“12 Monkeys”

Combining time-travel thriller and experimental film, Terry Gilliam's 1995 oddball classic steals a tale of doomed love and cruel fate from Hitchcock -- then pays back the debt.


Alchemy seemed unlikely. A Bruce Willis action flick based on a French film made of still photos. A serious rumination on love and fate by the guy who, a few years earlier, had made “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” one of the memorable bombs of Hollywood history. A time-travel thriller that dares to compare itself to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” But this 1995 holiday-season release finds a profound poignancy in its sci-fi premise and actually pays back its debt to Hitchcock in a scene so layered it spins a new twist into his bottomless spiral of a movie.

That scene falls toward the end of “12 Monkeys,” which is, like “Vertigo,” a love story between a damaged detective and a dead beauty. Willis’ James Cole, sent from the 2030s, hides out with his psychiatrist, kidnap victim and lover, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), in a theater where “Vertigo” is showing. It’s late 1996; a viral plague will kill her and 5 billion others in a few weeks. On-screen, Kim Novak’s first incarnation explains her bogus “past life” to Jimmy Stewart, pointing to the dated rings in the trunk of a fallen redwood. “I was born here, here I died.”

“I saw this movie when I was a kid,” Cole remembers. He was 8 when the virus was released — now, in other words — and was among the handful of survivors who went to live underground. Evidence has just forced Dr. Railly to believe him, and she’s finally stopped calling his apocalyptic warnings “a meticulously constructed fantasy.”

A meticulously constructed fantasy — like Kim Novak’s preposterous impersonation in the first part of “Vertigo” and like Jimmy Stewart’s crazed makeover in the second. As the 1990s lovers watch the older film, Cole marvels, “The movie never changes. It can’t. But every time you see it, it’s different, because you’re always a different person.” As Jimmy Stewart never does, Cole grasps the futility of trying to relive a moment locked away in time.

“12 Monkeys” constantly refers to movies, and its looping structure suggests the cinephile’s obsessive return to certain films. Cole’s remark certainly reverberated with my “Vertigo”(s): The first six or so times I saw the Hitchcock film, I agonized along with Jimmy Stewart at his inability to go back and save his partner, and his inability to see the real Kim Novak instead of the fake. But on the seventh viewing, I saw a movie about being an actress. Novak’s frustration at being a cipher, at being loved for one particular presentation of self, is more universally resonant than a cop’s guilt for deaths not prevented, which was obvious to my later but not my former self.

“12 Monkeys” created yet another “Vertigo” for me, partly because its lovers share a conviction held only, in real life, by street people, fringe Christians and New Yorker cartoons: The end is nigh. In this light, and from a fin de siècle where shared sexual fantasies are discussed, accepted, even expected, Stewart and Novak’s inability to line up their delusions becomes all the sadder. Stewart ends up not just crazy and betrayed but utterly alone, cut off — twice! — from the woman, or the piece of her, that he loves. And she loves him and is just as willing to bend reality to accommodate him.

In “12 Monkeys,” the hero can’t go back and “fix” the past any more than Stewart does. But light enters the closed room of predetermination when Cole connects with the woman in his dream.

“12 Monkeys” opens with the dream, which we will see over and over in slightly different form until the end, when we loop back and arrive at its source. A little boy’s blue eyes (the shot that opens and closes the film) watch a man get shot in the back at an airport. He tumbles to the ground; a blond woman races to him and screams “No,” dropping to the floor to embrace him. “12 Monkeys” is quite faithful to its source, the 1962 short “La Jetée” by experimental filmmaker Chris Marker, which is a concise, post-apocalyptic loop that also begins and ends with an airport shooting.

Husband and wife screenwriters David and Janet Peoples, whose credits also included “Blade Runner” for Ridley Scott and “Unforgiven” for Clint Eastwood, elegantly fill out the spare structure of “La Jetée.” Cole is a violent convict who gets “volunteered” by his sinister jailers to scout the past — not to change history but rather to find the virus in its pure form so a scientist can be sent to study it and create an antidote.

The painterly lighting and set design help us understand why Cole eventually chooses a doomed past for his present. “Topside” is shot in cool blues, starting with an eerily empty Philadelphia, in which Cole pads around wearing a huge space suit: The earth’s surface is no more habitable than the moon’s. The underground city, meanwhile, is greenish yellow, with ominous smoke and clanging pipes and stabbing white spotlights. The scientists who zap Cole around the space-time continuum are director Terry Gilliam’s standard leering grotesques, shot in hideous fisheye and ominous zooms familiar from his earlier (and overrated) “Brazil.” But here the frantic din below serves to frame the quiet, nuanced love story in the air above.

Cole is first shot accidentally to 1990 Baltimore and is promptly locked in a mental institution, where his doctor is Railly, a dark-haired beauty. She first sees Cole in a cage, rocking on his haunches, in restraints, Thorazine drool streaming from his mouth. His ravings about the end times sound like those of many other patients, yet she’s oddly tender with him. She tells the other doctors she feels like she’s seen him before.

