Others in this series can be found here. Without further ado, I present number two in my list of favourite, unmissable Alternate Reality movies:
2. Twelve Monkeys (1995, dir: Terry Gilliam) 9/10
From a script by David and Janet Peoples, Twelve Monkeys is partly based on Chris Marker’s meditation on the nature of time and memory, La Jetée from 1962. It also happens to be director Terry Gilliam’s unsung masterpiece. Set in 2035, underpinning the story is that five-sixths of humanity have been destroyed by a fatal epidemic whilst a few survivors – prisoners and the Scientists who dominate them with the ‘Permanent Emergency Code’ – remain underground.
In Twelve Monkeys we’re introduced to a world crushed by the iron fist of authoritarian rule. Minor infringements are called crimes against the state. Beneath what’s left of Philadelphia, prisoners are kept in cages, just as wild animals – immune to the epidemic – roam free above. One gets the impression that Gilliam is reveling in showing us just how bad things can be if we allow our masters total power. Everywhere there’s heavy surveillance, body searches and, ultimately, the implication that science and technology can save us if only we bow to its power and efficiency. (Efficient it ain’t, though. Wonky technology being a common Gilliam theme)
From this oppressive, inhuman nightmare of 2035, a prisoner, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to 1996 to try and discover how the fatal virus was released. Cue a succession of misdemeanours, not least of which is when Cole ends up in 1990, is taken for a mental patient and promptly incarcerated. Here he meets another patient, the would be eco-terrorist, hyper-active Jeffrey Goines (a cast-against-type Brad Pitt) who is the son of virologist Dr. Goines (Christopher Plummer). Support comes from David Morse as Dr. Goines’ shadowy assistant, Dr. Peters.
Most of the plot turns on Cole’s relationship to his psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). Cole somehow escapes to 1996 and is re-united with Railly, whom he promptly kidnaps. It’s around this point that she starts to believe that Cole is really who he says he is, ironically, at the point where Cole begins to doubt his own sanity. The pair become fugitives as they search for the source of the deadly virus, leading to the climactic scene in an airport as Dr. Peters escapes with it in his possession. We’re ready for the Big Reveal.
Spoiler Alert! The Twelve Monkeys Big Reveal
Some critics found the film confusing, but this is because it involves the obvious paradox with time travel into the past. In that same busy airport, a young boy is accompanied by his parents. His mother quite audibly calls him James – for this is the younger Cole back in the 1990s. He witnesses a man in a blond wig being gunned down by the authorities as he pursues someone. It’s the elder Cole, trying to stop Dr. Peters. But if the young Cole is able to witness his own death in 1996, then why is he still alive in 2035? This is the Grandad paradox, the notion that you could, in theory, go back far in enough in time to murder your own grandfather – at which point you don’t exist anymore! So how can there be two Coles in that airport? This is why we’re faced with the possibility that what we’re seeing is an act of imagination. In the present, 2035, Cole hears some disembodied voice calling him ‘Bob’ and saying: ‘Maybe I’m in the next cell, another volunteer like you … maybe I’m just in your head. No way to confirm anything.’ Maybe, just maybe, the entire film, or much of it, is Cole’s fevered imagination.
But the key to understanding the film is in its graphic clue: the circular mandala of twelve monkeys. This symbolises everlastingness, the eternal round of existence and time, with neither beginning nor end. This certainly describes Twelve Monkeys, which has no real starting point, or end point, come to that. Everything here is destined to go around in circles. But what would happen if Cole – when sent back from 2035 to meet Railly – did things differently? Made other choices? Would events transpire in the same way? Would he still have to die? The irony is that if Cole and Railly had sat on their hands the virus would never have gotten free! What in fact transpires is that the laconic, sinister-looking Dr. Peters only gets hold of the virus as a result of Cole and Railly trying to prevent it escaping in the first place!
In its way, Twelve Monkeys is a kind of sequel to Brazil, Gilliam’s pseudo-Orwellian classic from 1986. It’s as if its hero, Sam Lowry, was returning to consciousness once more, struggling vainly through another totalitarian post-apocalypse. But where Lowry retreats into fantasy, Cole has no such escape hatch. Or does he? I noted earlier that it’s possible to read Cole’s misadventures as fantasy, too, even if it does dwell mostly on hopelessly grim, doom-laden, blood-spattered scenarios.
Despite my opinion that this is classic fare, it was mauled by the critics on the release: ‘bleak and confused’ or ‘a spectacular mess’, they said. (In fact, it is far from confused.) It garnered zero stars in Halliwell’s Film Guide, too (yet earned $120 million dollars worldwide), and – at least -the esteemed critic Roger Ebert wasn’t so quick to dismiss it. I award it classic status mainly because of its dark, disturbing, even neurotic visuals. It’s a scary Bosch painting come to life, brilliantly rendered by Gilliam. (It also inspired a full-length TV series which began in 2015 on SyFy channel.) More importantly, Twelve Monkeys is a wake-up call that’s just as relevant today. For its central message (and Gilliam’s) is that reliance on the state (and technology) is a risky undertaking – that it cannot and should not be trusted.
Maybe it’s this very bleak underlying theme that put off the critics – for it surely is that: bleak. Oppressively so. It offers no hope, no salvation. The notion that the end of the civilised world is not simply due, but that we’re living in it now is indeed depressing. And it certainly feels this way in cheery old 2019!
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Twelve Monkeys poster (fair usage) source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Twelve_monkeysmp.jpg