Gilliam opts for maximum sell out. And yet, even though this is undoubtedly the soberest and least quirky film in his oeuvre, it’s much, much more satisfying than his Terry-Goes-Tinseltown The Fisher King. 12 Monkeys is the evidence that he could have been – not that I’m suggesting he should have been – an entirely creditable studio director had he taken the bit between his teeth and buckled down. As it is, 12 Monkeys still manages to exude enough of his personality and wide-angle visual sense that you’re never in doubt who is calling the shots, yet never to the extent that it gets in the way of its lead character’s emotional journey. Or indeed, the fairly wrought conspiracy plotline at its core.
Of which. Yes, 12 Monkeys is a virus movie. And therefore, to some degree, it needs to be categorised as a piece of predictive programming. And propaganda. The latter in terms of validating and underlining the terrifying potential of this invisible, un-isolatable, pervasively unconscionable threat to our very existences. The former, in similar manner to zombie movies, prepping its audience for the inevitable downfall of society, be that downfall characterised as nefariously engineered or due its own wilful disarray. I don’t necessarily think either of these elements need to be conscious on the part of the makers. Far from it; most of society – and filmmaking is a ready and willing proponent of the same – trundles ever onwards, parroting unquestioning fundamentals at every opportunity. Why should Gilliam have doubted viruses exist?
And why would he necessarily have thought an apocalyptic tale was exactly what his masters wanted? Because he’s nominally anti-establishment? Only nominally. He worked for the BBC, after all. And got his own Hollywood agent in time for The Fisher King. He’s only relatively a rebel. He even sports a prominent black eye on 12 Monkeys making-of doc The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, apparently through a near fatal horse-riding accident on a weekend break from filming. It can’t help but raise an eyebrow, given his next venture would be the adrenochrome-laced Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.* Even the horse part of the story has resonance, since it would be his first attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote that killed the stride of his career, with largely unsatisfying subsequent results. And on that, he’s widely reported to have actively participated in the starving of the title character’s horse for reasons of realism. Was that act his subconscious revenge? And then that of the horse’s on his later career?
However keenly or not so the makers were aware of the debatable biology at the root of their concept, 12 Monkeys, through its plays on perception and subjective reality – even if it settles on a concrete version – invites interrogation of accepted truths. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back from 2035 – by the looks of things this future’s Agenda 2030/Great Reset didn’t go quite as planned, although the resultant depopulation of rural areas surely amounts to much the same thing – in order to trace the original form of a deadly virus. This will enable scientists in his time to take a “pure” sample.
Title: …five billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997… The survivors will abandon the surface of the planet… Once again, the animals will rule the world…
Time travel is a loop in David and Janet Peoples’ telling, such that, while there are paradoxes of the Grandfather variety, the essential act cannot be used to change the future; time will conspire to produce the same result, unwittingly illustrated by the behaviour of psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) as she attempts to disprove Cole’s story. In doing so, she becomes an intrinsic part of his future evidence (her phone call and the graffiti clue). Indeed, the best one might say is that, prior to the airport climax, Cole and Railly’s actions obfuscate the future path, leading to a focus on the Army of the 12 Monkeys rather than the actual culprit, Doctor Peters (David Morse).
Notably, great pains are not spent discussing time travel theory in this “Outbreak meets The Terminator”, as one test-audience response put it. That’s likely in part down to Gilliam’s desire to avoid leading his viewers by the nose wherever possible (it’s easy to come away from the movie on first viewing assuming the future scientist is there to save the past; one has to presume they long since realised such attempts are self-defeating).
Jeffrey Goines: You know what crazy is? Crazy is majority rules. Take germs, for example.
James Cole: Germs?
Jeffrey Goines: 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 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 twentieth century. Last week, as a matter of fact, before I got dragged into this hellhole. I go in to order a burger in a 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 okay. What about the germs, I say. He says, I don’t believe in germs. Germs are just a plot they made up to sell you disinfectant and soaps. Now, he’s crazy, right. See?
While the bulwark narrative is consistent, if one looks closely enough, there are cracks in it that do give one pause, though. Even with regard to my earlier comment about the makers not necessarily being aware of the “subtext”. Because Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the looney tunes red herring, is given the not uncommon movie opportunity to voice dismissible truths via the guise of the babbling madman, per above. Now, Jeffrey’s example is slightly misleading, as good hygiene is not a crazy position to advocate (although excessively so, such as currently, is another matter). But his example leads us directly to Pasteur and the mess he made with virus theory, and the contrasting position of Bechamp, who denied Pasteur’s position (reputedly, Pasteur admitted on his death bed that Bechamp was correct).
The false equivalence of equating Semmelweis’ concerns over the health impact of decaying organic matter with virus theory reached its apotheosis in March this year, when he became a Google Doodle in favour of the roundly embraced handwashing scam. Ironic for someone who was not a proponent of contagion in respect of his area of study. Given the scorn Semmelweis’ theories received from his peers at the time, and the scorn heaped on any who don’t toe the party line now (such as advocates of German New Medicine) Goines’ “Ah! Ah! There’s no right. There’s no wrong. There’s only popular opinion” doesn’t seem so lunatic at all.
As noted, the nature of the virus – The Hamster Factor footage suggests it’s a Black Death strain – isn’t key to the picture’s premise, but it’s interesting to see Gilliam and the Peoples’ address the baggage that comes for the ride. During the climax, Cole receives new instructions from Jose (Jon Seda) and realises “This part isn’t about the virus at all, is it? It’s about following orders. Doin’ what you’re told”. It’s difficult not to read in to such a remark in the time of an imminent Great Reset. And Cole being asked “Why do you think there aren’t any germs in the air?” out of context (he’s free to breathe outside in 1990) would be the standard question to any virus denier. If there was any interest in the response.
