Directed by Terry Gilliam
12 Monkeys is a cool movie but I kinda get the feeling that you could turn into a play and not really lose too much. In fact in some respects it might even make it better. There’s lots and lots of cool images – but there’s not really any big set pieces. Just lots of shots of Bruce Willis looking confused and Brad Pitt doing his Tyler Durden: The Early Years thing.
There’s a bit where they’re watching Vertigo and Bruce says: “It’s just like what’s happening with us, like the past. The movie never changes. It can’t change; but every time you see it, it seems different because you’re different. You see different things.”
On the one hand this is incredibly trite stuff. Yeah of course movies change every time you watch them. You notice different things. Certain details appear more relevant. Things make a different kind of sense. But then again they also don’t. I’ve seen 12 Monkeys a bunch of times and every time I see it it’s a film about Bruce Willis being sent back in time to gather information about a plague that’s decimated the human race. Although yeah I’ll admit that watching it in 2021 during lockdown it certainly hits different – but not in quite the way I was expecting.
I thought it would be the disease stuff that got the biggest reaction. The film opens with a title card that says “5 billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997” which definitely feels less science-fictiony that what it used to. I wonder if other movies will be like this someday? Watching Terminator after the great machine war of 2035. Watching Inception after we find out that the Government really is going inside our dreams. Watching Star Trek: First Contact after First Contact.
And yeah the image of Bruce Willis in his protective plastic clothing stalking through a city buried in snow is pretty cool (and the one that sprung to mind after I went back to work after the first lockdown) but it’s pretty obvious that Terry Gilliam isn’t really that all interested in diseases and viruses and all that science stuff. Nah. He’s more into notions of reality and insanity and how the world is made and all that good stuff. In fact when germs are mentioned it’s because it’s making a point about what crazy is:
Brad Pitt: You know what crazy is? Crazy is majority rules. Take germs, for example.
Bruce Willis: Germs?
Brad Pitt: 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’s 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 20th century. Last week, as a matter of fact, before I got dragged into this hellhole. I go in to order a burger in this 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 OK. “What about the germs?” I say. He says, “I don’t believe in germs. Germs is just a plot they made up so they can sell you disinfectants and soaps.” Now he’s crazy, right? See?
And yeah you know – this is all good stuff. And I remember watching it as a teenage boy and eating it up with a giant spoon and wanting more. Because yeah ok – Brad Pitt is crazy but he’s also got a point. Something something Foucault and Fuck You I Won’t Do What You Tell Me etc.
But watching it now I couldn’t help but notice the thing that the movie didn’t predict. (Not that i blame it too much – movies have to try and keep things simple. Especially when they’re already messing around with time travel and insanity enough already. Speaking of – fun bit of trivia for you: the tagline originally suggested for the film was: “The future is in the hands of a man who has none.” But they decided that this was too confusing because it kinda sounded like it was a film about Bruce Willis having no hands). But yeah – the basic conflict of the movie is “Is Bruce Willis crazy or not?” Is a time-traveller? Or is he “mentally divergent”? And of course the problem nowadays is that the line between the two is no longer so clear. If reality is about “majority rules” then well – what happens when there’s no longer a majority?
There’s lots of cool shots at the start of Bruce Willis and a whole bunch of people living in tiny boxed up cages. Question is – what did these people do wrong? There’s talk of Bruce having being some sort of criminal and trying to get a pardon but I don’t think they ever really mentioned what his crime was (or did they? Maybe I just missed it?). But what if he just refused to wear a mask in his local Sainsburys? Does that mean he’s already crazy? Like there’s people denying that the plague is real before it happens because you know – that’s crazy talk. And hell if you spent the early part of 2020 warning people about the dangers of Covid-19 you wouldn’t really get that far. And there’s people now who think that the pandemic has been vastly overstated because of vested interests. And there’s other people who think it’s been vastly understated. That the fact that over 100,000 people in the UK have died in the past year doesn’t really seem to really have had the impact that it should have had. But then maybe the sight of Bruce WIllis in a futuristic society where humanity lived underground and everyone was just pretending it was business as usual would have been a stretch too far? You know – you don’t want to stretch believability too far.
