Twelve Monkeys

(Dir. Terry Gilliam, USA, 1995)

[part of a BFI essays collection]

Inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 experimental short, La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys follows convict time traveller James Cole (Bruce Willis) from his present - 2035 - to the film's present in order to discover who released (will release) a deadly virus which killed (will kill) 99% of the world's population in 1996. Cole encounters psychiatrist Dr Kathryn Railly (Madelaine Stowe) and tries to convince her that he is a sane man on a mission. Later, in a neat psychological twist, Railly begins to believe Cole at the point that Cole himself begins to question his own sanity.

Self-referential plot twists pepper this film, recalling co-writer David Peoples' work on the original Blade Runner script (1982). They also highlight Gilliam's own penchant for the time paradox; note his previous works, Brazil (1985) and Time Bandits (1981), to which this film alludes both visually and thematically. From the opening Vertigo-esque titles onwards, Twelve Monkeys' roller-coaster ride through inter- and intra-textual references rewards the careful viewer with a densely detailed landscape of the future. Like many time travel films Twelve Monkeys shows little interest in the technicalities of travelling through time; it is more interested in the consequences - just as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein novella shuns science in favour of philosophy. The result here is a film which attempts (but inevitably fails) to buck the notion of the temporal paradox by admitting up front that time is a tangled cause-and-effect web. Indeed, the tag-line announces that "The future is history". As in all of Gilliam's worlds, things go wrong, but the point here is this: in time travel, mistakes breed mistakes - the results are exponential.

This film does not insult its spectator with futile explanation; facts are surreptitiously divulged throughout, and often before their relevance is apparent. At the culmination of the film's twisting narrative, the only reliable fact seems to be that fate alone is unalterable. This key theme is highlighted in a sequence that is revisited throughout. Opening the film, a close-up image of a boy's eyes gives way to the shooting of a man at an airport. The image is repeated a number of times in Cole's dreams, each time adding detail to the scene until the final sequence answers the film's central, fateful question, before returning to the boy's eyes. This is a 'bookend' feature common to Gilliam's work. The powerful image of the boy's eyes is used later in AI (2001). Both films explore the notion of reality as an accumulation of memories and experiences. Twelve Monkeys successfully links this notion to time travel by questioning the relationship between time and the human condition; as Cole himself says, "I don't think the human mind is supposed to exist in two different dimensions". As if to contradict this central theme, the film's most rational commentary and action is often offered by the insane eco-warrior Jeffrey Goines - played brilliantly by Brad Pitt.

Very little is what it seems in Twelve Monkeys, a film which demands and rewards multiple viewings.

USA; Atlas Entertainment, Classico, Universal Pictures; 124 minutes; UK cert. 15; colour.
Producer: Charles Roven; Writers: David Webb Peoples & Janet Peoples, inspired by Chris Marker; Cinematography: Roger Pratt; Editor: Mick Audsley; Design: Jeffrey Beecroft; Art Direction: William Ladd Skinner; Music: Paul Buckmaster.
Cast. James Cole: Bruce Willis; Dr Kathryn Railly: Madeleine Stowe; Jeffrey Goines: Brad Pitt; Dr Leland Goines: Christopher Plummer; Dr Peters: David Morse: Professor: Charles Techman.

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