“The movie never changes. It can’t change. But every time you see it, it seems different because you’re different. You see different things.” With this line, Bruce Willis’ character, Cole, beautifully sums up the story, the film and time travel in general.
Terry Gilliam’s amazing film Twelve Monkeys, is based off the French short film La Jetée. The structure of the two films is similar, but Monkeys is about four times as long, making use of fleshing out the main characters of James Cole and Kathryn Railly. You can see my review on La Jetée above for the basic plot, which is similar here. Cole is sent on several missions thru time to get a sample of the virus that has threatened mankind.
Though there’s additional ambiguity in this film, I think the biggest difference is that Cole succeeds on his mission, where we are unsure if the traveller in La Jetée was able to make a difference. Monkeys also comments on the nature of film vs reality, as seen in the initial quote I referenced above. Gilliam is a crafty director and includes much for the viewer to see on repeat viewings. There are clues hidden throughout this film, that cannot be gleaned in a single viewing.
Another reason to see this film is Brad Pitt’s incredible turn as the looney mental patient. He definitely seems like he’s off his meds and about to cause somebody harm. His character goes thru a couple of changes, as the film takes place in multiple years, and it’s interesting to see this “sex symbol” play such an unlikeable person.
The time travel elements in this film are purposefully vague. We’re never sure how the traveling works, just that Cole appears in the mid-1990’s, or in World War I. It appears that Cole may be trying to change the past, as he discovers new clues about the nature of the plague, but as this film keeps telling us, it is possible to change the past. The reference point for the audience is the future, where Cole was sent back from. As he tries to explain, that’s the present. It’s impossible for him to change anything before that. Only his work to identify the cause of the virus, will allow the future/present scientists to work out a cure for their own future. The plot is a closed loop, much like the film itself, as the quote above dictates. We can watch the film over and over again. It’s our past. But nothing that we do will be able to change it. A slightly fatalistic view, but one that is probably more realistic than many other films about time travel.
Twelve Monkeys was voted #6 on Time’s Top 10 Time Travel films from March 2010.