25 Years Later: Revisiting Terry Gilliam’s Dystopian Thriller
It’s been twenty-five years since the release of director Terry Gilliam’s dystopian time-travelling sci-fi thriller— and given the current Covid-19 pandemic— 12 Monkeys is more relevant than ever. Utilizing many of the same techniques he used when making Brazil, a decade earlier, Gilliam tells the tale of one man in search of a way to stop a disease that is believed to have arisen as an act of bioterrorism. While neither as visually compelling as Brazil nor as emotionally gripping as The Fisher King, Gilliam’s seventh feature is nevertheless, a work of genius and one of the best time-travel movies ever made. Twenty-five years later, the celebrated cult classic still holds up.
What’s it About?
12 Monkeys offers an alarming vision of the near future (2035, to be exact) where animals have reclaimed Earth and mankind has been driven underground by a viral outbreak— an act of bioterrorism that wiped out 99 percent of human life, killing an estimated five billion people in its path. Beneath the ghost city of Philadelphia, a group of scientists struggling for survival and answers is hard at work in a subterranean compound looking for a cure. Despite the doomsday circumstances, the government is not totally in shambles since they’ve been able to break the space-time barrier and send people back in time. They rely on prisoners who “volunteer” to return to the surface of the planet and gather specimens and clues that they can then use in their research to test for the presence of the virus. One such prisoner is James Cole (Bruce Willis), who after retrieving samples is given the chance to travel back in time to 1996. His mission is to learn as much as he can about how the deadly germ came to spread and find information about the group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, led by Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the son of a prominent biochemist, and the man they believe is responsible to having released the virus in 1997. In order to uncover the truth, they strap the convicted criminal James Cole into a time machine and send him back to the pre-plague days. The problem, however, is that they keep sending him back to the wrong year, and by the time they get it right, it might be too late. As Cole goes skipping through time, he meets several key figures including psychiatrist Dr. Railly (Stowe) who is the only person remotely sympathetic to Cole’s delusional paranoia and the only person who believes he’s telling the truth.
A Brief History on The Making of 12 Monkeys
The initial inspiration for 12 Monkeys came from Chris Marker’s experimental masterpiece La Jetee, a landmark 1962 French New Wave film that runs a mere 27 minutes. The story goes, producer Robert Kosberg was a huge fan of the film which revolved around a post-apocalyptic setting and a young man obsessed with an eerie image from the past, though he’s never sure if this image is dream or reality. He persuaded Marker, to let him pitch a remake to Universal Pictures, seeing it as a perfect basis for a full-length science fiction thriller. Universal agreed to purchase the rights and hired David and Janet Peoples (of Blade Runner fame) to write the screenplay— which became less a remake of La Jetee and more of a variation on a similar plot while extending the twist ending. They asked Terry Gilliam to direct and promised him final cut so long as he could keep it within budget. After 1991’s The Fisher King proved to be a relatively easy production, Terry Gilliam decided he wanted to once again work from somebody else’s script and agreed after just abandoning a film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. 12 Monkeys was given a $30 million budget, with most actors taking pay cuts out of a collective desire to work with the visionary filmmaker.
Despite the sci-fi trappings, 12 Monkeys is a study of madness and dreams, set in a chemically engineered apocalypse in which one man can save the human race while one man can end it. In fact, the pleasure of watching 12 Monkeys lies in the way Terry Gilliam creates such an unsettling mood that we as viewers find ourselves in the same hallucinatory mindset as James Cole. The story is disconcerting, to say the least— an apocalyptic sci-fi, paranoia thriller dealing with time travel, faulty memories, and a misunderstood hero who begins to question his own sanity. It’s a mind-bending, provocative and intelligent film that gets our heads spinning and begs a second viewing just so we can try to piece it all together.
If there is one major theme running throughout the film, it is that 12 Monkeys is a movie about being trapped. In present-day 2035, the remaining survivors of Earth’s population are forced to live underground, unable to breathe freely on the surface of the planet without falling ill and dying. James Cole himself is trapped, physically and mentally and we see these parallels both in the past and present where he’s either physically locked up in a prison or committed to a mental institution. Mentally, James is also a prisoner to his own mind, never sure what is real and what is just in his head. Throughout the film, for example, Cole is troubled by a recurring dream involving a foot chase and a shooting that he witnessed as a child at an airport; a sequence that persists through the story. He’s never sure what to believe but his gut feeling tells him this isn’t a vision but rather a distant memory. And as evidenced in the film’s climax, it isn’t a dream after all, but rather a nightmare that sees James Cole also trapped in a never-ending time loop.
