The SciFi Squad Movie Club is a new weekly feature where we movie nerds pick a film, watch it and then discuss it. Your weekend assignment was to watch Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. (Still haven't seen it? I recommend streaming it on Netflix Watch Instantly.) Check out my breakdown of the film's plot, and read on for my initial thoughts after viewing it for the first time in several years.
Wow. I don't remember 12 Monkeys being that long, slow-paced, and stuffed with so many mind-boggling scenes. OK, maybe I remember the mind-boggling scenes, but I don't remember the film bringing up so many questions the first time I watched it back in 1996. I guess I had a different perspective then. I was 17, and I found the flick to be a captivating, fun and soulful ride. I still find it captivating and soulful, but I certainly wouldn't call 12 Monkeys a fun movie. There are fun moments, of course (the pimp scene and Frank Gorshin's lip-smacking come to mind), but the movie plays like a sad, muddled and intriguing mess.
But it's a sad muddled and intriguing mess worth watching over and over again. I'm sure I won't be able to address all of the movie's fascinating little details or ponder every question brought up in its two-hour plus running time, so I'm looking to you guys to do that in the comments section.
Now on to the discussion (spoilers below).
Terry Gilliam's mainstream movie?
In his review of the film for the Los Angeles Times, critic Kenneth Turan said 12 Monkeys "shows what happens when an unconventional talent meets straightforward material." 12 Monkeys was arguably visionary director Terry Gilliam's most mainstream movie at the time of its release. It had big stars (Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeline Stowe) and – if you strip away the dense plotting and cryptic narrative – a somewhat simple central story of a man trying to stop a horrible event from happening. But Gilliam doses the proceedings with his trademark skewed camera angles, bizarre dark and rusty sets, and a manic and almost surreal comedic tone that makes the film stick in your memory for years. And I don't agree with Turan when he calls the story "straightforward material." The script (by David and Janet Peoples) is very unconventional. It gives us a broken and grotesque anti-hero, potentially confusing time jumps, weird Easter eggs, and a poignant but ultimately unhappy ending. This was an unconventional movie from the start, even before Gilliam shot his first scene.
The Cassandra Complex, and Stopping to Smell the Roses
Somewhere beyond the halfway mark, Bruce Willis' character, James Cole, starts to believe that his time-traveling adventures aren't real. He wonders if his mission and his future dystopian home are constructs of his "mentally-divergent" mind. Thankfully, the movie never really attempts to make us believe that this is a possibility. Instead, Cole's unwillingness to accept his unbelievable, but very real, situation underscores one of the ideas brought up earlier in the film: The Cassandra Complex. According to the Greek myth, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy, but she was cursed to have no one ever believe her. She was an impotent prophet, just like James Cole. During his ill-fated trips from 2035 to the 1990s, Cole is aware that a virus will eventually kill five million people, forcing the survivors underground and leaving the surface to the animals. But he can't do anything about it. No one in the '90s will believe him, and he's thrown in a mental institution, again plucked away from the outside world. Impotent.
He's sent back in time to gather information that might help future scientists find a cure so that man can once again return to the surface. But somewhere along the line, Cole realizes that his actions are futile. Mankind has already been obliterated, forced to live like rats in cages and be used and abused by cruel bureaucrats. He can't change that. It's easy to see why he'd rather believe that he has a delusional mind than face the awful truth. Later, he accepts his fate and decides to "stop and smell the roses" with the lovely Dr. Railly (Stowe) for as long as he can. But even his plan to do nothing is thwarted when his future bosses track him down.
It seems Cole had the right idea, for a while at least, in the end: Make the best of the time you have instead of trying to control everything. As the film shows, any attempts to undue the effects of the virus only lead to pain and chaos.
Like I said last time, Bruce Willis is great in this movie. His fine performance grounds the film and gives it a strong emotional center. You're always rooting for James Cole, even when he's drooling all over himself, covered in blood and grime, or mercilessly beating a street thug to death. Madeline Stowe, as always, does a great job playing a brainy beauty who becomes crazier and more desperate as the film progresses. And then there's Brad Pitt. I'm not sure if his performance is any good, but it's very, very funny. When we first meet him, it's hard to tell whether the cartoony "boings!" and "bangs!" we hear in the background are coming from a nearby TV or from inside his character's head. He's a maniac here, babbling a mile a minute, talking with his hands, and letting his bug-eyed funny faces do most of the work. It's a blast watching him play this role.
Here are some questions to ponder after watching 12 Monkeys ...
- Who is the observer and how is he able to follow Cole wherever he goes?
- What is the nature of the time traveling technology? Cole has to be prepped and loaded into a giant machine to be sent to the past, but he simply disappears when returning to the present.
- Why do the scientists from the future keep popping up in the '90s? Are they watching Cole? Are they part of Cole's delusions?
- Why does the manic street preacher single out Cole as "one of us"?
- What is the significance of Gilliam lingering on scenes from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and then referencing them visually with his characters only moments later?
- Here's one that really bothers me ... Why does Railly insist that she's met Cole before? And why does she remember him in the wig and mustache? Is there a never-ending time loop in the movie's world that somehow impresses itself upon certain people's memory?
- And what about the scene with the scientist showing up on the plane at the end? She tells David Morse that she's "in insurance," but has she traveled back in time to stop him from spreading the virus?
I know I've only scratched the surface here, but that's where you come in. Got a theory about the nature of Cole's time-traveling tech? An opinion on Gilliam's visual style? Discuss in the comments ...