12 Monkeys was a 1995 film directed by Terry Gilliam that was heavily inspired by La Jetée, a black and white French film from 1962. Although the films have quite differing styles, they have a very similar plot and cover similar themes.
La Jetée, best translated as "the one who is thrown", tells the story of a man who is haunted by a childhood memory of a violent incident in an airport. Later, there is a nuclear war, and while many become prisoners, there are some victors, who take these prisoners and use them as subjects for experiments. Because the main character has such an excellent memory, he is subjected to time-travel experiments in the hope of saving this post-apocalyptic world. He ends up falling in love with a woman while he is travelling in time. The film shows its age, not only because of its technologically simplistic presentation as a narrated series of black and white photos, but because the content reflects heavily on anxieties arising from events in World War II and the Cold War. Gilliam manages to update this story (at least to the 90s) by giving it a new presentation and updating some of the details.
For one thing, in this version, the apocalypse is caused by an epidemic rather than nuclear warfare, which is much more in tune with our times. Another thing that gives this movie that 90s dystopian sci-fi feel is it moves a lot faster. Sometimes it's difficult to figure out everything that is going on. I personally like this fast pace, even if it requires a little more concentration. Gilliam manages to keep setting and props disconcertingly eerie both in the future and the past, so it feels a lot like his other work, Brazil, but less humorous and more just plain dark. This disconcerting feeling was also present in La Jetée, but it was created through incomprehensible German whispering, so Gilliam manages to preserve the atmosphere of the original without showing its age.
In 12 Monkeys, James Cole, the prisoner, travels from 1997 (the year after the apocalyptic epidemic) to 1990, though he was supposed to go to 1996 and find the source of the epidemic (which he suspects is the terrorist cell known as the Twelve Monkeys). Because he shows up in the middle of nowhere, naked and rambling about nonsense, he is immediately put into a mental hospital. His experiences in the hospital closely mirror his experiences as a prisoner in 1997. It seems the oppression of institutions is a popular theme for Gilliam, and this is something I really enjoy about his work.
While in the mental hospital James Cole meets a man named Jeffrey (played by Brad Pitt, who is cute no matter what kind of monster he is playing). Jeffrey helps James escape, but while in his company James accidentally inspires Jeffrey with an offhand comment about how the people of the mental hospital are not unlike the test animals in labs, such as monkeys. As you might suspect, James' comment actually leads to Jeffrey starting an eco-terrorist faction known as the Twelve Monkeys. Despite his mental illness, Jeffrey is actually very politically aware and socially subversive, undermining many stereotypes about what mad people are and are capable of. Even though Brad Pitt's portrayal of Jeffrey is very convincing, I can't help but notice how similar his character is to Tyler Durden from Fight Club.
James Cole also falls in love with his psychiatrist, Dr. Railly, in a Stockholm-syndrome-ish subplot. At first, Dr. Railly believes James is insane; gradually she convinces James he is insane. Dr. Railly then sees some of the things James predicts come true. The viewer can't help but be sucked into these questions about reality, truth, and reason, and in this confusing dance, relativism seems to be the only reasonable conclusion. Perhaps there is no reality; there is only experience. If in the end all we have is the absurdity of our own experiences, and there is no real meaning to anything we do, then perhaps enjoying life and our loved ones is the best way to approach our life.
This movie was a testament to the seductive power of denial in the face of annihilation but also presented the happy story of someone who manages to live a good life with someone they care about deeply in the face of hopelessness and powerlessness. This is certainly a movie you can watch again and again and always see something new. Though the film, like its predecessor, has not aged very gracefully and shows the marks of its time, I highly recommend it as a thought-provoking, if dark, voyage into the fears of our society at the turn of the millennium.