Who gives a monkey's?
A time-travelling vision of hell on earth should have been right up Terry Gilliam's street. If only he had been able to break free from his past, says Adam Mars-Jones
Adam Matthews, Terry Townshend
Adam Matthews is Secretary-General of GLOBE International in London, and Terry Townshend is Head of Policy at GLOBE International in Beijing. GLOBE supports legislators through national chapters to develop and advance laws on sustainable development.
Thursday 18 April 1996
Twelve Monkeys announces itself as "inspired by Chris Marker's La Jetee", an experimental half-hour film from the early Sixties, but in reality Terry Gilliam's film has a much more mainstream parentage. This is like a teenager saying that his Dad is an obscurely famous French painter rather than owning up to the respectable truth. Like many films in the past 10 years or so, 12 Monkeys lives in the shadow of the first Terminator, with its handling of time paradoxes, its narrative elegance and pessimistic excitement.
James (Bruce Willis) is sent back to Baltimore in the Nineties from a future where a virus has killed most of the world's population and driven the survivors underground. He knows he can't prevent the release of the virus, but hopes to find enough about its pure form - before it mutated in humans - to facilitate his century's research into a cure.
The screenwriters, David and Janet Peoples, have come up with much that is Gilliam-esque for their director. This sounds like a good thing to do but it may be where the problems begin. A director who is doing things characteristic of himself may not make the effort to surpass himself - as Gilliam did on Brazil, where every element of design and performance was memorably coordinated.
Gilliam has done a visually overwhelming retro-futurist hell before (in Brazil, in fact), and it does not count as a breakthrough to make the colour scheme less filing-cabinet green and more liver and mucous. He's done crazy street people who may be possessed of secret knowledge before, on The Fisher King. Visual quotes from your best work are forgivable but it's sad when an impressive moment in a new film - the camera pulling rapidly back to show the sheer scale of an interrogation space - recalls a greater one from the past: Brazil's shot of the torture chamber revealed to be on a gantry inside an immense gasometer.
Early in 12 Monkeys an asylum inmate confides to James that he suffers from "mental divergence"; that is, he fantasises in great detail about life on a distant planet because he can't handle life on this one. This idea returns to haunt James in the course of the film as he is badly shaken up by his journeys and has to deal with jet lag on a gigantic scale.
But it is an even more haunting formula for anyone who has seen Gilliam's earlier films. So many of his heroes have been just that - mentally divergent.
The boy at the centre of Time Bandits roams the dimensions but also returns obsessively to his suburban home; Baron Munchausen's stories take him to the ends of the universe, but he must circle back to the bombarded theatre where he began to talk. Other heroes attempt to be mentally convergent to bring the two worlds of fantasy and reality together, with mixed results. The central character of Brazil steps out of his routine to pursue a woman he has seen in his dreams, and is destroyed. The hero of The Fisher King, on the other hand, abandons his cynicism and seeks to take seriously the benign delusions of his friend, and is thereby healed.
The possibility that James, too, might be mentally divergent - and so not really a visitor from 2035 - is raised by closely parallel sequences of him being decontaminated in the future after a foray to the surface, and being scrubbed roughly down by prison guards in the present. There seems no logic to this if Gilliam is also going to include shots that are not from his point of view. Later on, Gilliam raises the possibility that James has killed Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe), the psychiatrist he was relying on to help him. This too seems like a perverse red-herring derailment of a project that has not properly got in the groove yet.
What with the visual clutter, the echoes of past mastery, the narrative clutter, and even the philosophical clutter (what is real and what is not?), 12 Monkeys does not disclose until the last half hour what its focus is, the theme by which it wants to be judged. Then it is announced by a flurry of Vertigo references ("It's just like what is happening to us") and lashings of the cod-Liebestod that Bernard Herrmann wrote for that film. The theme is romantic fatalism, impossibility of second chances, the unredeemability of life by love.
If the romance was going to turn out to be so important, perhaps it should have been built up in good time. Stowe's role is underwritten - she has no past life before James comes along, except for her acquisition of skills required by the plot. If the point is that people can't escape their pasts, then she seems to have got off pretty lightly. A desperate romance between two frightened people on the eve of apocalypse is called in to recapitulate all the glories of a doomed world, and it buckles under the strain.
There's more satisfaction to be found in Brad Pitt's performance, where he shows himself closer to a character actor trapped in a pin-up's body than could previously have been suspected. Unfortunately, his role is sidelined, in a way that is characteristic of a film long on toing and froing and short on confrontation.
Some of the script is almost comic in a way that should be absolutely in Gilliam's grain but just sits there: Kathryn saying to James when he is wearing a wig and a false moustache and bleeding profusely from the mouth after pulling out some teeth to prevent the future from monitoring him, "Try to blend in." Similarly, a whole sequence where she is convinced of the truth of his story, just at the point where she has persuaded him he is deluded.
There are lovely visual flourishes in the film like a single shot showing a shopping mall as it is and as it will be, the camera sweeping up across glowing merchandise to the pigeon-haunted roof of the future ruin. But the theme of an emissary becoming addicted to mortal life was better handled in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the big finish requires the sort of controlled hyperbole that was once Brian De Palma's saving grace. Come to that, the recent follow-up to Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, a film that never found its audience (as we critics like to say), had 10 times as much cinematic magic in a similar vein.
A peculiarity of 12 Monkeys within its category of film is that it insists from the beginning that the future cannot be prevented, and doesn't waver. This sounds like a stoical and mature attitude, but what it may actually be is reneging on the base assumption of the genre. American culture is so firmly built on the primacy of second chances that the right to a fresh start might just as well have been included in the Constitution (which is what makes the heretical world of film noir so intoxicating). What audiences want from a time-travel movie is what it gets in exemplary form from the second Terminator film: to be told again and again that the future is fixed, and then to be granted a last reel saying it doesn't have to be so. In this respect in their understanding of how the genre works, Saturday night audiences know more than the makers of 12 Monkeys.
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