Remake/Remodel: La jetée (1962) vs. 12 Monkeys (1995)

Remake/Remodel: La jetée (1962) vs. 12 Monkeys (1995)

Remakes have been around nearly as long as Hollywood itself, and not always for the reasons or with the results you’d think. Spectrum Culture’s new feature Re-Make/Re-Model will examine the long history of cinematic remakes, the good movies turned great, the bad ideas turned worse and the weird ones turned boring.

In 2012, cinema lost a great artist. Chris Marker was never a household name like Steven Spielberg or Stanley Kubrick. He was never even a divisive, stylish character like David Lynch or Takashi Miike. Though his films number in the dozens, he lived as a cult artist for nearly his entire career, known primarily for a few of the many documentaries, shorts and features he created. Something like the Thomas Pynchon of cinema, Marker was an intensely private man, to the point that his place and date of birth are debated and few photos of the man exist. He rarely granted interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself; considering that the majority of his movies can be considered essays as much as films, that makes sense. Many were of the political bent, though it was often difficult to ascertain what his own politics were or if that was even the point. In an age in which essay films (and essays in general) are rare birds and artists are often lauded for the outrageousness of their character, Marker was a dedicated master, working in silence. But Marker’s most famous film and arguable masterpiece is a fluke in his already muddled oeuvre. That film is La jetée (1962), one of the strangest and most heartfelt science fiction movies ever made.

And as though La jetée was not already a bizarre enough film, it was the inspiration for 12 Monkeys (1995), which should be touted in collegiate film courses as an example of the “how did someone greenlight this?” subset of cinema. While La jetée was made in the early 1960s as part the final years of the French New Wave, when creativity was key and budgets nearly non-existent, 12 Monkeys is a full-on Hollywood feature film starring established movie stars and enough cash to have live zoo animals on set. That in itself was unusual; while a science fiction film with Bruce Willis has been a solid financial proposition in the last few decades, its director has not. Terry Gilliam is as rare a filmmaker as Maker was, with a style light years away. Gilliam began behind the scenes at “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” transitioning into feature films first by co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and then taking full responsibility on Jabberwocky (1977). Both films revealed a unique, handmade style that made Gilliam’s work instantly recognizable, culminating in his masterpiece 1985 Brazil. His career was derailed for the first (and by no means last) time by the skyrocketing budget of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), which made him an iffy proposition to helm Hollywood films. That is, if movies about time traveling dwarfs, state mandated torture and a fondness for creepy, old fashioned puppetry wasn’t enough. But Gilliam was pulling himself up by his bootstraps, mid-career, and, in a strange way, 12 Monkeys was almost a natural step for him. It had bizarre notions about the nature of reality and perception; it was set in multiple times and places, all of them looking like a dirty fever dream; the process of making it was infused with the kind of senseless logic his films are known for.

Both films are unique in their own way, despite sharing most of the same storyline and concepts. Both are science fiction films that don’t pay much attention to the “science” part of that phrase, and both have a final act twist that skews the whole notion of what’s been going on the whole film while not diminishing the awful climactic tragedy. Despite that, La jetée and 12 Monkeys are nothing alike, at least on the surface. But beneath that, the two films share a sensibility, a kind of tone that is difficult to articulate in words but can only felt when experiencing them. This is not to say you could flip on a TV and mistake one for the other (and if you live in an area where La jetée is broadcast on TV, send me your address, I’ll be there soon). Far from it. But both films have a spiritual skeleton that despite the vast differences in approach and technique, links them more strongly than their shared plot.

The films share a central conceit: a man travels through time to try to salvage the broken world of his present. In La jetée, survivors of World War III live underneath the ruins of Paris, where scientists attempt their time travel experiments on convicts. In 12 Monkeys, the planet has been ravaged by a worldwide virus that decimated the human population, sending them deep underground to be controlled by a fascistic scientific government. Upon arriving in the past, both time travelers find themselves compelled to contact a mysterious woman, somehow connected to a childhood memory of witnessing a man being shot to death in an airport. So far, so good.

