Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys

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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.  

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The Zero Theorem Review

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Terry Gilliam’s latest movie is one of his masterpieces.  The Zero Theorem, staring Christoph Waltz, is a subversive science fiction movie that uses the future to show us our present.  It is full of ideas, great performances, and is a visual wonder.

The movie follows Q, someone that works a mundane office job, as he tries to solve the zero theorem, which is a mathematical equation that will prove that life is meaningless.  Q is a damaged individual that takes no joy out of life.  He is an introvert that tries as much as possible to avoid human communication.  He wants to work from home, so that he has even less contact with others.  He unwillingly goes to a party at his supervisor’s house.  There he meets the boss of his company who grants his wish to work from home as long as he will work on the theorem.  At the party he also meets a young and beautiful woman that shows interest in him.

Q spends his days waiting for a phone call that he believes will give him the meaning of his life.  Much of the film deals in symbolism like this.  The phone call represents anything outside of ourselves that we believe will give us the answer to life’s mystery.  The dialog in the film, like the film itself, jumps back and forth between the absurdly comic and of a more philosophical nature.  However, just because the film deals heavily in symbolism, does not mean that the main characters are not three dimensional or that the world is not fully realized.

Visually the film is an absolute masterpiece, both for the cinematography, the realization of the world that the characters in habited, and the sheer amount of ideas that are on the screen.  In Q’s house there is a crucifixion where Jesus’s head is replaced by a camera that watches Q’s every move.  In his office he is working on what looks like an absurd video game with a video game controller replacing the typical office keyboard.  I have worked several office jobs in the last ten years and working on a meaningless video game is not too far from the truth of what a great deal of office work is like.

The colors explode on screen.  Every scene looks like it was carefully orchestrated.  Every nook and cranny of the film looks like it had thought put into it.

The film is like our world, but on steroids.  If the capitalism that runs our country is allowed to continue one can imagine that this is what our world will turn into.  Commercials follow Q down the street as he commutes to work.  The party scene, with its garish colors and cartoonish behavior, looks like a modern nightclub taken to its logical conclusion.  The characters work ridiculous jobs that bring no meaning to their lives.  Terry Gilliam is showing us the absurdity of our world.  He is just pushing things a little further so that the everyday becomes new again.

Even though this film is very subversive, it is not without heart.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the film is not without some small sliver of hope.  Gilliam knows what is important despite how much we get wrong.

If you are a fan of Gilliam’s work than I highly recommend this film.  if you don’t know any of his work, but are willing to try something that will make you think, then give this film a try.  Some critics have described this film as Gilliam-lite, but I don’t agree.  This is a unique filmmaker operating at the height of his powers.  This is like a modern update of his masterpiece Brazil.   While Brazil dealt with a dreamer in the middle of a  bureaucracy, this movie imagines a future where corporations run everything.

On a personal note I watched this movie the night of the election.  Feeling somewhat depressed I decided to watch something else other then the returns.  It was one of those instances where art makes one feel less alone.  I thought, “Thank god someone understands what is going on.”  Gilliam is a tremendous filmmaker and we are lucky to have him amongst us.  He is one of those rare souls that uses his imagination to paint the world as it truly is.