Late to the Party: Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: Terry Gilliam’s apocalyptic thriller 12 Monkeys.

It is 26th December 2020. England has just entered another COVID lockdown. I turn on the television and decide to watch 12 Monkeys, a movie about a viral apocalypse that wiped out almost the entire human race.

It’s topical! And depressing!

I’ve never watched a Terry Gilliam movie before but Bruce Willis is the lead and I think he’s an underappreciated actor. Willis plays James Cole, a prisoner from 2035 sent back in time to find the source of a lethal virus. If Cole succeeds, scientists can create a vaccine that will allow humanity to leave the sterile, claustrophobic tunnels they now inhabit and return to the surface of the Earth.

Arriving in the then-present day of 1996, Cole searches for the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, a group believed to have been responsible for unleashing the viral apocalypse. Along the way, Cole becomes obsessed with psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly, played by Madeleine Stowe.

Did I enjoy the film? Kinda, although I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. The movie does have some intriguing themes though that I think are well worth talking about.

By the way, 12 Monkeys is an adaptation of an excellent French short from 1962 called La Jetée. I am about to spoil this masterpiece of French New Wave cinema, so spend half-an-hour watching it before you continue with this review.

This is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood…

1) Mental illness – who is truly sane?

Gilliam claimed in an interview that “for most of the film you don’t know whether (Cole)’s a man who’s come back from the future or just another wacko apocalypse nut”.1 This is easily the least interesting aspect of the film – no screenwriter worthy of the name would set the first ten minutes in the future if it was just one of Cole’s delusions. Nevertheless, the movie keeps coming back to this plot point because Gilliam and the screenwriters (David and Janet Peoples) are deeply interested in the subject of mental illness.

It’s not hard to understand why. When David and Janet were younger, they both worked at the same state psychiatric hospital, him as an orderly and her as a nurse. Gilliam himself suffers from depression and many of his films (such as The Fisher King2) are about people who have a mental illness.

When Cole arrives in Baltimore in 1990 (six years earlier than he was supposed to, but “science ain’t an exact science with these clowns“), the first place he is taken is a mental institution. The asylum is bleak and dilapidated, with orderlies who push Cole around and drug him against his will.

Filming at Eastern State Penitentiary didn’t help matters…

The filmmakers clearly have a message here about how badly people can be treated when they are incarcerated due to a mental disorder. That message would have hit a lot harder though if the large Victorian-era asylum Cole finds himself in (with communal bedrooms and bars on the window) wasn’t a complete anachronism, even for 1990.3

I’m also conflicted about the character of Jeffrey Goines, eco-activist leader of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys (played by Brad Pitt). Cole meets Goines at the Baltimore asylum and in his first scene, Pitt gives a genuinely wonderful performance. He stims, he talks slightly too quickly, he moves his hands a lot, he gets agitated when someone sits in his chair – it is a sympathetic and well-researched portrayal.

Unfortunately, this was the first scene Pitt did and he wasn’t able to maintain this level of quality. By the end of the film, Goines is constantly twitching and shouting, the camera always focusing on his unkempt appearance and wandering eye (which he didn’t have in the asylum!). It no longer feels like good representation – it feels like we had to make Goines unattractive because that’s what the audience thinks a mentally-ill person looks like.

Radical environmentalists – well known for wearing leather

Finally, there is Dr. Kathryn Railly. An eminent psychiatrist, she is the one who has Cole committed when he first arrives in Baltimore, diagnosing him with paranoia and psychosis. Cole is deeply insulted by this – he isn’t crazy, people are just threatened by his knowledge of the future. Railly is intrigued, unable to shake the feeling that Cole is different, that they have meet somewhere before. We then spend the rest of the film watching Railly slowly renounce her own profession, until she finally declares that:

Psychiatry is the latest religion. We decide what’s right and wrong. We decide who’s crazy or not. I’m in trouble here. I’m losing my faith.

The filmmakers’ clear disdain for mental health professionals leads them to romanticize mental illness and downplay its negative effects. There is no discussion of self-harm or suicidal ideation. Goines blames his incarceration on his rejection of capitalist consumerism. The use of sedatives (taken willingly or unwillingly) is always framed as unhelpful or a violent form of assault.

It’s not difficult to understand why Gilliam does this – he is a disciple of post-modernism, a movement that likes to focus on the margins of society, on the “other” that we are told to despise. The problem is that this creates “misinformed empathy” – we are outraged by an anachronistic asylum, instead of focusing on the struggles mentally-ill people actually face.

