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Twelve Monkeys

Entry updated 30 August 2021. Tagged: Film.

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Film (1995). Polygram Filmed Entertainment and Universal Pictures present an Atlas Entertainment production. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by David & Janet Peoples, inspired by La Jetée (1963) by Chris Marker. Cast includes David Morse, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, John Seda, Madeleine Stowe and Bruce Willis. 129 minutes. Colour.

A time traveller sent back to 1996 to trace the source of a worldwide biological catastrophe is haunted by a childhood memory which turns out to be the sight of his own adult self's death.

The finest product of Gilliam's Hollywood phase and one of the most affecting Time Travel films ever made, this unlikely studio package took the remake rights to Marker's experimental classic and assigned the project to Blade Runner (1982) writer David Peoples on the back of his widely acclaimed Unforgiven (1992); the resulting script, which Peoples wrote in collaboration with his wife, became Gilliam's second for-hire work following The Fisher King (1991). As in Marker's film, the hero is a prisoner in a Post-Holocaust future where humanity has abandoned the surface to live Underground, though now the Disaster is not World War Three but a lethal virus-based Pandemic (see also Medicine). Thereafter the plot becomes considerably more elaborate, abandoning Marker's upline jumps to a farther future in favour of a more actor-friendly expansion of the present-day psychological drama, as the time traveller (Willis) finds his grasp on reality slipping under the effort of repeated dislocations and existence in two separate eras; in a neat reversal, the psychiatrist (Stowe) who initially attempts to persuade the hero that his future world is a delusional construct winds up having to persuade him that it is not. Meanwhile a complex network of clues and red herrings is constructed around the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, an animal rights movement which seems to hold the key to the virus' release, and a series of message drops to the future as the doubly inexorable climax approaches – though the dense plotting leaves some motivational turns dangerously sketchy, and only determined narrative distraction leads the eye away from the fantastic coincidences on which the whole apparatus is built. A making-of documentary, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (1996) by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (who would go on to make Lost in La Mancha [2002] and Brothers of the Head [2005], the latter from the novel by Brian Aldiss), shows a Gilliam ill at ease with Hollywood pressures and compromises, and struggling to maintain confidence in the coherence of his vision; but in truth the film is something of a triumph, with Gilliam's growing Hollywood experience enabling much more adventurous and emotionally loaded work with his actors. Willis, in particular, gives the strongest performance in his own career and the director's oeuvre. Despite some seeming visual quotations, Gilliam made his film without himself having ever seen Marker's – though Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), already an important intertext in Marker's film, is still more extensively and ingeniously referenced. Conversely, Gilliam makes superb use of the script's settings in Baltimore and Philadelphia, neither of which either Peoples had ever actually visited. The novelization is Twelve Monkeys (1995) by Elizabeth Hand. [NL]


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