12 Monkeys (1995)

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*. Inspired by La Jetée (that was a new credit, by the way, not “from” or “based on” an original). We go from 29 minutes to 130. That’s a bit of inspiration being made to do a lot of work.
*. Terry Gilliam claims not to have seen La Jetée before making this film. It was an inspiration to the screenwriters, not the director.
*. Which explains why the two films aren’t really comparable at all. But still I don’t know why the screenwriters bothered taking from La Jetée the keystone of the plot, which was the least interesting thing about it, while leaving out all of its poetry and magic. There is no meditation here on love and memory. This movie isn’t evocative of anything.
*. The production is all. It’s what makes it a Terry Gilliam movie. All that organic, jury-rigged machinery that doesn’t work, all that dangerous clutter. It’s a profoundly dehumanized vision: people are mere ants in a world run by and for technology.
*. Brad Pitt is a caricature of something. He overacts wildly. I guess in a Gilliam movie that’s not out of place, and perhaps it was even encouraged. Apparently Gilliam loved it, and Pitt did get nominated for an Academy Award. I find his performance wears very quickly and I really wanted to see less of him. Which is just wrong given his charisma and star power. I mean, normally the camera loves this guy.

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*. Was Christopher Plummer the first choice to play Doctor Goines? Why? It’s such a bit part, and he’s not a Southerner. I understand wanting a big name to act as a red herring (Gilliam’s rationale), but they should have found someone else.
*. Gilliam’s fondness for bulky, decrepit, and redundant Dr. Seuss contraptions is an intellectual vice. The interrogation room and giant video ball was one of the most difficult and expensive set designs (and became even more expensive when the studio was sued for ripping the idea off of Lebbeus Woods), but it has no function. It’s concept art. Why lift Cole’s seat up so high? Why confront him by way of screens set in a sphere? Gilliam’s own rationale: “You try to see the faces on the screens in front of you, but the real faces and voices are down there and you have these tiny voices in your ear. To me that’s the world we live in, the way we communicate these days, through technical devices that pretend to be about communication but may not be.”
*. Chemistry. Who understands or can explain it? Willis and Stowe are both very good here, but you don’t feel there’s any connection between them. I think in part because neither of them is really sexual (despite Willis’s frequent nudity and Stowe’s very short dress in her initial appearance, and later being trussed up in bondage).
*. Gilliam likens Railly to a Madonna in the hotel room scene, and that’s part of what’s working against her. She is Cole’s doctor, his caregiver. This point is also indirectly made at the end when she faces the young Cole and we realize that she is that much older than him, old enough to be his mother. They can’t have sex. Hell, he can’t even drive.

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*. The relationship between Cole and Railly was apparently what bothered Gilliam the most in the post-production phase. He didn’t find it believable, and he was right to be concerned. In the fascinating documentary on the making of the movie, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, you see the test audience’s reaction to the question of whether the romance story worked (no one thought it did).
*. Is this a problem? I think so. La Jetée was a love story. In some ways it was a movie about love: the inability to connect to someone else despite all of those oversized romantic gestures. It’s why the man returns to the past; it’s what drives the story. Here it’s only suggested, I think perhaps because Gilliam just doesn’t have a humanistic vision. His characters are always lacking something, and they are naggingly aware of it, but they don’t know what it is.
*. What the hell are the symbols on the giant voltmeter (visible just before they send Willis off in the time tube)? That’s a bit of production design I’d like to have a closer look at. Though I suppose it’s just another of Gilliam’s jokey hamsters. Like that liquid art in the police office you only see for a second.
*. TV is “almost another character in the film” says producer Charles Roven on the commentary here. Which is true given the amount of necessary information we’re fed through the tube about the boy in the well and Railly’s kidnapping. But what was the first movie to use television cartoons as a commentary on what is happening in the film? I’ve noted how I don’t like how intrusive it is in The Wolf of Wall Street, but that’s its usual effect. Here we see a Woody Woodpecker cartoon playing in the hotel room, which has Professor Grossenfibber with his time travel tube. This cartoon/reality parallel is a familiar trope, perhaps because filmmakers think it’s very hip, but it takes me out of the film and I don’t much care for it. I am curious who did it first though.
*. I wonder why Gilliam says that the WW1 episode was his chance to do Paths of Glory. I didn’t see anything of Kubrick in it.
*. I wouldn’t want to lean on this too far, but there’s something very British about Gilliam’s sensibility, even in this American movie. Maybe that’s why he fit in so well with Monty Python. That business of dreaming of better times in the midst of post-industrial blight is very old world, quite removed from the spirit of can-do American optimism. And the distortions of his flat lens make every character into an eccentric if not a grotesque.

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