Time Travel Done Right
Terry Gilliam’s films are not always easily accessible since they are bleak, sometimes depressing, and filled with a dark sense of humour. This, however, is the complete opposite and if there was ever a case to be made that he works better when operating from a script written by somebody else, one only needs to point to 12 Monkeys.
The plot of 12 Monkeys is a complicated one that involves a time travel paradox. Time travel movies are especially never easy to make but with the help of his screenplay writers, Gilliam manages to sidestep major plot holes, continuity errors and tell a self-contained story within 130 minutes. It’s pretty impressive how it plays like an interlinking set of jigsaw puzzles sprinkled with plenty of tiny hints and clues – throwaway pieces like the cryptic message on the answering machine, the graffiti on the wall, the list of plague destinations, and so on. Every detail no matter how big or small maps over onto a later scene in the film, all culminating in an ending that is both emotionally rewarding and surprising in its denouement.
12 Monkeys is, indeed, a grandiose cinematic invention that achieves moments of visionary surrealism that few other Hollywood films do and what’s great about this specific plot is that the present-day scientists are not attempting to prevent the bioterrorist act from happening since it is something they deemed either impossible according to the laws of the universe or too difficult to accomplish. By adding this detail to the script, 12 Monkeys avoids having a plot that in the end makes absolutely no sense. Instead, Cole and others are sent back in time to find the origin of the disease, so that scientists can study the virus before it mutated and uncover an antidote, allowing mankind to return to live on the surface of the Earth. In other words, 12 Monkeys isn’t about changing the past. The past already happened and there is nothing anyone can do to change that. It’s about making the future a better place. And for an added twist, while the film contains a fair amount of paradox-based time-travel, it also slows down during a stretch of its middle act to imply that maybe James Cole is mentally insane after all, leaving plenty of room for fan speculation (although the ending strongly suggests otherwise).
I wouldn’t be the first to mention that a major theme that runs through the movie is that of the Cassandra Syndrome— a name derived from the Greek myth of Cassandra, who foresaw the demise of Troy, but was not believed. 12 Monkeys is a film that takes full advantage of this concept: James Cole, being from the future, is well aware of the pandemic that wiped away most of humanity in 1997; meanwhile, nobody including one of the leading experts in the field, believes him— at least not until it’s too late. The key difference here is that even though Cole knows that a deadly virus will be released, he also understands he cannot stop it; he is an observer from the future, with a specific mission, which leads to a beautifully fatalistic ending. Ironically, toward the end of the film, Kathryn Railly finally believes that James is not insane and telling the truth, making her the prototypical example of the Cassandra Complex; she knows it is only a matter of time before the virus breaks out, but there is nothing she can do to prevent it.
What Came First?
Throughout the film, Cole, as well as other time travelers from 2036, are accidentally sent back to the wrong year, each time having a minor impact on how events unfold, sometimes appearing in history books for example, or in obscure journals and lectures that predict the pandemic. Although they may be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, they are observed by Kathryn Railly, who was inspired by many of these stories when writing her book— and without reading her book about doomsday prophets, Dr. Peters (David Morse) may have never found a way to set a deadly virus loose on the population. Of course, this also begs that question that if prisoners were sent back in time from the future after the pandemic killed 99% of the population, who and what caused most of mankind to die in the first place?