Oh look, another violent, traumatized protagonist who failed to stop the apocalypse in a post-modern story

2) Predestination – can the apocalypse be averted?

Like the nameless protagonist of La Jetée, Cole is haunted by a memory from his childhood, the death of a man at an airport. He regularly re-lives this memory in his dreams. It is only with his last breath that Cole realizes what he witnessed all those years ago – the murder of his future self.

Dr. Railly cradles Cole’s body

The filmmakers are clear from the beginning that time travel in 12 Monkeys is a closed-loop. Cole is not traveling through a multi-verse or able to stop the apocalypse from happening – he can only gather intelligence and collect specimens before heading back to the future. This allows for some wonderful set-ups and pay-offs.

For example, after returning to 2035 from 1990’s Baltimore4, Cole hears a voicemail message confirming that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is responsible for the viral apocalypse. It is later revealed that Railly left this voicemail message in 1996, but only after Cole forced her to investigate the organization in the first place! A lovely little predestination paradox.

Inspired by her meeting with Cole, Dr. Railly writes a book on the Cassandra Complex, individuals who forewarn of impending catastrophe but are unable to do anything to prevent it. She declares the phenomenon a form of displacement – people traumatized by bubonic plague or mustard gas trying to cope with what is happening to them. Unfortunately for humanity, the actual cause is time travelers from 2035, incorrectly sent to the wrong space and time.

Railly eventually believes Cole and tries to stop the apocalypse from happening, and the filmmakers tease us with this possibility. She contacts Goines’ father (a famous virologist) warning him to increase security at his laboratory. He agrees but this forces the hand of the true source of the virus – Dr. Peters (played by David Morse), a misanthropic scientist who works for the Goines family.

In the final few minutes of the film, Peters is spotted by Cole and Railly at Philadelphia Airport and they try to apprehend him. Cole is killed in the process but their efforts were futile – Peters released the virus into the air while he was going through airport security, long before Railly even spotted him. There is no escaping the inevitable.

The logo of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys – note the similarity to Rota Fortunae and Watchmen’s Doomsday Clock

3) Urban squalor – is humanity worth saving?

One of the things that made La Jetée so affecting was that annihilation came to a world that was beautiful and inviting – before nuclear weapons fell on Paris, it was a city of soft beds, domestic cats, museums and romantic walks in the park.

By way of contrast, 12 Monkeys presents us with a world that is riddled with conflict and decay, just asking to be put out of its misery. Obviously, the underground caverns of 2035 are supposed to be uninviting5, but Baltimore and Philadelphia in 1996 are just as unpleasant.

Cole drags Railly around Philadelphia looking for the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, taking her past homeless encampments and abandoned buildings. Railly is threatened with sexual assault twice, once by a pimp and once by a random black man in an abandoned theatre. We hear of the mutilated corpse of a young woman discovered in the woods. It almost seems like Gilliam and the Peoples have uncritically absorbed moral panics about “urban crime waves” and Kitty Genovese.

Moreover, Dr. Peters (while attending Railly’s lecture on the Cassandra Complex) explains his misanthropic attitude towards his fellow humans:

Proliferation of atomic devices; uncontrolled breeding habits; pollution of land, sea and air; the rape of the environment. In this context, isn’t it obvious that Chicken Little represents the sane vision … and that Homo Sapiens’ motto ‘Let’s go shopping’ is the cry of the true lunatic?”

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Peters’ speech reflects Jeffrey Goines’ anti-capitalist monologue in the asylum. More uncomfortably, there is a scene earlier in the movie where Cole calls an apartment by mistake, and an African-American woman with four children answers the phone. Her kitchen is in chaos; one of her children is eating doritos out of a dog bowl. There is some deeply unpleasant subtext here, and Gilliam’s recent comments on the need to “cull” humanity are not encouraging.

So, do I recommend 12 Monkeys?

The props are good, the sets are imaginative, the editing is excellent and yet – the misanthropy of the film keeps pushing me away. Why should I care if humanity is going to be banished from the surface of the Earth if everything we touch is ugly and broken?

My advice – watch La Jetée or I Am Legend with Will Smith instead.

They also spend a lot of time bonding in a car, driving through a broken city

Sources and further reading

The Hamster Factor (a documentary on the production of 12 Monkeys)

12 Monkeys Is the Apocalypse Movie We Need Right Now

A Plague of Madness – 12 Monkeys article in The Ringer

12 Monkeys (1995): Trauma and The Prescience of Gilliam’s Vision – In Their Own League