February 7, 2013

Two Movies, 12 Monkeys

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The first time I saw 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s tale of time travel and global catastrophe, it blew my mind. Yes, I was only 11, and most of my other experiences in the realm of science fiction had involved cute little animals forcibly stuffed into little balls, and yes, almost the entirety of the plot flew completely over my head, but the movie revealed possibilities I had never before imagined as possible. The movie’s most important takeaway, as I later learned through subsequent views, concerns the subjectivity of memory and the limits of our perception of reality. In my case, 12 Monkeys had altered both — and my perception of film, culture and society would never be the same. I wasn’t the only one affected by 12 Monkeys: When the film was released in 1995, it was met with many critical accolades, though not without serious reservations about the film’s admittedly convoluted plot. Yet, few critics realized the film’s link to La Jetée, a French science-fiction “film” composed almost entirely of a montage in which pictures taken immediately before disasters are coldly analyzed to create a loosely coherent plot. It is difficult to immediately see the link between these two films: How can a convoluted  futuristic thriller, filled with expensive special effects and high-budget acting be based on a 29-minute collection of stills from the 60’s?To start, the films share a similar plot. In La Jetée, a prisoner living in the devastated remnants of post-WWIII Paris is sent back and forth through time to find food, supplies and a way to save what is left of Earth. All the while he is tortured by a perpetual memory that he does not understand the origin or meaning of. Similarly, in 12 Monkeys, a prisoner is sent back in time to stop a virus from wiping out most of humanity while he is haunted by an ever-present and ever-changing dream of people who he does not recognize being murdered. In both films, any further details would act as spoilers, but, suffice it to say, Gilliam was inspired deeply by the Chris Marker’s seminal work, which was rated the best time travel movie of all time by Time Magazine in 2010.  The two films could not be further apart in terms of style, at least on the surface.  Marker’s minimalist creation, whose moderation is clear in every aspect of the production, is almost unrecognizable in Gilliam’s overstuffed epic that features a budget in the millions rather than the thousands, hordes of well-known actors and zoo animals (Marker’s work had a budget of just about 0). It is difficult to say whether this divergence makes one of the films “better” than the other; yet, it is clear that Gilliam’s work is a very different beast than its ancestor.Despite this superficial difference, the two works share a sort of sensibility, a tone derived from the worlds of delusion they create and a hopeless feeling that endures after viewing. 12 Monkeys undoubtedly tilts between a balance of philosophy and entertaining violence, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: In the end, both films make you think. Though the questions they raise differ, they share an ability to turn one’s traditional understanding of the world upside down. 12 Monkeys is screening at Cornell Cinema this Saturday at 9:30 p.m.

Original Author: Sam Bromer