Due to unforeseen circumstances – namely the fact that it turns out to be impossible to start a blu-ray on my blu-ray player without the remote control (!!!) – we were basically forced into the “optional” viewing of La Jetée, which I intended for after the film (both because it spoils Twelve Monkeys a good bit and because technically it has already been shown) while I drove home quick and grabbed the forgotten remote. One thing I learned – it takes about 3-4 minutes less than La Jetée to drive home and back.
Obviously, I’m not going to review La Jetée here as I’ve provided the link above, but I suppose I will get into Twelve Monkeys.
Probably the best place to start is with James Cole, who as a child witnessed a confusing (and obviously traumatic) shooting at an airport. This blurry event sticks in his memory throughout his life, though from that point, things could hardly be said to have gotten better. About a week after this, a massive viral epidemic sweeps the earth, killing almost all of humanity. Along with the other survivors, Cole is forced underground as the ragged remnants try to wait out the virus.
Eventually the society would appear to have devolved into some sort of autocratic dystopia, with a small cadre of leaders dictating the lives of the rest. Though, to be fair, Cole has presumably through some unspecified infraction(s) become a criminal and his treatment must be contextualized through his imprisonment. Perhaps things aren’t quite so dystopic for the law-abiding survivors.
Cole, for his part, ends up getting sent to the surface in a bio-suit to gather information on the current state of the world. The surface is a fairly incongruous world – a city completely abandoned, but populated here and there by large animals, notably a grizzly bear (seems kind of normal) and a lion (that’s a bit weird, because it’s Philadelphia). Cole, however, does so well on his fact-finding trip that he gets volunteered for an even more dangerous mission.
You see, the undergrounders haven’t been completely idle in the maybe thirty years that have passed since the epidemic. For one, they’ve gathered quite a bit of surface intel, some of which points to an unknown group known as The Army Of The Twelve Monkeys having claimed responsibility for the epidemic – particularly through graffiti from immediately before, unremoved due to the fall of society, claiming “We Did It!”. And, for another, the undergrounders have invented a somewhat unreliable time machine. Cole is now to be sent back to 1996, shortly before the epidemic. In a very refreshing time-travel narrative decision, Cole is explicitly NOT sent back to change the past. The undergrounders realize that the epidemic has already happened, and inserting Cole into the timeline in the past isn’t going to change that. But if he can get some information on The Army Of The Twelve Monkeys and the virus, that could be very helpful for the scientists of the future.
Unfortunately, somewhat unreliable time machines are somewhat unreliable, and Cole is sent to 1990 instead of 1996. There he ends up being detained by police and thrown into a mental hospital because he claims he is from the future, where he meets the completely looney Jeffrey Goines, the son of a famous virologist, oddly enough. He also encounters Dr. Kathryn Railly, a psychiatrist assigned to him, and with Railly’s go-ahead he attempts to call a phone number where he was supposed to leave a message for the future undergrounders if he needed to be extracted. Naturally, the phone number doesn’t work yet (because it’s not yet 1996), which probably plants the first seeds of doubt in Cole’s mind of his own sanity. Is he really from the future? Is he crazy like everybody says?
At any rate, Cole is caught during an escape attempt orchestrated by Goines – then mysteriously disappears while restrained in an unescapable room, because unbeknownst to the people of 1990 he was returned to the future, called back by a voicemail claiming a connection between the Twelve Monkeys and the virus that Cole did not leave.
Cole is asked to return to the past again, this time to 1996, to continue his investigations. Things go a bit worse than the first time, and he is transported into the trenches of WWI, where he is shot in the leg. (This is a bit curious, as his other time-travel expeditions go from Philadelphia to Philadelphia. Now, one of the major ignored problems with time travel is that of the x,y,z coordinates. Sure, we’ve moved somebody in t, but if they don’t move in x,y,z as well, the planet just isn’t going to be in the same place. It rotates, it orbits, the sun itself orbits the center of the Milky Way – if you don’t move in x,y,z you’re going to end up in the middle of outer space. So that does kind of put a damper on the whole “unreliable” time travel, because if you miss, you aren’t going to magically end up in Philadelphia anyway just at the wrong time…and you’re damn well not going to end up in the trenches in WWI, right? But, you know, it’s a story. I’ll let that go, since nobody else covers that either.)
But then the undergrounders get it right and zap Cole directly to 1996 where he finds Railly and tries to convince her that he’s from the future while she tries to convince him he’s crazy.
To make a long movie short, forensics on the bullet from Cole’s leg help convince Railly that Cole is a time traveler, she turns out to be the one leaving the message on the phone machine (from 1996, of course), and their investigations into the Twelve Monkeys actually end up causing the epidemic in the first place (just as they always did – time travel done right!) because Railly’s warnings convince Dr. Goines to transfer his security codes to a subordinate to prevent the wrong hands from getting them out of him, only for that subordinate to be a mole with desires to destroy that world. Oops. And it turns out that Jeffrey Goines’ Army did “it”, but the “it” was setting a bunch of zoo animals free.
Cole does get one final chance at a happy ending – or does he? Cole learns that the transponder that allows the undergrounders to retrieve him is located in his front teeth, so he removes his teeth in order to stay in 1996 with Reilly, the two of them having fallen into a sort of grim and desperate love and planning to hop a plane to Key West. But for some reason Cole decides to leave them a message saying that he’s not coming back, which is basically a big, big no-no. The undergrounders send some folks back to assassinate him, even as Cole is trying to kill the mole who is about to destroy the world. And, of course, the man young Cole saw being shot at the airport…was Cole. Just as in La Jetée, the crux memory of the main character’s life is watching his future self be killed. The end.
As I said above, this is a great movie. And my very favorite part of it, perhaps aside from the atmosphere of a Gilliam film (hard to beat), is the fact that it treats time travel in such a realistic fashion. No “change the past”, just one linear story with people jumping in and out of the timeline due to magical future causality. It’s like Primer, but way less complicated and way more fun to watch. Oh, and Brad Pitt as a lunatic is actually probably his second-best role (only behind the stoner in True Romance).