It’s interesting to sit 12 Monkeys side by side with Brazil. In some ways Brazil feels like the more daring film, with more surreal elements, more obviously anti-authoritarian satire both in its kafkaesque plot, but also the behaviour of the “bad guys” Michael Palin’s torturer is not an evil sadist, he’s just another jobsworth bureaucrat whose biggest fear is losing face. Meanwhile in 12 Monkeys almost everyone is very sincere: Bruce Willis is basically playing a slightly more traumatised John McClane, doing what needs to get done while getting shoved around by everyone he meets; the bad guy is acting alone and is unarguably an evil shite; and the surrealism is largely provided by Brad Pitt who stands outside the plot as a deliberate and well sign posted red herring.
However all the being said, and perhaps because it refuses to be comedic, there is a pitch black melancholy to the 12 Monkeys message which I can’t shake. While we would happily see the city in Brazil burn to the ground, in 12 Monkeys we see Cole’s deep sorrow for the loss of “civilisation” while at the same time being left in no doubt that this engine for human interaction, culture and all the things we love is an unsustainable crumbling folly destined fall into the sea and take us with it. In terms of perspective, the movie demonstrates that the intellectuals, the smug scientists, and the impotent eco-warriors are no better than the pimps and junkies. They are all feasting on the same decaying elephant’s carcass, portrayed by Philadelphia, and all these people compare poorly to a crazy spoiled animal-freeing conspiracy theorist.
This film was my go-to choice of Pandemic movie because it is a powerful vision of just how fragile the facade of our society is. We may wonder why we have not all been traumatised by the mass-deaths over the last year, but if its not the horror of mass death, then we’ve all been hit by something. Whether out of concern for our health and others or just the desire to get things back to “normal” a huge number of people have chosen to pause their lives, and for almost all life is running on slow motion. Simple things like commuting, visiting relatives, football matches, clubbing, rock concerts are just gone now and may not be back properly for years or much more worryingly may not be back ever and that loss or fear of loss is almost tangible.
In Alan Moore’s Crossed 100 he shows a post-apocalyptic society trying to get back on its feet. What was horrific was not how far they had fallen but how much they had to fight just to maintain even a fraction of the small gains they had made. When I wrote about this movie last year I was interested that the future of 12 Monkeys is run by scientists and so is a boring, intrusive and anti-septic nightmare. I thought the horror of it was that while life is preserved the only culture left is vague nostalgia: the unsubtle question being that without art and freedom, what was the point of surviving? But on reflection it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest the opposite. If his life was an unbearable nightmare why did Cole even wear the hazmat suit? Why not just breathe big lungfuls of airborne virus and embrace sweet oblivion? What we see is that when Cole remembers the past all he remembers is death, whereas in the future he is an explorer and curator finding beauty in small things. Louis Armstrong doesn’t sing over the closing credits about the airport in the shot, or of congested cities, or cinemas or restaurants. He sings about the natural environment and tiny moments that Cole and the people of 2035 are trying to return to, so whole we don’t see much of their struggle, we know they were still bothering to struggle
Whenever I read up notes around this film everyone points out it is copying Le Jetee (I too like to reference obscure French films to show what a smart Alec I am) and how the inspiration for the movie was about Cole seeing his own death. But I’ll be honest, that is the least interesting bit of the film. Of course it sucks for boy Cole – you’d think seeing your own death would be bad enough but when it coincides with the trigger incident for the end of civilisation, well that’s quite the anecdote. But we know at least that he survives, gets buff, and becomes a time-traveller, so it’s not all bad news for him. What bother’s me about the ending is the scene on the plane.
So at the end of the movie the character Jones shakes hands with Dr Peters: presumably contracting the virus herself but also clearly not doing anything to prevent his plan to wipe out humanity. Even when I first watch it this bugged me because if she could travel in the time then why bother with Cole at all? He was a terrible detective and indeed Madeleine Stowe did all the hard work to figure everything out. Are the scientists just lazy? Or are they tailgating them ready to spring their plan?
Also one of the more generous theories is that they did not want to prevent the virus, they just wanted to insure it was survivable. But they already survived, so why bother!
Another theory is that the timeline it presents is immutable and that everything that happened was always going to happen. But in that case what did I just watch? Because it looked like several instances of someone going back in time and changing the past, not least a woman called Jones sitting on a plane that took off 40 years ago. Unless of course there was no virus without Cole’s actions, except again without the original outbreak there is no Cole going back in time.
