Twelve Monkeys, Terry Gilliam, 1995
Chris Marker’s “photo-roman”* is comprised of a series of gorgeously framed images, each one a museum-quality photograph, shot in that grainy black and white that I love so much. With the exception of one scene, in which a woman opens her eyes, the story is entirely told through still images accompanied with voiceover narration—yet they nonetheless suggest the impression of movement.
Humanity has been wiped out by a nuclear holocaust. “The victors,” as they are called, have established some kind of underground penal colony, and have begun conducting time travel experiments using the prisoners as guinea pigs, in hopes of gaining information about the source of the catastrophe, and ultimately to change the course of history. One man in particular is chosen for his strong mental image of the peacetime world—he has been haunted by a childhood memory, in which he witnessed a man die—the logic being that “if [he] were able to conceive or to dream another time, perhaps [he] would be able to live in it.”
This short yet accomplished film—and, as far as I can tell, one of the director’s most accessible, not to mention thrilling—focuses on issues of time and memory, involving a classic time paradox. It has been called the greatest science fiction film ever made—whether or not this is the case, it is definitely the most elegant, beautifully shot, and philosophically complex one that I have seen.
Inspired by and partially based on La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys expands upon the former, fleshing it out into a full-length feature with conventional movement and sound. Gilliam’s film adds various elements to the plot, such as the cataclysmic event being a plague rather than a nuclear bomb, the main character’s ending up in the wrong year and being incarcerated in a mental institution (naturally, everyone assumes he’s crazy when he explains that he’s come from the future), and of course the “Army of the Twelve Monkeys,” a militant animal rights group assumed to be the source of the deadly virus.
As in La Jetée, this film involves multiple time paradoxes. James Cole, the aforementioned man from the future, accidentally travels back to a World War I battlefield; in 1996 he can be seen in photographs of that battle. Cole is shown pictures of graffiti spraypainted on a wall days before the epidemic began; it turns out that the graffiti exists because of him. Then of course there is the film’s central paradox, which I won’t go into so as not to spoil it.
These paradoxes present some mind-bending questions about the nature of time. The film seems to imply that time cannot be changed, that all events are predetermined, that there was never a 1997 when James had not traveled there from the future, just as he had always been involved in that World War I battle. (In La Jetée the narrator avers that “there was no way to escape Time.”) Thus, these attempts at gaining information about the virus in hopes of thwarting it are futile; James was always part of that chain of events, and he will always fail.
Despite all of their similarities, these are two very different films. While I ultimately prefer the stark and graceful beauty of La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys is not without merit. It retains a nice apocalyptic feel, and while the plot additions certainly change the story, they don’t detract from it. I don’t even mind that Bruce Willis is in the movie, although it should be noted that Terry Gilliam reportedly gave him a list of “Bruce Willis acting clichés” that were not to be used in that performance—good advice, Terry.
*This translates to “photo-novel,” which could really refer to any film, as they are all comprised of thousands of still images—this one just annunciates that aspect more pronouncedly.