At the very end, both Cole and Railly try to avert the course of history, by trying to stop Peters from getting on the plane. Unfortunately, it’s a failed attempt and an action that also shapes their own future, or rather the timeline they have created themselves…
The Hero Does and Does Not Triumph At the End
The film begins and ends with the same scene showing a circular chain of events set in motion that ultimately leaves the ending open to interpretation. To quickly summarize the most important points; Cole and Railly are able to inform the future that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is not responsible for the end of civilization; instead, Goines has kidnapped his father, locked him up in a cage and has set all animals from the zoo free, causing mayhem in the streets of Philadelphia. Not long after making that phone call, one of Cole’s prison mates named Jose appears from the future in an effort to bring Cole back from his mission. It is at this moment that Railly sees Dr. Peters and recognizes him as someone working for Dr. Goines. It doesn’t take long before she puts two and two together and she and Cole try to stop him from boarding the plane. Unfortunately, Cole is shot down and killed by the security personnel, in front of an eight-year-old Cole, who happens to be at the airport to witness his own death.
Many people will have left the movie with the idea that Cole’s mission has been futile since Dr. Peters manages to escape and continue his plan to release the virus and destroy mankind. However, I’ve always viewed it a different way: Cole may have failed to change the course of history in 1996 but he does change the course of history after 1997 by revealing Dr. Peters to be the culprit— thus the reason we see the future astrophysicist, Dr. Jones (Carol Florence) sitting next to Dr. Peters on the plane who introduces herself by saying “I’m in insurance”. This implies that Cole’s message was sent loud and clear to the future. They now know Dr. Peters is responsible for spreading the virus and has sent Dr. Jones to the past to uncover as much information as she possibly can. Insurance, after all, is not one that protects the dead but compensates the living. She’s not there to save the billions who are going to die but help the remaining 1% still alive. So while James Cole does not survive, in the end, he did accomplish his mission, even if he is not aware of his success.
Confusion is a Side Effect of Time Travel
While watching Terry Gilliam’s films over the years, it has become clear that the director wants his heroes to suffer by placing them in the middle of a big-picture conspiracy and in a world that appears to do everything in its power to thwart their daily life. Their journey to heroism seems less about overcoming overwhelming odds than it is about overcoming themselves. Madness is an integral trait of the main characters found in most, if not all, of Terry Gilliam’s work as seen with Michael Palin in Jabberwocky; Jonathan Pryce in Brazil; John Neville’s Baron in Baron Munchausen; and Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King. 12 Monkey is no different as Bruce Willis spends most of the film’s running time either locked up or running around naked, confused, exhausted and slowly going insane. And since James Cole’s perception is what the audience sees, we as viewers must decide what is true and what is not.
The Best Scene
Luckily, Bruce Willis gives one of the best performances of his career, abandoning the Hollywood tough-guy persona that made him a star for a man who has had the very soul beat out of him. In fact, the best moment in 12 Monkeys is a simple scene that shows just how good his performance is. Of course, I’m referring to the scene in which Cole hears Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” playing on the radio, and Willis plays the moment in tears. For someone like Cole who has spent most of his life trapped in some authoritarian underground hell, the simple act of sticking his head out the window of the car to breathe the fresh air and hearing a popular tune on the radio is an intoxicating feeling.
It’s an important scene that finally gives both viewers and Kathryn Railly a glimpse of his humanity. Prior to this, we see Cole struggling to keep his sanity while running around like a crazed lunatic. He’s everything but likable until this moment. By letting his guard down, it allows Dr. Railly to realize Cole is not a threat but just a man in need of help. It’s the moment the two form a bond and a crucial moment for the film since it convinces Railly to go along with his plan and help him moving forward.
The Cinematography and Set Design of 12 Monkeys
While 12 Monkey certainly has a tight screenplay, it also features some handsome production design thanks to Terry Gilliam; his production designer Jeffrey Beecroft; and Roger Pratt’s photography. According to an article in American Cinematographer by Stephen Pizzello, Gilliam drew upon a variety of reference materials when planning the visual design of the film, focusing primarily upon radical architectural designs of artist Lebbeus Woods. Gilliam describes Woods as “a visionary who does these great drawings of impossible architecture. His work was a big influence on the look of the film’s futuristic sequences.” Meanwhile, Pratt notes that Gilliam’s love of architecture, with its vertical lines, is one reason that all of his pictures, including 12 Monkeys, have been shot in the 1.85:1 format rather than anamorphic. As with Brazil, Gilliam chose to use wide-angle lenses, off-kilter framing, and brutal closeups to make Cole’s visions and his surroundings distorted and often, claustrophobic. Pratt also had plenty of opportunities to experiment, using different film stock; various ND filters; and even softening the razor-sharp images produced by the Kodak 5298 film stock by applying Christian Dior stockings over the lenses. Thanks to the visuals, viewers quickly begin to share the confusion and exhaustion felt by Cole.
