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 »

  1. fabulous! I only recall how confused I was by this movie and the subsequent arguments with coworkers on what it was REALLy abt. I want to this again nowmthat I hv read this post. brad Pitt is so fun in quirky roles (like in Snatch)

    Comment by Care | October 3, 2010 | Reply

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