Formally an adaptation of what may be the greatest short film ever released, Chris Marker’s New Wave classic La Jetee, 12 Monkeys is another world entirely. This is not, as one might expect, a commercialized bastard son of Jetee’s postmodern commentary on storytelling and film as an art form. It is a more commercial beast, but not commercial Jetee. It is instead commercial Gilliam, very much retaining this particular director’s trenchant exploration of genre fiction, modern anomie, and social lies filtered through nasty dark-water corporate beasts not operating behind closed doors because there are no longer doors to close and hide behind. It’s sharp and prescient, well-directed and with a realist streak seen never before or since in Gilliam’s catalogue, but the film wisely never becomes “of realism”. 12 Monkeys is nothing breathtaking, and it lacks the elegant hellishness of some of its directors more conflicted and subversive films, but his decade and a half of ferocious commitment to personal vision, and three of the few legitimately great films of the 1980s, deserve a present. Gilliam always had trouble finding commercial success, and if conforming slightly to the norms of mainstream entertainment for the sake of a greater paycheck and commercial appeal is his present, who are we to deny him?
So what has Gilliam produced in his foray into genuine box office success? At a basic level, it’s a rather conventional time-travel film with a gloomy, even Gothic variant on the apocalypse that hits hard and moves with a sense of weight and grandeur. It’s prescient, sure, in the way that a good’90s indie (with a higher budget and a great deal more press) is prescient, but hardly brilliant storytelling or filmmaking. Still, you have to give Gilliam credit: he takes a rather conventional story and tells it about as well as one might imagine (and as well as his clear desire to actually release a box office success for once will allow him). Straddling WWI, two different time periods in the 1990s, and a grim and garish underground dystopia set in the 2020s, Gilliam follows James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner in a post-apocalypse Philadelphia who volunteers to go back in time in hopes of finding a pure sample of the mid-’90s virus that saw mankind losing the vast majority of its population. In the ’90s, he meets psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe) upon being incarcerated. A relationship with fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, giving the only notable performance in the film, one devoted to a conflicted, demented brand of lunacy we at once fear and sympathize with) who expounds upon the bummer of modern society and the way that the system lies and constructs its own truths in equal measure, promises more cinematic enjoyment. Just how is Cole going to get to that virus though, and what surprises does its mostly unknown origin have for him?
12 Monkeys is not Gilliam’s great stylistic achievement, just as it is not his great storytelling achievement, but there’s a lot to like. Especially when Gilliam really nosedives into the traditionally Gothic variation of fairy tale imagery that has marked so much of his great offerings. Generally, Monkeys is at its best when it’s rethinking the essential whimsy of a trip to the zoo and exposing the fierce, untamed beasts lying in wait within, reminding of their savage qualities and exposing the ways in which mankind’s attempt to entrap them renders the more savage still. There’s a nice air of the mythic blanketed (very lightly) over 12 Monkeys that adds texture to its fundamental grimness, adding a certain caustic humanism and contrasting the very mid-’90s apocalyptic fatalism with a certain storybook fantasy element, here all the more deranged and worrisome because it is a storybook layered over a largely naturalist motion picture. Fair weather Gilliam cinematographer Roger Pratt doesn’t quite match his fantastic contribution to Brazil, but he gives it a game try essaying hell on earth, and he may be the picture’s MVP.
When the subdued fantastical quality of Gilliam’s depiction of animals and the frost-covered kingdom of the surface world circa the 2020s work in tandem to accompany the film’s realism rather than take over the film’s core, it allows the work a certain fascinating distance from the rest of Gilliam’s works which indulge in their fantastical qualities unapologetically. The film seems all the scarier and even conjures a dreary sadness because of the way fantasy is invading the normative qualities of everyday life and the mundane, the way it doesn’t crash down upon reality like a tidal wave but slowly creeps in and has its way with perverting what we know to be normal. This is not a fable or an odyssey, but the continuous act of the fable-like invading a film we expect to be realist. That is a new spin on Gilliam – not as effervescent a one as his more singular works – but one that shows that he at least understands how to make a reasonably commercial film that has broad-based appeal without entirely sacrificing his core interests. It’s a shame that the commercial success has to lead to him sacrificing any of his rampant, invasive fantasy in the first place, but complaining about the need of films to earn popular appeal bears little dignity, and we should be thankful that 12 Monkeys is as good as it is, and as interesting as it is, despite the corporate masters Gilliam tirelessly appeases here.
All things considered, 12 Monkeys is one of Terry Gilliam’s most conventional, least warped offerings, and as fine and altogether well-composed as it is from beginning to end as a thriller, some of its higher-minded ambitions get the better of Gilliam’s sad-sack treatment of the unknowable. It’s a well-crafted, off-kilter thriller with a few sterling performances, enough of a sense of mystery and dread to hold it down, and some stellar cinematography and set design to back the film up in times of need, but it thinks it knows more than it does (one of the classic sci-fi flaws). The subtext about animal rights activists (who play a part in the virus and inject the film with its savage hell-on-earth qualities) is obvious and probably unnecessary; at the least the tone which goes for the ever-popular “both sides are flawed” slant with Gilliam’s scabrous wit is tired, and Gilliam actually choosing a side would have likely led to a more passionate, vital work altogether. Still, this is a moral flaw that loses the film some of its vigor, but it’s not a film-killing cinematic flaw. Like the rest of the film, it’s Gilliam playing it a touch safe (who can blame him, when the producers were always undertow with pitchforks ever pointed upwards), but it’s essentially “good” safe. In the end, it does not do well to expect a fringe dweller to always operate on the fringes. Sometimes sucking a little of the fringes into the mainstream can breed its own rewards, muted as they may be.