A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 215 – Twelve Monkeys

Twelve Monkeys – October 1st, 2010

I was in high school when this movie came out. Not too long after Andy and I saw it in the theater I went to London for three weeks on a school exchange. While I was there I had the fortune to see a fantastic exhibit on art and film at the Hayward Gallery. Several filmmakers had done installations and several artists had done other installations and there were paintings and sculptures and films. Fiona Banner had a wall-sized mural of a transcript of a movie. I believe it was Apocalypse Now and it had a guide so you could find your favorite scenes. Douglas Gordon slowed down Psycho so that it would take 24 hours for the entire film to play. Eduardo Paolozzi had a room full of odds and ends, made pieces in a fictional workshop. I’m sad to say Ridley Scott’s installation made little impression on me, but his was one of the names that drew me in. It was right up my alley. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up the alley of any of the other students I was with, so despite our instructions to never go anywhere alone, I ventured out twice to see the exhibit on my own and I am so glad I did.

The reason I’m sharing all this is because the installation that really tickled me was Terry Gilliam’s. I didn’t recognize many of the other names on the program, aside from Ridley Scott and a passing knowledge of Peter Greenaway, but I’d just seen Twelve Monkeys the year before! And truth be told, Gilliam’s installation and 24 Hour Psycho were what drew me back a second time. To get to Gilliam’s room you had to go down a corridor walled with plywood, the 12 Monkeys symbol spray painted at random in eye-searing red. At the end of the corridor was a wall of filing cabinets (of course) and many different chairs, ladders, stools, etc. to climb on so that one could open the cabinets. I’d say about half of them opened. And of those, 2/3 had stuff in them. Snakes and phones and a voice triggered by the opening of the drawer, asking who’s there. A smaller wall of cabinets (and a smaller wall and a smaller wall and finally one drawer with a piece of popcorn inside). An incubator with rubber gloves reaching inside, and in it Gilliam’s journals, to be paged through and read by anyone. The other third of the drawers showed you a piece of a screen behind the cabinets, and projected on that screen was a making of documentary about this movie.

So. I think it’s safe to say that I go into this movie with some strange associations. I go into it thinking about it as an art installation. I go into it thinking about that trip to London and how bizarre it all was (and I’ll probably talk more about it when we watch Trainspotting). I go into it recalling walking down that corridor that put you into the movie. I felt immersed in it after going to that exhibit. So there are things I gloss over and forgive and allow because it’s a memory of something truly wonderful about the London trip when there were some not wonderful things that soured it for me.

Now, on to the movie. This is some great sci-fi, here. It’s a time travel movie that deals with the nature of a time travel paradox and posits a world where it’s not that they want to fix the catastrophe that happened. It’s that they want to know the nature of it in order to rectify its effects later on. It’s an imperfect system. An imperfect world. There are mistakes and botched messages and people get hurt. It’s confused and our main character doesn’t know if he’s reliable and no one knows who to trust or what’s really happened. And best of all, it’s a sci-fi time travel movie with only the barest of bare minimum special effects. We don’t have to see the time travel to know it happened. Or rather, to assume.

I don’t know if I can succinctly describe the plot, but I’ll give it a go. It will leave out a lot. It will have to. James Cole is a prisoner living in a future where humans live underground after a horrific and catastrophic epidemic killed almost the entire population of the world. Scientists in his time want to know more about the virus that killed everyone. They’ve managed to make a machine that can send someone back in time and want to send him in order to gather information, find out who was responsible, pinpoint how it started. Then they’ll send a scientist back to take samples and hopefully find a way to deal with the mutated virus in their time. The trouble is that they send Cole to the wrong time. They send him six years too early and he ends up in a psychiatric facility, doped to the gills and told he’s a paranoid schizophrenic. And as we follow Cole back and forth through time, as the scientists grab him back into the future, send him back into the past, miss and send him too far, pull back and get it just right, retrieve him, send him, back and forth and back, Cole gets confused.

