“Wiping out the human race? That’s a great idea. That’s great. But more of a long-term thing. I mean, first we have to focus on more immediate goals.”
My recent (and brief) examination of time travel movies ends with Twelve Monkeys, based on a short film called La Jetée. In both, scientists are trying to ensure the survival of the human race following a deadly, global virus. Exploiting time travel so that they may learn more about the pandemic, they send a man, plagued by a recurring dream set in an airport terminal, back in the hopes of discovering the source of the disease. Inevitably, the man’s involvement in, and interference with, the past directly affects the future (his present).
Directed by Terry Gilliam, whose surreal, playful animated segments in Monty Python’s Flying Circus offer an early indication as to his creativity, Twelve Monkeys is perhaps the least obviously Gilliamesque production. It lacks the visual flair and psychadelica of his other films, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, although there are moments. In the future (present), the scientists are updated versions of the classic mad variety, and there’s a distinctive steampunk aesthetic. It’s a grim place, however; the time travelling “volunteers” are caged and dressed in tattered, colourless clothes, while the scientists spout callous gibberish and gawp at their latest victim from a giant ball of television monitors. As with so many time travelling films, the future is not a place of peace and harmony – it’s miserable, harsh, and rather hopeless.
What is most interesting with regards to the specifics of the time travel in Twelve Monkeys is the misguided ideology of the scientists of the future. Like their latest volunteer, James Cole (Bruce Willis), they do not believe they can change the past. James has returned not to alter what has already happened, but to learn about events so that they can try to rebuild society in the future. It’s a pessimistic opinion, and it’s also an unsympathetic one – James’ mission is one of salvage, not rescue. What neither he nor the scientists have considered is the affect his presence will have on the past; they think of themselves as outsiders, observers, not as part of the past as it happens. It’s this fallibility that makes the film so interesting – these people are flawed, their theories are problematic. Even in the future, humanity appears to have learned so little.
As James, Bruce Willis reprises a now-familiar role and, while there is little to fault, it represents little departure from his repertoire and his charisma pales into insignificance when sharing the screen with Jeffrey (Brad Pitt). Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award at the Oscars, Pitt’s performance is a tightly-wound ball of barely contained lunacy – he’s a twitching, erratic psychopath and the perfect foil for Willis’ more understated, taciturn James. When the two meet in an asylum following James’ return to the wrong time (implying once again the inadequacies and unreliability of the all-powerful scientists), Jeffrey provides a much needed injection of crazy into the film. He’s a carefully constructed character – obviously deranged but oddly insightful at the same time, a pathological nutjob whose ramblings provide a modicum of truth. Of the three leads – the other two being James and his psychiatrist and love interest Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe) – Jeffrey is by far the most dynamic, personable, and unpredictable. If the film is to be faulted, it’s due to the inclusion of Railly; Stowe gives a sincere and adequate performance, but her character’s relationship with James (her patient) develops in a rather ham-handed and cliched manner.
There’s much to praise about Twelve Monkeys. Throughout the film, there is a bleakness and a sense of inevitability that doesn’t quite fit with the scientists’ theories – they believe they cannot change the past, but that doesn’t mean it is not affected by their interference. Canny viewers will no doubt be unsurprised by James’ fate, which is well done though hardly innovative (although it may have been some twenty years ago when the film was first released), but really he is just one small part of a situation that offers plenty in the way of twists and turns. Delivered with a healthy dose of irony, the past, present and future collide in both expected and unexpected ways, resulting in a film that is fully deserving of its respected status today.