such is the fate of wilful auteur. Not for him the prodigious output path of Sir Ridders’ post Gladiator. Instead, it stands as a curio. Gilliam the journeyman. Although obviously, such a thing is, by definition, impossible.


Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.