5 billion people will die from a deadly virus.
That’s the opening line from Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, it comes up on the screen before any images or anything.
It then goes on to talk about how the few survivors failed to beat the pandemic and had to retreat underground, leaving animals to rule the surface, nature newly unhindered by human beings. What’s more all of the ensuing time travel activities in the movie seem to suggest that even with the technology that allows the protagonist to visit a time before everyone got sick, and even with all the knowledge he gains about how it starts, there’s no preventing it. Borderline extinction of the human race is inevitable and maybe even the best thing for the planet. Even the closing moments which seem to present a last hope can be read either way. Twelve Monkeys basically says we’re doomed and a highly contagious disease, incubated in certain keys cities around the world is what’s going to destroy our way of life. The few of us that are left will live squalid existences in a sham society ruled by a selfish, insincere bureaucracy and marked by poverty and the loss of our basic fundamental rights.
Yeah, this really isn’t a good film to watch at the moment
or maybe it is.
I’m not just talking about for those people who seem to want to dwell in this stuff; those hundreds who have made Steven Soderburgh’s 2011 film Contagion one of the most viewed films on iTunes right now (I for one certainly can’t face seeing Gwyneth Paltrow having her skull opened up at the moment).
No, as it turns out Twelve Monkeys actually offers some hope for COVID-19. I know that the virus in the film is a fictional one and that the one we are living through is horribly real but it is nice to see a film that doesn’t actually aim to be an adventure about preventing a pandemic but one that tells the story of fixing one. The reason the 2035 scientists in this movie send Bruce Willis’ James Cole back to 1996 when the outbreak occurred is because they need a sample of the virus to kill it. Once they’ve got this then they are totally sure of finding the key to a more normal future. For an audience in the grip of a relatable situation, this element of optimism is quite welcome.
Interestingly this is not how I remember reading the film the last time I watched it but doesn’t that just show how our perspectives shift because of our circumstances? There’s also the line from Madeline Stowe as the psychiatrist helping Cole where she says ‘If there’s still football games and traffic jams then we know we’ll be alright’. Well they’re talking about the Premier League starting up again and I got held in a queue driving back from the park today so if that is the benchmark for the progression of civilisation then we’re still good. It sounds like I’m clutching at straws but aren’t we all doing that right now and I genuinely found these parts of the film quite uplifting.
It was also amusing to see Brad Pitt’s character in 1990 and 1996 sporting both extremes of lockdown hair, and when the officials tell Bruce to ‘stay alert’ as he is sent out into the world that lands differently now too (as does the bit where Bruce Willis says ‘all I see are dead people’ but that’s for a different reason).
Outside of this Twelve Monkeys remains a very different type of film to any released before or after. The ostensible hero is a violent convict; not an unfairly imprisoned and misunderstood innocent but a genuinely dangerous man, and rather than presenting him as anything else the plot actually has him kidnapping a woman and tying her up. He’s not so much an antihero as the antithesis of a hero and yet still we are asked to sympathise with him. What is most remarkable here is that we do. The time loop narrative, borrowed just like Terminator from Chris Marker’s brilliant 1962 short film La Jetée, is neatly handled too without anything being laboured or heavily overplayed. All of its ideas are complete and fit with the even tone of the film too which sets it apart from much of Gilliam’s other work as a director.
Viewing Twelve Monkeys could go either way then. You will certainly look at it differently and it is easier to suspend disbelief on this stylised, cyber punk fantasy than it was twenty five years ago but it isn’t the depressing experience you might fear. The tag line of the film is ‘The future is history’ but it could just as easily be ‘The future will become the past’ which is a subtle but welcome distinction.
The Ripley Factor:
So psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly becomes fascinating with a patient in a mental health hospital who claims to be from the future but her work with him ends when he disappears from the high security cell he has been placed in after attacking nursing staff. Six years later he pops up again, holds her at gun point and forces her to drive him more than a hundred miles to Philadelphia. Once there she witnesses him kill people before he roughly throws her into the boot of a stolen car. A little while later she discovers evidence that his time travel story is true so begins to look at the man differently but doesn’t just sympathise with him, she seems to suddenly be in love with him. A police officer passes this off as a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome but what does he know? Silly cop.
No, he’s right. This is absolutely Stockholm Syndrome. Kathryn Railly is a strong, fiercely intelligent and courageous character who is totally undermined by the tagging on of this unnecessary love story.
Still, it’s just a movie. Right?