Railly gives a lecture about the Cassandra complex (complete with claims of time travel) and at the subsequent book signing, following a fan’s hilariously flippant “I’m going right out to get vaccinated”, she is approached by Dr Peters, trotting out the standard tropes of the depopulation agenda – “Surely there is very real and convincing data that the planet cannot survive the excesses of the human race?” He’s Gates if Gates could create a deadly airborne pathogen, one that would also leave him/her standing. Even Cole is up on that plied verdict (“The human race deserves to be wiped out”). Railly, the voice of rationality and reason, has her bedrock belief disrupted in the face of the inexplicable, such that she volunteers at one point, echoing Goines’ ramble about popular opinion, “I mean psychology, it’s the latest religion”.
Gilliam’s future, industrial decay dressed up with absurdist contraptions, is very much in the lineage of Brazil (not for nothing has it, this and The Zero Theorem – not by Gilliam, it must be stressed – been described as his dystopian trilogy). Here, the existence of a virus equals – is an excuse for – a totalitarian, penal regime. Aside from the scientific elite, we don’t see anyone who isn’t a coerced criminal, but it wouldn’t take much to perceive the digital bar codes and implanted tracking devices (“It’s in the tooth”) as endemic. Just the kind of thing they have planned.
David Peoples boasts a strong if sparse pedigree through the likes of Blade Runner and Unforgiven – and er, Salute to the Jugger and Leviathan – giving one the impression he’s a writer who, if his work is left to shine, is rarely bettered (but then you look at Soldier, and know there’s nevertheless alchemy involved). He was inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetée as a starting point, in which the core is less motivation than self-realisation, of a boy witnessing his own death as a man (there is no virus in the short, and the intention of the travellers is to discover a means of changing the future). In Peoples’ three best-known works, existential crisis is key to the text. The tragedy of 12 Monkeys is that of a deterministic fable, and Gilliam rightly understood that, because of this, everything hinged on the central performance.
James Cole: I am mentally divergent.
He worked with Bruce and Brad when they were hungry. A few years later, Willis had drifted into stoic – some might say constipated – somnambulance (the line “All I see are dead people” here would be a harbinger). But at this point, he wanted to stretch himself beyond the wisecracking (still his best persona, although it’s increasingly difficult to recall now). There are a couple of movies where he succeeded. 12 Monkeys might may be his best straight performance, certainly his most affecting outside of Die Hard (ironically, he wanted to play Die Hard 2: Die Harder entirely without quips, evidencing typical star vacuity). Cole isn’t that bright, but he’s bright enough (something the character has in common with Butch in the previous year’s Pulp Fiction).
Willis must have bristled that Brad’s cuckoo turn got the most attention, certainly awards wise (The Hamster Factor notes that between Pitt signing on and the beginning of the shoot, both Interview with the/a Vampire and Legends of the Fall had been released). It’s still one of his most interesting performances, showing a dedication to the art his more charisma-led star turns tended to spurn. Stowe is the straight man in all this, navigating a less showy role with consummate skill. Elsewhere, it’s fun to see Frank Gorshin (the Riddler), Simon Jones (Arthur Dent) and Christopher Plummer (who would later reunite with Gilliam for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus).
Gilliam called 12 Monkeys “a study of madness and dreams, of death and re-birth…” and he thus ensures the finished film feels like a natural part of his oeuvre. However, he also impresses in his dexterity at embracing a narrative outside of his usual toolbox. None of his prior pictures are very complex in plotting terms (even if The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is metatextually intense), but this one requires a rigorous attention to servicing the material’s coherence while simultaneously avoiding over explanation. Gilliam initially resisted the airplane scene, feeling it would weaken the emotional ending – which he saw as Cole the boy seeing Cole the man die. It’s a delicate balancing act, and I believe he achieves it.
One might have presented an argument for the “all-in-Cole’s-head” reading without that final scene, especially given the picture ambiguously quoting an anonymous mental patient in the opening lines – shades of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day – as a verification of future events. Gilliam and Willis present Cole’s subjectivity with sufficient woozy earnestness, as he switches from believing to disbelieving while Railly undergoes the reverse, such that Peters on the plane is both providing something concrete and telling us that, yeah, Cole did succeed. In a way.
Adding to the potential pitfalls, Peoples avoids make things easy in terms of driving the plot, with Cole leaping back and forth in time the way he does; such a construction could easily have killed the picture’s momentum. Gilliam manages to sustain the tension, mostly because he also sustains the conviction of Cole’s emotional state.
There are of, course, virtuoso Gilliam touches: the distorted angles and wide lens; showstoppers like Cole and Railly’s exposure on a wall of TV screens in a shop window; the oddball Vertigo homage. And sporadically very funny bits too. Pitt is highly amusing as a bug-eyed loon (his reaction to Cole eating a spider). Joseph McKenna is great as a demonic pimp (“I was attacked by a coked-up whore and a fucking crazy dentist”). Paul Buckmaster’s quirky score provides the perfect offbeat accompaniment, woozy French carnival music leading you on a merry dance.
It’s curious how little Gilliam managed to capitalise on 12 Monkeys’ success. Perhaps such is the fate of wilful auteur. Not for him the prodigious output path of Sir Ridders’ post Gladiator. Instead, it stands as a curio. Gilliam the journeyman. Although, obviously, such a thing is, by definition, impossible.
*Addendum 10/09/22: Of course, he might just have been soul-scalped.