Twelve Monkeys starts with some lame text-exposition--
"...5 BILLION PEOPLE WILL DIE FROM A DEADLY VIRUS IN 1997...
THE SURVIVORS WILL ABANDON THE SURFACE OF THE PLANET...
ONCE AGAIN THE ANIMALS WILL RULE THE WORLD..."
--but then makes it awesome by tagging it as "Excerpts from interview with clinically diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, April 12, 1990 - Baltimore County Hospital." Great counter to get us going.
The movie doesn't really leave much room for James Cole (Bruce Willis) to actually be insane--far too much detail (as one might expect in a Terry Gilliam film) in the future opening and later future scenes. But, as long as we can understand that Cole might question his reality later, the drama works fine in that regard. Meanwhile, we get what is probably the best time travel movie ever, or high on the list certainly. Like Timecrimes, Twelve Monkeys never contradicts its time travel. It doesn't play with time and the ability to alter the past. It just offers up a fractured sort of loop in time. Cole goes back because he always went back. The movie ends where it begins. It's never about fixing what went wrong.
And, James Cole is an easy mark as a cinematic Christ-Figure... So easy, I'm not sure I even care to calculate it. At a certain point, I just gotta decide that I know the Kozlovic-Black scale well enough to just call it. And, sometimes, it's just obvious.
I'm tempted to talk about the Oscars anyway. This year's Oscars were tonight. I correctly predicted only 18 out of 24 categories. Twelve Monkeys was nominated for two Oscars two decades ago--Brad Pitt for Supporting Actor and Jules Weiss for Costume Design. Brad Pitt also won the Golden Globe for his role as Jeffrey Goines here. It's a showy role, a lot of misplaced energy, overwrought hand gestures, manic speech patterns. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape (Leo, of course, finally won an Oscar tonight for his role in The Revenant) or Jamie Foxx in The Soloist, Pitt has an award-bait kind of role.
In context of the story, here, it's interesting how Cole is actually quite damaged mentally, prone to violent outbursts especially, though he is not insane in the way the doctors think he is. He's also not astute enough to play sane to get out of the hospital. It's like Time Travel 101--you don't keep claiming you're from the future, especially when they already have you in a mental hospital. You tell them what they want to hear.
That is not actually that different from everyday life, of course. Not to claim profundity or anything, but that's Life 101, too--you tell people what they want to hear when they are in a position to mess with your life.
Goines' rant about germs, taken at a different pace, without his weird gestures and tics, is actually quite informative. This movie plays right and left on how people interact with the world, in sane or insane ways. As Goines says, "I'm a mental patient; I'm supposed to act out." The film blurs the lines between the two, sane and insane, quite deliberately. Like Kathryn's (Madeleine Stowe) excitement later when she calls the voicemail to the future; that excitement is crazy.
(A reminder of Gilliam's The Fisher King, toying with the idea that insanity might just be the right response to a world that is crazier than you are.)
Time and our experience of it goes hand in hand with that craziness. A commercial on the television in the mental hospital just said, "Live the moment," and showed a couple in the water in the Florida Keys. It's playing on creating moments in time, imagining time outside now. And, the commercial used Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk" over the visuals. Then, as a Marx Brothers movie plays on that TV, chaos ensues in the ward, with plenty of comedic visuals, as Cole tries to escape. One reality echoes the other.
"Sleepwalk" and a call to Florida come again when Cole makes it to 1996 later.
Subtitle this section: "The Hamster Problem"
The hamster problem is also a documentary (that I have only seen part of on YouTube) included on the DVD for Twelve Monkeys, but first it is a label for a) the madness of Gilliam directing and his attention to detail and b) life's ability to not go as planned. Early in the film we see Cole drawing his own blood and there's a shadow of a hamster running in a wheel. Reportedly, this brief scene took an entire day to film because the hamster would never run when Gilliam needed it to run. On the one hand, this gets us B from above, life not going quite how you want it--outside the context of the film--to echo the trouble Cole has in the film. On the other hand, Cole is like that hamster, sent back by the scientists in the future, sent with a simple job, but mostly just moving in place, accomplishing nothing until it is too late... Except, it isn't too late, because he is not supposed to change events. He is just supposed to find a sample of the original virus and return to the future, a hamster in a time loop. A hamster, ultimately, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Very very little to do, at least.
Subtitle this section: "the Indiana Jones problem"
If you watch The Big Bang Theory or have ever really thought about Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know how inconsequential Indiana Jones is to the plot of that film. All he does is slow down the Nazis a little. Ultimately, it's deus ex machina that stops the action. Jones does next to nothing. We're used to time travel movies where events get changed, of course. Terminator 2 (but not the original Terminator), Back to the Future (and increasingly its sequels), Time Cop (or was his job as cop to keep people from changing things? I can't remember), About Time... Actually, now that I'm double checking a list of time travel movies, I realize that many of them actually don't involve deliberately changing events. Star Trek IV, for example, they just want to steal a whale and change the future. It's fairly close to the plot of Twelve Monkeys in a way. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, they just want to borrow some historical figures for a little while. The Butterfly Effect, of course, is all about changing things. I think I'm thinking of time travel stories always being about changing things because I'm thinking about TV. "The City on the Edge of Forever" episode of Star Trek, every damn episode of Seven Days or Quantum Leap... But, it's what we expect. At some point in a time travel story, we expect someone to try to change events. (And, to be fair, the villains in the Terminator films are trying to change the past even if the heroes aren't.) But, Timecrimes, Twelve Monkeys, that last jump in About Time--there's no one trying to change the past at all.
"Sleepwalk" again when Cole returns from 1996. Then the scientists sing "Blueberry Hill" and they've got a painting hanging over his bed. It's surreal. Deliberately. And this is when Cole finally questions his reality. Meanwhile in 1996, Kathryn is starting to buy his story.
Subtitle this next section: "the red herring problem"
What we have in Twelve Monkeys is a character-driven story wrapped around a time loop plot. In the end, the plot is just background to the story, and Goines and the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is barely connected, just a coincidental tie--Goines' father's (Christopher Plummer) lab just happens to be the source of the virus but Goines has nothing to do with that. The punctum here, the moment that makes this movie really work for me, is that call I mentioned above; Kathryn is the source of the wrong information because Cole has brought the wrong information back in time and told it to her. It's an infinite loop, with no source.
In the end, the only real confusion should be why ads for the Florida Keys keep showing up. Except, practically speaking, the Florida Keys are nice (reportedly; I've never been). Plus, the ads mean the idea is in Cole's (and Kathryn's) head, so of course they would pick that destination. So, even that part makes sense.
But, the best part is this--one of the many themes of the Groundhog Day Project in a nice bit of dialogue:
That's just like what's happening with us. Like the past. The movie never changes. It can't change. But every time you see it, it seems different because you're different. You see different things.