In the early days of COVID-19, before the virus’s spread reached pandemic levels, many cinephiles turned to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and/or Wolfgang Peterson’s Outbreak for guidance about what to anticipate as the situation inevitably worsened. What this didn’t take into account, however, was those films projected what could happen under best-case scenarios where politics took a backseat to science. Now that the world has been dealing with the virus for the better part of a year and will do so for many months to come, as the vaccines that have been developed get parceled out, those continuing to hunker down would be well-advised to heed the lessons of another film: Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, which premiered 25 years ago this month.
Expanding on the basic premise and themes of Chris Marker’s 1962 lo-fi sci-fi short La Jetée (currently streaming on the Criterion Channel), the screenplay by David and Janet Peoples bounces back and forth in time along with protagonist James Cole (played by Bruce Willis at his most engaged). A convict in a subterranean society forced to live deep underground for decades since the surface has been rendered uninhabitable by a deadly virus (a substitute for the radioactive fallout from La Jetée’s World War III), Cole is “volunteered” for a series of increasingly dangerous missions, with the eventual goal of tracing the path of the virus to its source and allowing humanity to reclaim the planet.
Even before time travel enters the picture, Cole is sent topside to gather insects for study by the scientists in charge. This requires him to don full-body rubber gear — including gloves, a cap, and booties — over which he wears a modified flight suit completely enclosed in plastic. It’s such a distinctive ensemble the Academy chose it to represent the film in the supermodel fashion show at the 1996 Oscars when Twelve Monkeys was nominated in the Costume Design category (presented by newly minted 007 Pierce Brosnan) alongside Sense and Sensibility, Braveheart, Richard III, and winner Restoration. (A comparatively safe choice, but it’s worth noting James Acheson, who took home the award, previously worked on Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil.) Beyond how it looks, the outfit’s functionality and integrity are of paramount importance to Cole since a prerecorded voice warns him while he’s suiting up that he won’t be readmitted if it has any tears or undone zippers. As it is, he still suffers the indignity of being sprayed down and brushed clean by men in hazmat suits and has to take his own blood sample before he can be cleared from quarantine and presented to the scientists for debriefing.
In addition to letting science take the lead in response to a global pandemic (and all that entails) and stringently observing sterilization and safety protocols, something else the future society of Twelve Monkeys does right is ensure its medical professionals are provided with adequate PPE. This is evident in the scene where Cole is sent back in time for the second time, having previously been transported to the wrong year by accident. (As the raspy-voiced fellow inmate who may only be in Cole’s head quips, “Science ain’t an exact science with these clowns, but they’re getting better.”)
During his first, abortive visit, Cole wound up under the psychiatric care of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe, who nails the film’s trickiest role), whose genuine concern – and nagging feeling they’ve met before – is the reason he seeks her out six years later. Both times, Cole makes a big show of enjoying the “wonderful, germ-free air” of the 20th century, but it’s on his second jaunt that he eagerly laps up its culture, listening in rapt attention to Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” on Kathryn’s car radio. As vital as his mission is, Cole’s hunger for any reminder of an earlier, simpler time shows no matter how hairy things may get outside, good art can help you forget your troubles, even if it’s only for the duration of a two-minute song or a 24-hour Hitchcock film festival.
In contrast, Cole was too disoriented (or tranquilized) to fully appreciate the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business during his brief stay in a Baltimore mental hospital in 1990, which was when he met unstable animal-rights activist Jeffrey Goines, played by Brad Pitt with enough tics and mannerisms that the Academy had no choice but to nominate him for Best Supporting Actor. The son of a Nobel-winning virologist (played by Christopher Plummer), Jeffrey’s chance encounter with Cole has unexpected consequences when an offhand remark by Cole inspires Jeffrey to form the Army of the 12 Monkeys, which the future scientists believe is responsible for releasing the virus based on faulty intel unwittingly planted by Kathryn. This demonstrates the danger of spreading misinformation, since Cole’s pursuit of the Army proves to be a distraction from the actual culprit, who isn’t identified until it’s almost too late.
As is frequently the case with time-travel stories, a sense of fatalism is baked into Twelve Monkeys. As much as Cole and Kathryn attempt to alter history, their every action only ensures it plays out as it always has. This is exemplified by the film’s tragic ending, which comes straight out of La Jetée and has been its unavoidable conclusion all along. Still, Gilliam includes a cutaway (the “I’m in insurance” scene) that suggests Cole’s mission was a success and his personal sacrifice wasn’t in vain. Like La Jetée, in which the protagonist meets people from a future society that has been rebuilt from the wreckage of his, Twelve Monkeys holds out the possibility that the scientists will be able to do the same for theirs. It’s just a shame their time-traveling guinea pig is unable to reap the benefits.
“Twelve Monkeys” is currently streaming on HBO Max.