It shocked me to realise that 12 Monkeys, the only other Terry Gilliam-directed film in my collection, dates from as long ago as 1995, and that this is only the second time I have watched the DVD. I remember first watching it, alone in my house, all lights out, recreating the effect of the cinema as best as I could, and being drawn completely into what was unfolding, realising what I was about to see and the inevitability of things being drawn together in a tight, seamless conclusion. The effect was powerful. In the light of a Sunday morning, with darkness out of the question except on my laptop screen, 12 Monkeys had exactly the same effect. Why did I leave re-watching this film so long? Setting myself this series, to watch a DVD each week, was clearly a valuable idea.
12 Monkeys is nominally a science fiction film, and given that it involves the future, time travel and an apocalyptic event, it’s clearly an accurate description. But, in part due to the limited budget ruling out elaborate effects, and Gilliam’s election to use, partly for aesthetic reasons and partly for thematic reasons, a similar kind of Heath Robinson-esque technology for the future, this doesn’t feel like SF to me. Indeed, it’s more about the working out of a puzzle, from inside out, in plot terms and considerably more about people’s perception of reality and what it is.
The film stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt, who was a supporting actor when 12 Monkeys was being made but a massive superstar when it was released. Willis is James Cole. In the future, after an apocalyptic virus has wiped out practically the whole of humanity, and a handful of survivors scrape by underground with a kind of hybrid technology unadvanced beyond 1996, Cole is a criminal, violent and aggressive, who ‘volunteers’ to go above ground (in highly sterilised and biohazard protected gear with much disinfecting before and after) to take specimens from a surface world abandoned to the animals.
Cole’s ‘crimes’ are never specified. From a recitation of his aggressive tendencies, we may extrapolate that they are likely to be a refusal to obey orders in a tiny world dependent upon people doing what they are told in order not to upset a fragile ecosystem, but the film isn’t here to explore that. Instead, as a successful ‘Observer’, Cole is to be sent back to 1996 Philadelphia, just before the spreading of the lethal virus that wiped out the human race.
You will immediately spot the anomaly of a future in which technology has visibly regressed from this 1996 cut-off point but which has developed effective, if imperfect, time travel, but by the time the film reaches this point, its atmosphere has long since drawn you in: you are eager to discover what is going on and the time travel aspect is introduced sufficiently early that it is taken for granted because we are at this moment in the future, and the fact it is only thirty years ahead has not yet been disclosed.
Cole makes the point, especially when Dr Katharine Railly (Madeleine Stowe) diagnoses him as delusional, imagining himself as a would-be saviour, that he is not here to change the past: the past cannot be changed, it has happened. He is here to observe it, to find and contact the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, the people responsible for the dissemination of the virus. He wants to get the virus in its pure form, take it back to the future (our future, his presence), where it can be studied to enable humanity to return to the surface.
The time travel process is imperfect: instead of Philadelphia, in the last quarter of 1996, Cole arrives in Baltimore, early 1990, naked and disoriented (I did not count the number of times we see Bruce Willis’s naked arse but it was plenty). From here on in, Cole is a shambling, often violent, hulking but perennially confused figure, off balance at almost every moment, even when at his seemingly most directed. Willis is frankly superb in the role.
In Baltimore, he meets Dr Railly who tries to treat him, to free him from this delusional mental construct, or diversion, as the film, metafictionally, defines it. Stowe is understated in her part, which of the three leading roles is the most passive, until late in the film. She has the unglamorous task of being normal, which is always a drawback in circumstances such as these. Stowe’s room for overt performance is constricted, making her assumption of the role, and its inherently cool and collected nature, all the more impressive.
Cole also meets fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Goines is hyperactive, volatile, agitated, almost to the point of caricature as an old-style ‘loony’. He’s also intensively charismatic, one of those individuals who, if he could tone the overt irrationality down, could lead thousands on crusades. He befriends Cole, tries to help him escape. Jeffrey plainly comes from a rich family, and will not be in this kind of state institution for long, only until his father finds out. His father, we don’t learn now, is a highly regarded biologist conducting experimentation on animals. He creates viruses…
Cole’s ‘escape’ is truncated and he is heavily restrained, but that doesn’t stop him from escaping for real, when he is beamed back to his present. His mission has been a complete failure but he is given a second chance. The time travel blips again, sending the naked Cole into French trenches in the First World War, where he takes a bullet to the leg and is photographed, before bouncing to November 1996, but still in Baltimore.