What I always took from it was a hybrid of the above two theories, which is that the scientists could change time but they just did not want to stop the virus. They had gotten used to the way things turn out and could take the Thanos view of societal progress through a great purge. Sure they may find what Dr Peter’s did to be distasteful but by many measures 2035 is a less crazy place than 1996, and as the movie is at pains to say, humanity was already on the downward slope, so the virus could be interpreted as a reset rather than the inevitable cul de sac. The insurance is perhaps making sure the scientists understand the past in order to better control the future. They are scientists after all and could not help their curiosity, and if you are gonna invent a time machine, you might as well make the most of it.
It’s worth praising Gilliam making the ending this ambiguous, because if he had given the easy answer where Cole saves the day it would have been equally nonsensical and not particularly satisfying. Unless of course there is a post credits sting where Madeleine Stowe comes out of hibernation in 2035 to lead the rebellion and hijack the time machine. Cut back to the plane being blasted out of the sky upon takeoff by a cigar smoking Dr Railly. She removes her sunglasses and turns to Brad Pitt- “that’s no monkey, it’s a ba-boom”. On further thought perhaps he made the right call leaving thing open to interpretation.
First time I saw 12 Monkeys I was definitely closer in age to Young Cole than Old Bruce Willis. Think that’s part of the reason why the ending had such a big effect on me. (Ben Kingsley voice): I never saw it coming.
Watching it now tho I’m frankly surprised by how obvious it is. And yeah ok maybe part of this is growing up. But mostly I think it’s just a result of being submerged by every single cool twist possible by the last 30 or so years of mainstream culture. Like the last twist I can remember that actually had a serious effect on me was “We have to go back” in Lost and/or that Rad Wedding in Game of Thrones (stabby stabby).
Nowadays the idea that a film would end on the twist being “oh yeah and he saw himself being shot as a kid” just seems a little bit… weak source. Especially because the movie itself signposts it like a motherfucker several times (Lots of slow mo and screams of “Nooooo!”). Although to be fair when it does finally come the movie doesn’t really treat it like a rug-pull a-ha! gotcha! moment. Instead Terry turns the pathos all the way up and underlines the emotionality of it all. Stopping just short of tapping you on the shoulder and saying: “Isn’t this sad? It’s really sad don’t you think? Yeah. I think it’s super sad.”
Re: that final coda scene on the plane with Lady Scientist shaking hands with crazy Ginger Scientist Man always kinda bugged me a bit. Like going from what’s actually said her line that she’s “in Insurance” makes it seem as if she’s travelled back in time to complete the mission that Bruce Willis was supposed to do (before he got shot). That is – get a sample of the pure virus before it mutated so that the future scientists can return the human race back to where they belong (on top of the ground). And yet… The way it’s played makes me think that actually Lady Scientist isn’t actually from the future at all. Like – she kinda looks younger than how we saw her before (or is that just me?) and it seems like she’s just having a normal day rather than completing somekind of secret time travel mission. Like if anything that little scene just makes me feel like the point is that the people running the world are always in cahoots. Sitting in first class and drinking champagne while the little people suffer. But I’m guessing that probably wasn’t the effect Terry was going for (or was it?)
(Like it would have been more obvious if she like shot him with a tranquillizer dart or something and then busted open an emergency exit before screaming out “Sayonara suckers!” and jumping out. But then I guess that probably would have spoiled the refined atmosphere of the ending).
In fact one of the ambiguities of the ending that has always struck me is – what was Ginger Scientist Man’s agenda? Like he kinda seems like a crazy dude. He’s a bit unseemly. And a bit too sweaty. And you definitely get the impression that he smells. And when you see him checking in and listing all the countries it does seem like he’s on his way to cause some mischief / destroy the world as we know it. But then… that scene when the airport security dude is going through his luggage and accidentally unleashes global annihilation is filmed in such a way that it makes it seem like Ginger Scientist Man is not the one in control. In fact it seems like he doesn’t want this to be happening but is powerless in the face of the middling authority figure. Like – was he just going on holiday? Or some kind of lecture tour? And – whoops – the deadly virus gets free and he doesn’t have the emotional capabilities to properly process it? Like there’s no Sideshow Bob election win evil laugh. So I guess – what? Maybe Ginger Scientist Man didn’t want to doom the human race after all? Maybe he’s just – a dumbass?
Which well – definitely fits in with the rest of Terry’s oeuvre. Where the prime mover of things isn’t really malice or evil but more just – general incompetence.
“Better still, send it to Buttle, after all it’s his cheque.” etc.
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