In order to create a unique vision of the future, Gilliam also hired veteran set decorator Crispian Sallis, who was charged with creating a future world by cobbling together a variety of items from different eras, including the Renaissance, the Victorian Age, the Fifties and Seventies and updating them with a futuristic look such as turning a vacuum cleaner into a simple flashlight
One of the film’s most visually stunning sets is the maze-like prison of the future, which production designer Beecroft built in the Richmond power station and designed it to resemble a collection of human-sized “hamster cages.” Another impressive set was dubbed “Cell Eternal Night,” an isolated room in the underground where Cole, begins to question his sanity as we view him from 30 feet above the shaft via a roving, handheld, camera outfitted with a 10mm lens to enhance the paranoid state Cole is in. Another eye-catching set piece is the Engineering Room, the bizarre interrogation room that includes a suspended, gimbal-mounted contraption that contains 15 television monitors and an aluminum chair that Cole is strapped into and rises 12 feet off the ground. Gilliam intended to show Cole being interviewed through a multi-screen interrogation TV set because he felt the machinery evoked a “nightmarish intervention of technology. You try to see the faces on the screens in front of you, but the real faces and voices are down there and you have these tiny voices in your ear. To me that’s the world we live in, the way we communicate these days, through technical devices that pretend to be about communication but may not be.” Finally, the plastic, tube-like time-travel device provides the film with a spectacular visual centerpiece, while the animals escaping the zoo and running rampage through the streets of Philadelphia make for a surreal dreamlike sequence.
Plenty of Pop Culture References
As mentioned above, 12 Monkeys is inspired by the French short film La Jetée but there are plenty of other pop culture references scattered throughout including the Woody Woodpecker cartoon “Time Tunnel” seen in the background and the Marx Brothers film Monkey Business playing on a television set; not to mention the selection popular music that includes Tom Waits’ “The Earth Died Screaming” heard in the background. Of course, there are some obvious biblical references to the end times, most notably the man on the street preaching about seven golden vials and James Cole sometimes viewed as a notable Christ figure— but the biggest and most overt reference is to Alfred Hitchock’s, Vertigo— going so far as to appropriate a whole scene while brief notes of Bernard Herrmann’s score heard in the background.
It happens towards the end of the film when Cole and Railly hide out in a movie theater showing a 24-hour Hitchcock marathon. In order to disguise themselves so that they can bypass airport security, Railly transforms herself with a blonde wig, as Judy (Kim Novak) transforms herself into blonde Madeleine in Vertigo; while Cole sees her emerge within a red light, as Scottie (James Stewart) saw Judy emerge within a green light. Vertigo‘s Muir Woods scene is a pivotal moment from Hitchcock’s masterpiece and was a key inspiration for Chris Marker when making La Jetée— which perhaps explains why Gilliam also decided to pay homage to it in 12 Monkeys.
It’s impossible to cover everything that makes 12 Monkeys great in one article, but I should quickly mention English musician Paul Buckmaster’s score which does a solid job of supporting the visual proceedings. I especially love the main theme “Introduccion” which is based on Argentine tango musician/composer Astor Piazzolla’s “Suite Punta del Este”. It’s one of the best theme songs for any movie made in the ‘90s— and like the all-time great compositions, it is instantly recognizable for anyone who’s seen the movie. Madeline Stowe meanwhile, holds the entire movie together with an initially grounded performance. She may not have the star power of her male counterparts but without her, the movie would arguably, fall apart.
Depending on how you feel about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 12 Monkeys is arguably the director’s last great film. Released to critical praise, it was also his most profitable film, grossing $168 million worldwide. Pitt was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and won a Golden Globe Award for his performance. The film also won and was nominated for various categories at the Saturn Awards and has continued to find a new audience thanks to how it teases the viewer with twists and turns; allowing for ongoing debates and interpretations as to what really happens in the end.
Editor’s Note: For more on 12 Monkeys, take a listen to the latest episode of the Sordid Cinema Podcast embedded below.