I had one of those days where nothing seemed to go right. I went to walk my dog around the lake and locked my keys in the car and so on. I decided that it was best if I didn’t leave my house the rest of the day. I figured if I went out I would end up driving my car into a bridge embankment like an unguided missile. So tonight I’m staying in and watching the movie 12 Monkeys for the first time in years. Although I have caught parts of it on TV, I haven’t watched it from start to finish since it was in the movies in 1995 when I was still in high school. I’ve always been a big Terry Gilliam film, but I remembered this movie as more of a thriller than it being one of his signature pieces. I thought it was the kind of movie that was totally entertaining, but once you knew the solution to its mysteries, that it didn’t have the multiple watch value of some of his other films.
My memory, as usual, was wrong. The movie is another one of his sic-fi movies, as is The Zero Theorem that I just reviewed. And although at the foreground of this movie is a highly entertaining mystery thriller, in the background is many of the themes that Gilliam delves into in other works. In a world that is absurd, who is really crazy, and who is really insane? Are those that believe put their faith in the order of the world, an order that was constructed by man, any more sane than those that question things? The normal world, or sane one, is one that tortures animals, heavily medicates people that are outside of that norm, and that plays games with nature.
Gilliam, as usual, does an excellent job at creating an imagined future. He does this by creating a future that looks lived in. Even though this movie came out in 1995, his vision of the future doesn’t seem dated. It is a future created by someone with a boundless imagination and true artistic ability. It has an element of steampunk in its look.
However, most of the film takes place in 1990 and 1996. He takes what was then roughly the present and disorients the viewer to it by using the weird angles and wide angle lenses that give the his films a distinctive look. This not only helps to mirror the insanity of its characters, but also allows the viewer to view the everyday with a fresh perspective. It is like we are seeing things that we see every day for the first time. Another way that he exposes the absurdity of our world is by combining things that exist in reality in unique ways. Pink flamingos fly through a northeastern city. In a hallway in the mental hospital early in the film a janitor stands on stilts. All of these things exist in our world, but the way they are combined makes you realize the strangeness that is lurking just below the surface of our world.
Although I felt The Zero Theorem had more to say, and was therefor for me a better film, this movie is actually more accessible. The narrative takes less work for the viewer. Both are brilliant films, but in different ways. The Zero Theorem and his movie Brazil are more heady and full of ideas, but 12 Monkeys has a more compelling narrative. It really depends on what kind of scene you want to get into. For the first time Gilliam viewer or the more casual movie fan I would probably recommend something like 12 Monkeys. If someone was looking for a stranger and more intellectual, if you enjoy surrealism and philosophical underpinnings, then I would probably steer someone to Brazil or The Zero Theorem.