Also in the loony bin is Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the rebellious, eco-warrior son of an eminent virologist. By the time Cole is re-shot to November 1996, a week before the plague is unleashed, Goines has moved to Philadelphia and formed his Army of the 12 Monkeys, a group of hilariously petulant animal activists who have no idea what Goines is up to. Clues indicate that the bumbling “army” is/was behind the viral terrorism. After stumbling around 1996 Baltimore a bit, Cole hides in Dr. Railly’s back seat and abducts her as she is coming out of her lecture on “the Cassandra complex.” He forces her to drive him to Philadelphia to track down the virus.

“12 Monkeys” is at its best inside a car, which is peculiar in A) a sci-fi special-effects epic and B) an ecological cautionary tale. Looking forward at the road, Cole and Kathryn’s faces can register what they might not if they were facing each other. Years fall off the middle-aged Cole as he sucks in air, shouting happily with his huge bald head thrust out the window. He begs Kathryn to crank the car radio, bouncing on the seat like an 8-year-old. He exults, “I love the music of the 20th century,” and the music on the radio is self-consciously “nostalgic”: Fats Domino, Louis Armstrong, Link Wray.

Stowe’s beautiful, expressive eyes show fear, doubt, respect for the integrity of Cole’s delusion, an exasperated affection. As they grow closer, the radio bulletins on “eminent psychologist kidnapped by the dangerous mental patient” seem further and further from what’s unfolding in the car.

Cruising north up I-95, she explains how snippets of reality form his delusion. Meeting Goines in the hospital six years earlier, she explains, has placed him at the center of Cole’s conviction that he’s about to destroy the world. But when Cole tells Kathryn he thinks she’s in his dream, she’s more rattled. “No, James, I’m just in the dream now because of this situation,” she answers, gulping nervously. He answers — what else? — “No, it’s always been you.”

Pulpy dialogue that makes literal sense is one of the many ways “12 Monkeys” savors its own movieness. Cole, battered, bald and confused by all the time changes, is stripped of all frills, sort of an exaggeration of Willis’ action persona. He looks like a malevolent turtle. When Railly protests his stomping to death a man who is preparing to rape her, he bellows, “All I see are dead people” (an odd pre-echo of “The Sixth Sense,” just as Brad Pitt’s babbling hippie previews Tyler Durden, his “Fight Club” anti-consumer). The impending death of everyone on earth does give Cole a sort of moral pass for all the people he smashes up as he tracks the virus and flees the police, who are after him now for the rapist’s murder as well as Railly’s kidnapping.

Stockholm syndrome evolves into trust as James and Kathryn move across the gulfs of kidnapper and victim, doctor and patient, Cassandra and doubter and, of course, time. The last time Cole is shot back to the future, his present, he’s decided to believe Dr. Railly that he’s crazy. “You’re not real,” he moans to the creepy scientists who control the time machine, finally convincing them to send him back. Kathryn meanwhile comes across incontrovertible evidence that Cole has been in different times, and they finally arrive where same-dimension lovers do: They accept, and inhabit, each other’s version of the world.

And they are both right; the plague will (almost certainly) happen, but Cole’s dream does change with his circumstances. Once Brad Pitt appears in it, instead of the blond, pony-tailed man who really has the virus — a Hitchcockian McGuffin in dream and reality.

James and Kathryn briefly hide from the police in a pay-by-the-hour prostitute hotel, the perfect spot for entering someone else’s “meticulously controlled fantasy.” Standing meekly before Kathryn, Cole professes, “I want this to be the present. I want to stay here with you,” and he’s every lover who wants to freeze the moment (which leaves out very few — why else are weddings so heavily photographed?). They slip off to buy disguises, then into the theater that’s showing “Vertigo,” where he puts on a wig, mustache and Hawaiian shirt as she goes into the ladies’ room.

When he emerges from the theater, she’s a blonde, and he says, “It was always you.” She touches his hair and says, “I remember you like this,” and then we do, too. It’s the tumbling man. They decide to spend their last week on earth together at the beach and head to the airport.

The final, “real” version of the dream unfolds to elegiac string music, all our previous glimpses of the scene piling up to a scene all the more tragic for its inevitability. The lovers spot the maniac with the virus and try to change history after all. Cole runs after the mass murderer and is shot from behind by the police. The virus makes it onto the plane. Kathryn, cradling the dying Cole’s head, looks up straight into the eyes of 8-year-old Cole, burning the scene into his head, ensuring that this is not the end of the loop, that his life will continue on again through the apocalypse.

A glimmer of hope appears on the plane — a scientist from the future is on board — but in all likelihood, the hero doesn’t save the day and never will. Unlike Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo,” though, he does get to share the doomed world, if only for a stolen moment. That has to be enough, and it is.

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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