Saturday, January 9, 2021

Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys": A Lively Look At Disease and Madness

From The Ringer, January 5:

A Plague of Madness
Twenty-five years ago, Terry Gilliam and the other outsider creators of ‘12 Monkeys’ gave humanity a warning about our pandemic-filled future, whether they meant to or not

is a scene toward the end of 12 Monkeys in which James Cole sits in a 24-hour movie theater watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Cole, played by Bruce Willis, is not entirely certain whether he is a prisoner who “volunteered” to time travel from a future when 99 percent of the world’s population has been killed in a pandemic and the survivors live underground because the surface air is deadly, or whether he is just a man with a serious dissociative disorder. Next to him, applying a fake mustache to his face, is Dr. Kathryn Railly (played by Madeleine Stowe), his once doubtful psychiatrist who has become his coconspirator in investigating a group run by Jeffrey Goines (played by Brad Pitt) called the Army of the 12 Monkeys and their role in unleashing the virus on the planet.

Examining Kim Novak and James Stewart on screen, Cole is confused and agitated, his mind either scrambled by the effects of time travel or just in its natural state. He thinks he’s seen the movie before, maybe on TV when he was a kid, but something about it feels both familiar and unfamiliar. “It’s just like what’s happening with us,” he tells Railly. “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.”

Arriving in select theaters at the end of 1995 before getting a wide release 25 years ago this week, 12 Monkeys was an immediate commercial success. Directed by Terry Gilliam, it was the middle installment of the three movies the iconoclastic filmmaker made for major American studios during the ’90s. But audiences quickly began to see 12 Monkeys differently.

In the midst of a wave of global natural disasters, film critic Elvis Mitchell wrote in a 2002 New York Times essay, “It’s as if the world has finally caught up to the lyric paranoid streaks in the imagination of the filmmaker Terry Gilliam.” In the ensuing decades, authoritarian-minded governments proliferated, environmental catastrophes continued, overpopulation went unabated, and the climate crisis neared the point of no return. More people started to feel like Cole, knowing witnesses to a civilization that seems destined to end during their lifetime. Writing for Vulture in 2018, Abraham Riesman called 12 Monkeys, “[O]ne of the most currently relevant pieces of science fiction ever committed to celluloid.”

And then came the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of this article’s publication, it’s estimated that COVID-19 is directly responsible for more than 1.8 million deaths, and that number is expected to continue to rise across the globe in the coming months, even as vaccines become more widely available. When lockdowns and restrictions were put in place during the first quarter of 2020, viewers started returning to 12 Monkeys or checking it out for the first time. “It had a whole new life,” says Charles Roven, one of the film’s producers. “It holds up really well.”

A TV adaptation of 12 Monkeys debuted at the start of 2015 and ran for four seasons on the Syfy network. Though the show is far different from the movie, it too has become a streaming favorite, even finding an audience for the first time in countries like India. “I certainly don’t love how topical our show has become,” says cocreator Terry Matalas, who estimates he saw Gilliam’s film in the theater three or four times when he was a student at Emerson College.

The movie Outbreak came out several months before 12 Monkeys, and journalist Richard Preston’s 1994 book The Hot Zone about lethal filoviruses was a national bestseller. Still, for most of the world’s population, a massive pandemic had not been a pressing concern since the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people between 1918 and 1920. Now there is a rising feeling that the next one won’t come a century from now. It could arrive much sooner and could be far worse. “I think the very first spoken words that aren’t voice-over in our show are, ‘It’s never been about if. It’s always been when,’” Matalas says. “When you start to really dissect that data, it’s terrifying. Right now we’re on the precipice of a vaccine, but are we truly ready for the next [pandemic]? I don’t think so.”

In 12 Monkeys, Railly has written a book called The Doomsday Syndrome and gives a lecture at a museum about madness and apocalyptic visions. She discusses the Cassandra complex, the idea taken from Greek legend about figures who know the future but whose warnings aren’t heeded, leading to what Railly describes as, “[T]he agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” In the 25 years since its release, 12 Monkeys is increasingly seen as a Cassandra of its own kind....