Just as Star Wars shifted the focus of science fiction from inner space to outer space, so there is a trend in the 1980s and 1990s for time travel films which are more concerned with the mechanics of time travel than its metaphysical implications. For all the intelligence of Back to the Future, its fascination with how a flux capacitor could actually work leads us to get distracted from the deeper impact had on the characters. Eventually this trend of effects over depth gave us the likes of Timecop, in which time travel is little more than an action gimmick.
In one fell swoop, Twelve Monkeys completely redresses this imbalance which has dogged this sci-fi sub-genre for some time. Taking the best elements of the Chris Marker short Le Jetee, it draws on the likes of Blade Runner and Slaughterhouse Five to create a chilling and compelling portrait of both a post-apocalyptic future and a chaotic near-present on the brink of destruction.
The examination of time travel in Twelve Monkeys centres around Novikov's self-consistency principle. This complicated area of theoretical physics deals with the issue of paradoxes - for instance, going back in time to kill one's own grandfather. It essentially postulates that while time travel may be physically and technically possible, the past and future cannot be altered because any intervention by the traveller would create a paradox.
A good cinematic example to illustrate this is the much-maligned ending of Superman, in which Superman reverses time by spinning the Earth backwards so he can avert an earthquake and stop Lois from being killed. In this example, the cause of Superman going back in time is the death of Lois - but if he changes events and she lives, he would have no reason to go back and so Lois would still die. The timelines correct themselves, with cause and effect cancelling each other out.
Twelve Monkeys expands this realisation into a fascinating thesis on the futility of humanity and its inability to avert potential, self-imposed disasters. Novikov's logic is present throughout: Cole is chosen to go back because he is a good observer, rather than some kind of hero who can stop the virus. The scientists who send him there are only interested in finding a cure for their society, rather than stopping the virus at its inception. Cole witnesses his own death but can do nothing to prevent it. Arguably he causes it the crisis as well, considering what happens when he is sent to the wrong time the first time out.
Cole and his counterparts are modern-day Cassandras: in the words of Dr. Railly, they have "the agony of foreknowledge combined with impotence to do anything about it." Cole's agony is aggravated by the flashbacks of the airport, which become more significant and poignant as the film rolls on. There is a through-line between Cole's predicament and that of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five; both characters have some foreknowledge of their own deaths and some form of fatalistic contempt for the powers-that-be, whether they be generals or scientists.
To prevent such a depressing thesis from weighing the film down, Twelve Monkeys is shot is a deeply disorientating manner. There are many Terry Gilliam tropes involved such as unusual camera angles and cleverly timed zooms which gave a sense of scale and demonstrate how small our protagonists are. Most of the scenes (especially those with Brad Pitt) have an immense kinetic energy, with a script which walks a tightrope between wacky profundity and blathering nonsense. But unlike on his later films, Gilliam's execution of these scenes is perfect and profundity always wins out.
Like Brazil and The Fisher King before it, Twelve Monkeys is a great examination of insanity and the thin line between madness and genius. But what makes this film clever is the way in which our perceptions of madness and sanity shift as the characters develop and more information about the apocalypse comes to light. There is a rich thread running throughout the film about the assumed status and logic of psychiatry, and how this status is used to manipulate people. This clearly hints back to the work of French philosopher Michael Foucault, whose work in Discipline and Punish explored the relationship between knowledge (e.g. the discipline of psychiatry) and power (the way individuals can be controlled through the received credibility of said discipline).
At the beginning, we are convinced that Cole is the only sane person within the world of the film. The doctors who examine him in 1990 diagnose him as mad on the basis of the accepted wisdom of psychiatry, the "new religion". But by the final half-hour, it is Railly who is convinced that he was telling the truth, while Cole wants to accept that he is delusional. In the end, we don't know how real anything is any more. We remain glued to the story because of the high stakes and tension, but are just as confused, hysterical and disorientated as the characters, which in testament to the immersive power of the film.
This rich, enticing vein of ambiguity runs throughout the screenplay, which comes from the co-writers of Blade Runner. This time round it is not a question of who is human and who is a replicant, but who is mad or sane. And as in Blade Runner, there is an appealing third possibility - namely that neither distinction matters because the lines between them are blurry, artificial constructs. Like Deckard and Rachael before them, Cole and Railly choose to abandon their intended paths and escape, not just from this dark world but from all concept of reality. Fantasy and reality blur into one in the final section: one moment they are in a cinema showing Vertigo and The Birds, the next Railly is a Hitchcockian blonde who appears as Cole's salvation.
Aside from its bleak exploration of time travel, Twelve Monkeys is a great political document, subtly tipping its hat to a wide range of contemporary issues. Having a virus which is destined to wipe out most of mankind can be interpreted as a reaction to the growing AIDS pandemic. The film is deeply cynical about political action, depicting the Army of the Twelve Monkeys as "teenagers playing revolution" in the mother of all red herrings. And many of Brad Pitt's jabberings in the mental hospital are insightful comments about Western culture. Comments about people becoming little more than consumers and being infantilised by television are closely reminiscent of Neil Postman's arguments in Amusing Ourselves to Death.
The performances in Twelve Monkeys are all of the highest calibre. Bruce Willis gives his finest performance as Cole, displaying genuine sensitivity and emotional depth so that we truly feel the pain and suffering of his character. The few action sequences in the film are downplayed so that they don't feel like John McClane has just burst into the future.
Madeleine Stowe has the same stoic noir beauty that Sean Young has in Bade Runner, managing to show frenzy without ever overcooking it. Brad Pitt is great, managing to play crazy without annoying us, and giving a rounded performance fully deserving of his Oscar nomination. And David Morse is downright chilling in his pivotal role; certainly it's a million miles from Brutus Howell in The Green Mile.
Twelve Monkeys is an outstanding science fiction film written and directed with confidence and intelligence. The performances are superb, the visuals and set design are captivating, the dialogue is both funny and poignant, and the ending is truly perfect. As a Gilliam film it takes pride of place next to Brazil, and it is up there with The Green Mile as one of the greatest films of the 1990s. It is an utter triumph from every conceivable angle, that will scramble your brain and then stay with you forever.