In many ways, the two films act as funhouse mirrors of each other, sharing characters and scenes that are almost but not quite the same. In La jetée, the time traveler is an unnamed man (Jean Négroni, who also serves as narrator) who is largely a passive character; being that he is transported into the past, he inherently cannot change anything or truly act in any meaningful way. On the other hand, 12 Monkeys is a Hollywood film, and if convict James Cole (Willis) is going to travel through time to a living past, he’s going to punch some shit while he’s there. When La jetée’s protagonist visits his mysterious lady (Hélène Chatelain), she wonders whether he’s a dream or really a man, essentially whether his existence in her world is real. Conversely, when Cole meets Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe), she’s a psychologist who diagnoses him as “mentally divergent.” She questions his memories of a future world, defining not him, but his origin as unreal. They’re complementary versions of the same concepts, of who is real and what is reality. In one, the hero is thought to not be real, while the world around him is assumed to be, even though from his perspective, it’s simply a series of still tableaus. In the other, the protagonist’s reality is taken for granted, but his entire world assumed as a delusion. Rather than imitate or even entirely re-imagine, 12 Monkeys approaches the ideas of La jetée from different angles, revealing new questions from the same thoughts.

As the two films go on, their stories diverge somewhat. La jetée involves trips to the future and a power source that will paradoxically revitalize the present. 12 Monkeys brings in a creepy Brad Pitt as a trust fund mental patient and a bio-terrorism plot. But both shift back to the same climactic moment in an airport, in which both time travelers realize that the dim childhood memory they have of seeing a man die was the memory of their own death. In both films, it’s a fatalistic moment in stories already consumed with the nature of predestination and mutability. Did these men live their lives only to fulfill a death that’s already happened? Or were there choices they could have made? Both films leave it unanswered.

And from a technical standpoint, La jetée and 12 Monkeys are marvels. Gilliam’s idiosyncratic style was as complete as it ever has been by the time of his film, all Gothic grotesques, weird angles and washed-out, cramped sets. The fact that it may not seem anything remarkable is more a testament to his ability to make an entirely unique visual sense seem commonplace, even within his own oeuvre. But it’s still a Hollywood movie with a budget (one that the director was grimly determined to come in under after his Munchausen debacle), which included the ability to create brief World War I battlefield scenes, giraffes blocking traffic on a crowded highway and to make Pitt look less than sexy. La jetée is something else entirely. With the exception of a single brief scene, Marker’s film is composed entirely of still images with narration explaining the action. Scene after scene of black and white photographs, some indistinct, some chilling, carry on the narrative. It’s filled with indelible images such as a bedridden man travelling through time and space, his eyes covered with surgical pads, or a museum tour of taxidermied animals stuck in time. Beneath the flat, uninflected narration, there’s a whole strata of whispers in German, like ghosts speaking just out of reach. The effect is simple and born out of necessity (Marker simply had no budget and made do with access to film for only one scene) but amazingly effective. Despite our pre-conditioning to the nature of motion pictures, the series of still pictures draws a viewer in just as much, into a world in which time is eternally at a standstill.

12 Monkeys is an enjoyable, intriguing film that manages to escape its Hollywood origins and become a Gilliam film as much as any in his oeuvre. La jetée is a film like no other, a true sign of genius manipulating limited means into a greater, unexpected piece of art. From a critical viewpoint, La jetée is undoubtedly the superior film: it’s unprecedented in style, innovative in technique and truly original. For its part, 12 Monkeys is a far more entertaining film, able to balance philosophical rumination with violence, tinges of horror and Gilliam’s trademark gallows humor. But as different as both movies are, they manage to keep the same essential tone through diverging storylines and directorial style. 12 Monkeys isn’t as simple as a remake of La jetée, it’s something much more like a distorted reflection. The two movies aren’t the same film, but they are the same story, just different.

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Josh Gonzalez

    Super interesting information, I loved 12 monkeys back in 1995 when I watched it at the movie theater for the first time and today in 2020 I found your post while searching La jetée 12 monkeys comparison because I found out in the writing credits on imdb there was a connection between the two movies.

    Thanks for sharing this to the world, best regards from Mexico 🇲🇽


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