As inaccessibly convoluted as 12 Monkeys appeared in 1995, its time-shifting twists and turns are downright quotidian by today’s standards.
Even though we don’t have flying cars or hoverboards, 2015 remains a year where time travel stands as a prominent fixture in our collective consciousness. Nike actually made Marty McFly’s self-lacing sneaker and I’ve got my fingers crossed that the Chicago Cubs do, in fact, finally break the Curse of the Billy Goat. But as we’ve seen the release of a Syfy channel TV series of the same name, 2015 also marks 20 years since Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys offered up an unconventional take on traveling through time.
The butterfly effect plays a crucial role in many time travel stories, from the aforementioned Back to the Future to a millennia-jumping toaster jimmy-rigged by Homer Simpson. But there’s no point in trying to change the past in Gilliam’s La Jetée-inspired post-apocalyptic time travel film. After all, as the “volunteer” decade-skipping researcher James Cole (Bruce Willis) puts it, the past “already happened.” In Gilliam’s vision of time travel, the terrorist-released virus that decimates nearly the entire human race in (the then “not too distant future”) 1996 cannot be stopped. Those who died from the virus cannot be saved. This already happened. Those inflicted by the unleashing of the virus are Vonnegut’s proverbial “bugs trapped in amber.” Instead, Cole is sent back in time to collect information about the virus, which also includes bugs (in the form of a spider from 1990 that he has no choice but to eat), so that a vaccine or cure can be developed—one that will allow the remaining mole people of the future human race to reclaim their place on the Earth’s surface.
As Cole is called into duty, he’s wrenched from the hammock of his underground prison cell, wrapped in an elaborate bubble suit and thrust into the snow-dusted and hollowed-out terrain of a 2027 Philadelphia where zoo animals maraud the ghostly cityscape. Grizzly bears patrol street corners. Actual lions pace the facades of the towering buildings where their stone likenesses once stood. When he’s initially shoved back into the past via an under-explained and entirely Gilliam-y contraption, his oddball overlords send him to the wrong year (1990), where his dystopic ramblings promptly get him admitted to the nuthouse. This gives Cole the pleasure of meeting googly-eyed psychotic Jeffrey (Brad Pitt), who will turn out to be, in 1996, the mastermind behind the graffiti-stenciling animal-activist cell the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, the group believed by the future subterranean society to be responsible for unleashing death upon the Earth.
Both during his brief asylum internment in 1990 and during his correctly-placed time travel back to 1996, Cole will draw the attention of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), whom he kidnaps in his latter trip. She increasingly believes his fantastic tale (and grows an old-fashioned crush on him), even as she ends up convincing Cole that he is, in fact, merely insane. (“Oh, wouldn’t it be great if I was crazy? Then the world would be okay!”) Plagued by horrific dreams of an airport shooting, Cole begins to realize that Dr. Railly is the frantic woman he’s seen crying out in his nightmares. And even though he’s already outlined that the past is as etched in stone as the fossil record, Cole works until his ironic last breath trying to prevent the future bioterrorist cataclysm. In the end, his attempt to change the future only ends up providing his past childhood self with the traumatic memory he’s long revisited in his most sheet-soaking dreams.
Containing echoes of the bizarre industrial machinations from Brazil and coming on the heels of the beloved The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys marked the end of Gilliam’s critically-acclaimed period. He’d follow this 1995 film up three years later with the cult classic but poorly-reviewed adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s iconic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. From there, his career dipped down into its outright nadir with huge misfire The Brothers Grimm and the loathed (but underrated) Tideland. He’s still churning out oddities, though The Zero Theorem (his latest), again showed that his ’80s and ‘90s era of automatic goodwill has moved long past its shelf life.
As inaccessibly convoluted as 12 Monkeys appeared in 1995, its time-shifting twists and turns are downright quotidian by today’s standards. For as overrated as The Matrix was, it was light years ahead of 12 Monkeys in contrived philosophy. Yet, Gilliam’s film remains an outlier in the time travel subgenre, simply for adhering to a fixed-past concept, even if it didn’t sprawl out into the free-will-versus-predestination musings of 2002’s Minority Report. And in the present day, elements of 12 Monkeys certainly seem stuck in the past. The idea that the real terrorist (David Morse) would be able to bring mysterious vials of biological samples onto an airplane in his carry-on luggage (with only a cursory eyeball examination from a kindly security officer) is a quaint relic of a pre-9/11 world. But what it lacks in both speculative prescience and modern-day believability, 12 Monkeys more than makes up for in its memorable performances, trademark Gilliam weirdness and against-the-flow depiction of what can be achieved—and what’s simply inflexibly set in stone—when a character defies the laws of physics and travels through time.