This very short interlude has nothing to do with the story. We know that time travel is imperfect, given the six-and-a-half year miss on Cole’s first trip, but this excessively wrong diversion and is unexplained rectification are left unexplained because there isn’t an explanation. The film needs Cole to have been in 1917 for a turning point further ahead. Once again, however, the film has gripped its audience so tight that we go along with it because we still only have the edges of the puzzle and we are seeking pieces to go into the middle of it.
Six years in in Baltimore, Katharine Railly has just published a book about insanity and apocalyptic visions. She gives a talk about it and signs copies, including one to a rather creepy individual, played by David Morse, who gets brushed aside when he says the ones with the visions are the heroes and humanity is insane. Outside, getting into her car, she is ambushed by Cole and forced to drive him to Philadelphia.
Railly tries to deal professionally with her capturer, to talk him down calmly, to get him to see that his talk of the future, of humanity’s impending annihilation, is purely delusional.Gradually, she loses some of her fear as he makes no moves to hurt her. Music thrills him. There’s a leitmotif of a news story, a nine year old boywho’s gone missing in the middle of a cornfield, just like Cole, six years before. He’s presumed fallen and trapped down an abandoned mineshaft and a massive emergency rescue operation is getting bigger and bigger: Cole dismisses it as a prank, the boy is hiding in an abandoned barn.
In Philadelphia, Cole finds an address, a small-style animal activists group. He’s supposed to have left a message, a voicemail on the number given him, picked up and played, unrecognisably, back to him. This is the headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, who did it. Who is their leader? Jeffrey Goines, now working for his virologist father, no longer institutionalised but still crazier than a fruit loop.
By now, a certain amount of Stockholm Syndrome has set in. Katharine’s turned down at least one cast-iron chance to escape, she’s dug the bullet out of Cole’s leg, she’s alongside him, but after the Goines confrontation, with Secret Servicemen ad the like closing in, she signals for help. And Cole vanishes again.
Things are on the turn. In his resent, Cole is pardoned, freed. Still he wants to go back. The trauma has him believing Katharine, believing he’s delusional, that the ‘future’ is a construct. Partly he’s fallen for her, but he’s fallen for the ‘past’, for music, for air that, to him, is fresh. He manages to get himself sent back again, only this time he thinks he’s manipulating his delusion: he wants Katharine, or someone, to cure him.
Only, just as Cole has undergone the undermining of everything he believes, so too has Katharine. It begins with the news, with the discovery of the nine year old boy in an abandoned barn, the announcement that it was a ‘prank’. In an instant, Katharine Railly’s worldview crashes, irrecoverably. The analysis of the bullet she dug out of Cole as being pre-1920, and her discovery of his photo in the trenches are just the icing on the cake, the final blows to a belief she’s trying desperately to reinforce but which has already been destroyed.
She goes after the animal Rights activists but they’ve barricaded themselves in. Jeffrey is planning something. He’s even nuttier than before. It involves his father’s lab…
Cole reappears, seeking help. Katharine rents a room in a hooker hotel, trying to get him to realise he was right all along but they’re disturbed by a threatening pimp, outrages that she’s trying to cut in on his territory. Cole smashes him up, cuts out the teeth in which the tracking device is implanted, if there is such a thing and not a delusion (Cole is uncertain, Katharine less doubtful, but the audience knows the score).
Then it crashes again. She rings the number he has, returns visibly giddy with relief. It was a garbage removal company, leave a voicemail, they come take your garbage away. She was so giddy, she left a message about the Twelve Monkeys, about how they did it. She’s repeating it to Cole, proudly. But he repeats it to her, shocking her into silence. He’s heard it before, in the future. It’s the message that was the basis for his being sent back.
Thoroughly shocked, and convinced of what is soon to follow, Katharine changes their appearance, plans a flight to the Florida Keys. Cole has never seen the ocean, he went underground aged eight. It’s like a honeymoon for them, though the romance is more a thing of desperation, a situation that leaves room for the two of them only, dictated by ruthless logic rather than mutual attraction and desire. He acquired hair and a moustache, she goes blonde and short dressed. She becomes the woman from Cole’s dream.
Cole’s dream. It’s in an airport. It starts the film, it reoccurs, different every time. There’s a square suitcase plastered with shipping labels. Katharine running, screaming silently. Passengers panicking. A man with a gun being shot, falling to the floor. An eight year old boy watching this. I’m ahead of the film now, interpreting the dream as not being a dream but a memory.
Katharine and Cole head for the airport. The Twelve Monkeys have struck. Only, they’ve not released a virus, they’ve released the zoo and stuck Leland Goines in a cage. Animals roam the city. It’s surreal. It keeps breaking into Cole’s head, echoes of his first above-ground expedition.
In the airport, Cole leaves a voicemail, explaining that the Twelve Monkeys weren’t behind the virus, it was someone else. He’s not coming back, he’s saying here, don’t look for him. Practically instantly, his cell-mate Jose homes in on him, presses upon him a gun. Someone’s got to shoot Katharine. Got to follow orders.
Katharine’s buying tickets. Someone pushes past her with a familiar square suitcase, plastered with shipping labels. he’s touring the world, a sequence of cities across the globe. A sequence that is the exact sequence of outbreaks of the virus. It is David Morse. Or, as we now know him to be, Dr Peters. Assistant to Dr Goines at the Virology lab. His case is full of biological substances, in test tubes. he breaks one open, waves it under the nose of the guy checking baggage. It’s already too late.
Too late too. Katharine recognises him, urges Cole to stop him. Not understanding why, Cole starts to run, dragging out the gun Jose just gave him. Peters runs. Police shoot. Cole is shot through the chest and falls. A screaming Katharine enacts his dream, runs to him. He dies in her arms. All in front of an eight year old boy who will, in thirty years time, regurgitate what he has seen as a series of dreams, unaware that he has just watched himself die.
On the plane, Dr Peters settles into his seat. The woman next to him grumbles about the shooting, about the world. She’s in insurance, her name is Jones. As she leans into shot to shake Peters’ hand, we recognise her. She is the chief of the scientists who instruct Cole, thirty years into the future.
It’s an ironic ending, though the film’s last shot is on young James Cole’s eyes. There’s been speculation about ‘Dr Jones’s presence. Cole’s job all along was to find the people behind the virus so a scientist could go back to analyse it and produce the antivirus for the future’s future. Has he therefore succeeded? But ‘Dr Jones’ in 1996 is significantly younger than in the future. Is this coincidence? Is her remark that she’s in insurance to signify that she intends, after all, to change the past, perhaps by killing Peters? But he has already released the virus in Philadelphia: since this is Jones’s younger self, and Peters has infected himself, he has now infected her and the future will change as a consequence. But how can it, given that it has already inserted itself into the past, by Jones sending Cole back…
12 Monkeys was only the second film of Terry Gilliam’s directing career that he had not written, or co-written himself. The film was inspired by the 1962 French short, La Jetee, written by Chris Marker, which was optioned for a remake, and the script was written by David and Janet Peoples (David Peoples also scripted Blade Runner and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgotten). Gilliam brings a visual style to a complex script that operates on many levels and has considerably more subtle moments than even those I’ve chosen to highlight. From the outset, from the initial dream sequence that we learn is no dream, the film enthralls, and leads us, constantly demanding answers, which it delivers in rapid-fire sequence at the end, by which time we have spent two hours in a fugue state where the reality of the film has overtaken our personal reality.
I have found it hard to shake off the emotional state of mind the film created, where uncertainty was nevertheless concretely underpinned by inevitability. Some critics claim that this and Brazil as part of a dystopic trilogy of Gilliam films completed by The Zero Theorem in 2013: i shall have to definitely consider the latter for any putative Film 2019.