What makes Cole’s confusion work so well, aside from Bruce Willis’s superb acting of the part, is that we in the audience never see the actual time travel. Of course we assume it happens. We meet Cole in the future, after all, right? So when we then see him in the past in a hospital, raving about how everyone’s going to die in six years, about how he’s from the future, we sympathize with him. He’s right! He is from the future! But everyone around him is so adamant. And the future setting is so bizarre and distorted (in a recognizably Gilliam aesthetic). If you didn’t know for certain that this is a time travel movie, and if it wasn’t for a hazy memory Cole recalls in increasing clarity through the movie, you might start to doubt Cole the same way he doubts himself.

But it is a time travel movie, and there are people in it whom Cole meets and gets involved with. There’s Kathryn Railly, played by Madeline Stowe, a psychiatrist who treats Cole and eventually begins to believe what he’s saying when faced with anachronisms she can’t explain. There’s Jeffrey Goines, played absolutely brilliantly by Brad Pitt, a fellow patient at first, but then a more mysterious figure, somehow involved with the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and whose father is a Nobel-winning virologist. There’s Cole’s old neighbor from the cell block we met him in, also time traveling. And there’s the extra mysterious man whose voice we hear several times, but whose presence is never fully explained. Perhaps he was another traveler who somehow managed not to go back. Perhaps he’s a delusion. It’s implied a few times that the process of time travel can be detrimental to one’s sanity. It’s never really explained what the truth is.

I love how twisty this movie is. I love how it builds up the story, moving between time periods and making everyone, the audience and Cole included, wonder what’s happening. I love how it acknowledges that you can’t fix things. The past has happened. It will always happen the way it already happened. It’s what you learn from the past that matters. I love all three leads, Willis, Stowe and Pitt. It was this movie that made me believe Brad Pitt was good for more than just pretty boy roles. He is nervous and hyper and angry and thoroughly unlike anything I’d seen him do prior to this. Of course, later on he did Fight Club, but his role in that is something else entirely. Here he’s a bundle of nervous energy, wound tightly and all but bouncing. He’s the privileged son of a wealthy man whose principles he despises. He’s mentally ill and aware of it. He’s all over the place until he finds a purpose. It’s a well played role and he steals every scene he’s in, which is tough, since Bruce Willis is also amazing and very much not like his usual roles.

I’m sure there are criticisms to be made of this movie. There always are. And I’m sure other people have made them. But this movie holds a special place for me. It’s not just a movie I enjoy watching. It’s a connection to an experience I treasure, which happened in 1996. Which is when everyone was supposed to start dying. I just can’t bring myself to criticize that.

October 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

12 Monkeys

October 1, 2010

12 Monkeys

This may be the most perfect time-travel sci-fi movie ever filmed. Or at least the most Gilliam time-travel sci-fi film. It appeals to me on so many levels. It has a fantastic script that addresses things like the apocalypse, time travel, madness and pre-determinism. It’s hard to believe that this movie wasn’t written by Terry Gilliam because the movie incorporates the best bits of Time Bandits, Brazil and The Fisher King. It’s like the uber-Gilliam masterpiece that was the culmination of all his work up to that time.

The movie starts with a dream. It’s a recurring dream that James Cole has. The only dream he has. He’s a young boy in this dream, in an airport, and he witnesses a shooting. There’s a blond woman and a red-headed man. When Cole wakes up it is the present. He is in a prison in a post-apocalyptic world after a virus has wiped out most of humankind. A virus that was released thirty years ago in the year 1996. Cole is “volunteered” to research how the virus began. He is chosen for his tenacity, his toughness, and his memory and attention to detail. The powers that be in this dystopian present send him back in time to try to figure out where and how the virus got started.

The trouble begins when he ends up in the wrong time. He’s supposed to be looking for clues in 1996, but he arrives in 1990. Here he is arrested and put in an insane asylum because he is a violent raving lunatic who thinks that he is in the past. His court appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly, is fascinated by his delusions. She has pity for him and thinks there is something more to his story. In the asylum he encounters a manic crazy man named Jeffrey Goines who befriends him and eventually helps him to escape.

