Sunday, October 3, 2010

12 Monkeys

I have always appreciated Terry Gilliam's films, both for their sense of humor and their creativity. From the classic days of Monty Python and The Holy Grail to some of my all time favorites like Brazil and Time Bandits. These were comedies that Gilliam wrote himself. In later years he decided direct some notable films with a more serious tone like The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, both of which were written by others but to which he applied his unmistakably original directing style. In the case of 12 Monkeys, we have a brilliantly written science fiction story by a veteran screenplay writer named David Webb Peoples, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Blade Runner. Add to that some great performances by Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, and you have a great film, one that also sits in my collection.

There are several elements of story telling that come together in the film. We start in the year 2035 after a virulent plague has killed most of the earth's population and the survivors now live underground. Convicts are forced to perform missions on the surface to gather samples and information for a group of scientists in their efforts to find a cure for the virus. The scientists have found a way to send people back in time and retrieve them again, and have instituted a program to send the prisoners on time travel missions in exchange for reduced sentences. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent on one of these missions. The hope is to decipher the origin of the virus and bring back a sample of the original from before it mutated. It is not explained how that would help them find a cure, and there seems to be no plan to prevent the catastrophe in the first place until something changes at the end.

The film presents several mysteries that keep you guessing via misdirection. First, we are misled about the cause of the catastrophe until the very end of the film. Second, Cole becomes confused about whether his future life is real or not and whether he is sane or delusional, and we the audience are provided clues that go both ways. The main directorial tool in this respect is analogy and similarity. The are many similarities between past and future, and many coincidental re-occurrences that make us wonder if Cole is actually making things up in his own head. For example, advertisements about the Florida Keys pop up in odd places as a suggestion of where they will ultimately plan their final escape. Cole hears a news story about boy caught in a well and correctly predicts that the boy is actually playing a prank and hiding because he saw the story as a kid. When he is confronted about it later he states that it could have been another story or that the kid may have seen the same thing and copied it. And then there is the constant thread of references that Gilliam includes throughout the film, like the numerous incidental TV programs that happen to be talking about time travel, or the ever-present monkey theme, as when a monkey is lowered into the well as way of reaching the supposedly trapped kid. These are not part of the story line but keep appearing throughout the film and give it continuity.

Cole ends up at first in a mental institution and meets up with Jeffry Goines (Brad Pitt). Pitt's performance as a crazy guy is absolutely amazing. He straddles the fine line between comedy and reality and creates this surprisingly consistent character. Willis is also great as a man trying to understand his situation and interpret a dream that is in fact a real happening that he witnessed as a child which also occurs at the end of the film. We see glimpses of it throughout, in slow motion, as a unifying thread that holds together Cole, his childhood, and his relationship to a psychiatrist named Dr. Kathryn Railly who is the only person that befriends him and ultimately comes to believe his story.

The most straightforward interpretation of the film is to take it at face value as a time travel drama, complete with time puzzles to piece together in addition to the other mysteries. Although there is plenty of "proof" to support this interpretation, there is one thing that does not fit in at all, which is a voice that talks to Cole every now and then out of nowhere, referring to him as "Bob", and speaking like he has gone through the same ordeal that Cole has and somehow knows how to beat "the system". Is the point here to simply throw us off track, or is there some deeper meaning? I think the writers gave us the answer within the film itself. In a scene close to the ending climax, Cole and Railly put on disguises in a dark movie theater as an old James Stewart movie plays on the screen. It is a strange scene where the actress is claiming she'd been in that place before. Cole starts mentioning how he thinks he saw that movie before as kid, and seems somewhat disturbed by it. In one of his most lucid moments, he says to Railly, "Its just like what's happening to us... like the past. 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."

In that light, I knew that there must be things I had missed and so I watched the movie again in preparation for this entry (my third time). It was in that viewing that I noticed the quote above, as well as many more of the incidental coincidences. I also noticed for the first time that the woman who sits next to the apocalyptic nut on the plane at the end is one of the doctors from the future. Did she go back in time to prevent the disaster after all? I think part of the enjoyment of the film is the intellectual chase that it presents on so many levels.

Finally, I do like the main musical theme. It makes heavy use of dissonance and off beat rhythms to parallel the film's own assortment of double meaning. And it is actually played on accordian, the instrument of choice for street monkey vendors, and gives it a slightly humorous overtone. You can hear it below:


  1. 12 monkeys is a really great film, I agree. You could call Brazil his best film from the 80s, and for me this is Gilliam's masterpiece of the 90s. The music is so haunting, gives me goosebumps hearing it again! A thoughtful story about choice you can interpret, not just another dumb bruce willis action movie.

    Not sure if you are aware of this, but the film is partly inspired by a short film La jetée (1962), which you can find on youtube.

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  3. The picture with the breifcase and "spacesuit" is from 12 Monkeys film man...