Film Review 2017 - #17 Twelve Monkeys

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

After ‘9’, the fates determined that I should watch a second consecutive sci-fi movie set in a post-apocalyptic world.

"Do you believe in fate, Neo?"
“Why not?”
“Because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”

We don’t believe in fate, obviously.  In fact the eighteen 2017 movies are being watched in alphabetical and then numerical order.  Not much fate there.

Strange, nevertheless, that the fated film should be concerned with the paradoxical nature of free will and determinism.  A criminal living in a not-too-distant future is given the opportunity to win his freedom by returning to an earlier time where he is to find an antidote to the virus that has been the cause of the apocalypse.  He acts throughout as though he is making his own, free choices; yet the future from which he hails depends, of course, on particular things having happened in the past.  Is he ‘fated’ to make certain choices?  Or were his choices genuinely ‘free’ at the time and only appear fated because he is now in the past, where they have already happened?

Or can his free choices in the past cause the future to change, with the possible consequence that none of the events that caused him to be a prisoner in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian state will come to pass, with the further consequence that he will not have been sent back to the past to make the changes that cause that future to be different?

To an extent, this is standard paradoxical sci-fi fare – or, at least, standard ‘sci-fi with time travel’ fare – of the kind with which we have all become familiar post-Philip K Dick.

But there are two things, in particular, that elevate Twelve Monkeys far, far above ‘standard fare’ and into the realm of the wonderful, the moving and the powerful: Terry Gilliam; and Bruce Willis.

Gilliam does the job of creating the world in which the movie takes place; and he does so with an extraordinary mix of tenderness, paranoia, bewilderment, humour and attention to detail.  The filth of the prison sits alongside the calm fatalism of the prisoners.  The grime of the post-apocalyptic world is juxtaposed with the faltering effectiveness of the technology.  The prisoner’s dreams, his emotional needs and the Herculean challenges he faces live amid the collisions of madness and reason, of individual effort and bureaucratic indifference.  We are in a completely realised world – unimaginable, yet imagined; ridiculous and impossible, yet horribly, awfully plausible.  Gilliam knows what he is doing, and he does not hold back.  He gives us everything, with both barrels.

We should perhaps not be surprised.  Gilliam, after all, learned the craft of eliding the philosophical with the absurd in his days with Monty Python, and had already made the remarkable Brazil.

What is much harder to comprehend, perhaps, is Bruce Willis.  Bruce Willis?  I looked it up, and it’s amazing.  He enters the public consciousness via a television series called ‘Moonlighting’ which runs from 1985 to 1989.  It is a lightweight rom-com-cum-private-investigator thing, funny and a bit strange, but massively mainstream.  In 1988 he stars in ‘Die Hard’ and becomes a global superstar.  He makes the sequels and is then surely set for a career of mainstream A-lister movies of stunning mediocrity.

Instead, in a six year sequence, he appears in the following films:

1994 - Pulp Fiction

1995 - Twelve Monkeys

1997 - The Fifth Element

1998 - Armageddon

1999 - Sixth Sense

2000 - Unbreakable

Now that, to my mind, is an amazing sequence of movies.  (I reckon it would be a great alternative to a box-set binge.)  There’s certainly a sci-fi vibe; or, perhaps, an ‘irreality’.  And some of them – notably Armageddon – were huge commercial successes.  But they are surely not ‘mainstream’.

What is Willis doing?  More precisely: what is it that Willis does?

We see it in Twelve Monkeys.  He has a very unusual gift.  He plays bulky, physical, handsome heroes – but he is pained, he is tender, he is conflicted.  He makes mistakes.  He does not choose the story of which he is a part, he is 'volunteered' - and this is true in Pulp Fiction (it is an accident that sees him in an underground sex-dungeon with Marcellus), The Fifth Element (the god lands in his taxi), Armageddon (he's working on an oil rig, he's not an astronaut), Sixth Sense (where he is haunted by ghosts) and Unbreakable (he is born with abilities he neither recognises nor understands).

Is Willis working it all out in front of us?  Working out his own demons?

And is he, somehow, despite being handsome and famous and gifted and all that Hollywood jazz, just like us?  A bit bewildered, not really clear why this should be happening to him rather than someone else?  Doing his best, but not really sure what that is or what it means and certainly not clear whether what he thinks of as 'best' is actually 'the right thing to do'?

This, I think, is his gift, and it is astonishingly present in Twelve Monkeys.  Somehow, by conveying strength with vulnerability, action with doubt, heroism with flaws, he is a special kind of movie star.  He draws us in.  No matter how fantastical, how preposterous (think Armageddon!), how far removed from reality - and Twelve Monkeys is a long, long way from reality - Willis gives us access: access to the insides of the movie, access to the emotional reality of existence, access to ourselves.

And in concert with Gilliam, in Twelve Monkeys he gives us access to wonderment, to laughter, to tears, to tension and - best and most incredibly of all - to hope.


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