When Cole returns to the present he is disoriented and confused. In 1990 he was pumped full of drugs to keep him sedated in the asylum. But he discovers, while being interrogated by the scientists of the present, that Goines, the asylum patient, is somehow mixed up in an organization known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys. And that they might be related to the release of the virus back in 1996 that wiped out five billion people and drove the human race to live in hermetically sealed environments underground. He is returned to the past, this time to 1996, where he seeks out Dr. Railly again and resumes his quest to find out the truth behind the 12 Monkeys.

I’ll go no further with the plot than that, because I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of the plot. It’s an extremely tight script that works its way inside your head and makes you question everything. As things progress Cole begins to question his own sanity. Perhaps the present world he comes from really is all in his head. Perhaps there is no pending apocalypse.

The movie does a great job building the tension. It has a mystery at its core to do with the virus and the Army of the 12 Monkeys. It has Cole’s crumbling sanity. There are parts of the movie that are deliberately ambiguous. There’s a voice in Cole’s head, for example, who may or may not be somebody else travelling through time from the present to the past. At one point in the asylum he hallucinates one of the guards from the prison in the present. Clearly he IS cracking and going mad, but the question then becomes just what exactly is real.

As with The Fisher King one of the primary attractions of this movie is the astonishing performance that Gilliam gets from his cast. Bruce Willis shows throughout the movie that he is not afraid to completely lose himself in his character. James Cole is a severely unstable and tortured man. He is at the same frightening and pitiable. Capable of frightening acts of violence but torn apart by the journey he is on. It’s a fascinating performance. Then there’s Madeleine Stowe as Kathryn Railly. She’s so fantastic. Kathryn’s arc somewhat echoes Cole’s. Through her interactions with him she starts to doubt everything she holds true about her own world. She’s a strong, intelligent, competent and caring woman caught up in something that feels too large for a single person to understand.

By far the most surprising performance for me though was that of Brad Pitt. At the time that this movie came out I thought he was just some pretty-boy actor and teen heartthrob. But here he not only played completely against type as the lunatic Jeffrey Goines, but he excelled at creating a compelling and upsetting character. Goines is all manic paranoia. He’s loud, abrasive and impulsive. He’s full of ticks and twitches and he has this crazy cockeyed stare. This performance was so startling and so compelling that it blew me away, and it still does every time I watch the movie again. Amazing.

Then there’s the aesthetic of the movie. The design and the lighting and the way it was filmed. The dystopic present is like an extension of the world of Gilliam’s movie Brazil. It’s all giant rubber seals and crazy cobbled together electronics. You get the feeling that when the human race almost got wiped out much of our technology was destroyed as well, and that everything in this new age is constructed from remnants of the old world bodged together and re-purposed. We do eventually get to see the time machine in action, and it looks more steampunk than futuristic. Everything looks as if it is cobbled together and falling apart at the same time.

In the past James and Kathryn find themselves descending into some frightening and chaotic fringes of our society. They look very much like the homeless haunts from The Fisher King, to such a degree that at times I expected the camera to pan over Robin Williams singing about New York in June. In the end both the present and the past have an unsettling feel to them, which is fine because the movie is, ultimately, unsettling. There’s a fatalism to the whole thing. Cole often goes on about how there’s nothing he can do to save the people of the past. The virus that wiped out humankind has already happened. He can only observe. There’s a wonderfully self-aware and meta part where Cole observes that living in the past is like watching a movie you’ve already seen. Everything is going to happen the same but the experience will be different because your perspective on it will have changed.

Finally, in the closing act as everything comes together neatly and answers are revealed, the whole tone of the movie changes. Gilliam moves things into a soft focus with a sort of over-exposed washed out feel. It has a very deliberate dreamlike quality to it, and the final minutes of the movie resonate with me and stick in my mind.

This movie is a masterful work of art. From the script to the acting to the directing. Every part fits so perfectly with every other part that I cannot find fault with any of it. If you are at all a fan of disturbing science fiction that will get inside your head and make you think then you owe it to yourself to watch this movie. If you’ve seen it already then you should watch it again. Everything is going to happen the same, but the experience my be different. And it’s a ride worth taking again anyhow.

October 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments