Twelve Monkeys

(Terry Gilliam, USA, 1995)


Promoting Terry Gilliam's new SF extravaganza Twelve Monkeys during episodes of The X-Files on TV is a wise move. For that is exactly the kind of material Gilliam is dealing with here: fast, stylish, utterly plot-driven, occasionally downright kooky, and a little bit philosophical at the edges.


This film defies easy synopsis. In its time-travel convolutions, it resembles the three installments of Back to the Future (1985) (or indeed both Bill and Ted adventures, 1989 and 1991) condensed into one hundred and thirty minutes.


Cole (Bruce Willis) lives like a caged animal in a bleak, devastated future. He is shot backwards in time by a sinister team of scientists to gather information on the mysterious events that led to historic catastrophe.


On his first visit to the past, Cole lands in an asylum and encounters Jeffrey (Brad Pitt), a paranoid lunatic with radical political aspirations, and Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe), who becomes Cole's reluctant accomplice in his desperate quest. From there, the plot dives into a dizzy dance intermingling traces of past, present and future.


This is not a psychological film. Willis gives a solid, iconic performance, but he is mainly there to act as our tour-guide through the intricate labyrinth of the narrative. Pitt gets to rave, point crazily and open his eyes very widely for the entire film; he appears to be enjoying himself. Stowe has the hardest job: Kathryn is perhaps the least psychologically coherent character in recent cinema – and she's meant to be a psychiatrist!


It is easy to suspect that most things in this movie (including the casting decisions) are slightly nutty jokes. For, to put it in more elevated terms, Gilliam is unquestionably the postmodern popular filmmaker par excellence, a fashionable path he has vigorously pursued since Brazil (1985).


Po-mo means many things to many people, of course, but for Gilliam it fundamentally means this: that movies are never self-contained, but woven cheekily from the collective memory of many previous films, songs, TV shows and general pop culture kitsch. Here is the dope on merely two of Gilliam's principal sources on this occasion.


Twelve Monkeys is inspired by Chris Marker's 1963 experimental short La Jetée – one of the most beautiful and influential films in cinema history. In a major sense, there is virtually no connection between the original and its loose remake, since the principal feature of Marker's film is that it is comprised almost completely of still frames, accompanied by a poetic voice-over narration. (La Jetée now exists on DVD and in a lavish photo-novel reconstruction published in the mid ‘90s.)


Plot-wise, however, the script by David (author of Eastwood’s Unforgiven, 1992) and Janet Peoples is surprisingly faithful to Marker's conception. And Marker fans (the Melbourne film scene boasts many) will be delighted by Gilliam's elaborate, knowing expansion of La Jetée's fleeting but crucial allusion to a classic Hollywood movie: Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). 


The lyrical themes that have possessed Marker and Hitchcock alike – themes of identity and memory, dream and nightmare, compassion and understanding – all these are duly quoted and paraded in Twelve Monkeys. But, as in so much self-consciously postmodern cinema, these ideas never quite add up to anything significant or resonant. The ending, especially, is a terribly pale imitation of La Jetée's shattering poignancy.


But Twelve Monkeys is, on the surface at least, a wild ride. Gilliam's eye-popping antics with the camera may well be responsible for every overwrought film school short made in the last decade, but I have to give him this: he conveys the extraordinarily complex plot of this movie with total clarity and deftness.


The red herrings, enigmatic apparitions, subjective flashes forward and backward – for a rapt audience, piecing all this together as it unfolds is rather like … well, like watching a superior episode of The X-Files. And from an X-phile such as myself, that is no small praise.

MORE Gilliam: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Fisher King, Lost in La Mancha

© Adrian Martin March 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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