Required viewing in pandemic times, Terry Gilliam’s free adaptation of Chris Marker’s striking, hypnotic short film La Jetee has worn well over the quarter century since release. Sci-fi has a job to do in terms of guessing things right; 12 Monkeys nails all kinds of elements, from the hazmat suits to the boarded-up businesses, from extreme enviromentalism to anti-corporate sentiment, from the fake-news era to the ongoing rumours about whether a virus may have come from a research lab. An entertaining thriller on the surface, it’s also a smart, thought-provoking film with ideas well above its station.
A deadly virus has decimated humanity; in an effort to stop that from happening, our future government sends a man back in time to nip the pandemic in the bud. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is blessed with a remarkable memory, and is able to hold his futuristic know-how in his head while at the same time balancing this with his memories of the 1990’s and what it was like to grow-up back then. A smart cookie, Cole is immediately incarcerated in the local mental institution, where he becomes the pet project of the physiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). Cole also meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), whose father (Christopher Plummer) may or may not turns out to be connected to the Army of the 12 Monkeys, a group who the history books suggest might be responsible for the virus leak…
Writer David Peoples (working here with wife Janet) co-wrote Blade Runner, and brings the same depth and seriousness to his script here, which asks a lot of the audience in keeping time-lines and motives straight. Gilliam also makes visual hay even with a small budget ($30 million), with stylish flourishes like the escaped animals that pop up over the films final 15 minutes. Not much detail remains from Marker’s film, although the references to Hitchcock and Vertigo are ingeniously re-woven into the narrative. Cole’s understanding of what the Army of the 12 Monkeys are turns out to be fake news, and the notion of unravelling the truth proves key. We already know from the opening flash-forward where and when this story will end; this is what predestination might look like. And there’s a stunning moment when Cole stands in a busy department store and inadvertantly flashes forward to the dismal wreckage of the future, an image that nails our current anxieties in a split-second.
Some talents work best on a budget, and 12 Monkeys is arguably Gilliam’s most consistent work; there’s great performances from Pitt (Oscar-nominated here) and Stowe. Often underestimated as an actor, Willis is quite extraordinary in the way he physically realises the transformation of Cole as he recovers from Marker’s patented time-travelling jet lag; he sets the tone of every scene with his physicality. 12 Monkeys looks back fondly to a cleaner air world, before the virus wars began and societal norms collapsed, and can’t help but strike a nostalgic chord now. But what’s more remarkable is that in a story that’s essentially more miserable than a Radiohead boxed set, that with 5 billion people and the main character dying, 12 Monkeys eventually feels incongruously life-affirming and upbeat. The truth is its own reward, and understanding the horror we’re capable of doing to ourselves offers the first step forward in solving our problems.