A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Auteur Publishing have followed up their Devil’s Advocates series of slim volumes on individual horror films with Constellations, an even slimmer set of volumes on science fiction films, of which Susanne Kord’s book on Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995) is a recent edition to the growing imprint, which also includes books on Blade Runner (1982) and Dune (1984).

Gilliam’s 1995 apocalyptic sci-fi film was a surprise hit upon its release. It came out at a time when big budget disaster-oriented films such as Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) were in vogue, but subverted the trend for American exceptionalist bravado and instead presented audiences with a paranoid dystopia. 12 Monkeys is a remake of Chris Marker’s contemplative experimental film La Jetéee (1962), reconceived in Gilliam’s maximalist style as an epic with Bruce Willis doing his macho-yet-vulnerable routine, topped off with chases and fight scenes. The concerns of French thinkers such as Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard were packaged as a Hollywood thriller four years before the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), would rock the world of pop culture with a similar concoction of bombast and philosophy.

12 Monkeys helped to cement Gilliam’s reputation as a filmmaker in his own right, not just a maker of Monty Python side projects gone rogue. More recently, Gilliam has been in the news for finally finishing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018) after working on it in some form for 29 years, though his curmudgeonly comments about everything from black superheroes to the #MeToo movement have tarnished his image. Against Gilliam’s wishes, 12 Monkeys was given a new life as a Syfy TV series beginning in 2015 and running for four seasons to date. And of course, what better time to return to a film about a highly contagious virus than 2020?

In the film, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time from 2035 to the 1990s to find information about the virus which has destroyed much of humanity and forced the survivors underground. Back in the ’90s, babbling about the end of the world, he is committed and meets psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), whom he kidnaps, bringing her along on his race against time. His goal is to try to find the Army of the 12 Monkeys, a group of environmentalist extremists suspected of unleashing the virus. In presenting a contemporary Philadelphia wracked by urban decay, a future populace crouching underground in fear of a killer virus, and a dystopia of invasive surveillance and rampant paranoia, Gilliam created one of the definitive dystopian films of the 1990s. It should be clear why 12 Monkeys would be a cathartic watch in 2020, and that Kord has picked a timely moment to write this book.

Kord’s 12 Monkeys begins with a short synopsis of the film before including a couple of short sections “Pushing the (Reset) Button: Why You Can’t Start Over” and “Thank You Einstein: Why You Can’t Turn Back Time”. Kord outlines her main ideas about the film: it pokes fun of mainstream post-apocalyptic films in which starting over is merely a matter of having a can-do attitude, and it presents time as non-linear in a tradition that spans the Aztec calendar and the theories of Albert Einstein.

In “On Mis/Perceptions of Reality”, Kord astutely notes that for a film that uses technology for time travel (unlike La Jetée where the time travel comes from the force of certain individual’s memories), 12 Monkeys constantly puts science into question. It also gives popular culture (the TV, film, and radio that seem to constantly surround Cole and Railly) the task of constantly foreshadowing and predicting what will happen — or is that what has happened?

Linked to the difficulty of telling what is present and what is past or future once non-linear time has been introduced is another of the themes that Kord addresses in her dive into “mental divergence”. Is Cole in fact delusional, as Dr Railly initially believes? Does Railly come to share in his delusion when she is kidnapped him, perhaps suffering a sort of Stockholm syndrome?

Kord admirably shows how these themes are dealt with by Gilliam’s propensity for extreme, off-kilter camera angles, or “dutched shots”, as Gilliam calls them. Gilliam often uses these shots, which tilt the camera so that any vertical lines are at an angle to the side of the frame, to show altered states of perception. You see this in the drug induced visions in Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), as well. Kord shows how these shots are used selectively in 12 Monkeys, in locations such as the future dystopia and the psychiatric ward, casting doubt on the reality of Cole’s version of events.

The next section continues to focus on Gilliam’s unique directorial style, showing how 12 Monkeysmise-en-scéne reveals the film’s world as a fragmented, lonely dystopia. This leads into a section on what may be Kord’s strongest idea: how free will and determinism are dealt with in the film, and how it uses time travel as the vehicle to explore this. If 12 Monkeys rejects linear time, what consequences does this have for free will, and for our ability to alter the past or affect the future? Invoking such philosophical concepts as causal determinism and compatibilism, Kord strays far from the usual film studies remit and probes the film’s many ambiguities in the process. She doesn’t rely only on Gilliam’s own interpretation of the film, but shows how the film leaves open the question of whether the future can be saved or not.

Tellingly, there’s very little about La Jetée in this book, though the films have been compared in detail elsewhere (Elena Del Rio’s work gives the two films a thorough discussion.) There is, however, a section on Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas’ recent television adaptation, a section in which Kord can barely disguise her distaste for the Syfy channel’s show: “most of the movie’s smart ideas went straight out of the window” and concludes that the show’s central message is “what is required in this noble cause is not intellect, conceptualization, compassion or reflection, but simply a certain level of technology and a man of action who can kick time’s butt.”

Kord is correct when she takes the television series to task for its reductive, formulaic take on the film and its frankly risible personification of time. However, there’s an echo of the same rumblings of discontent made by Chris Marker’s admirers when his slow-moving, uncanny La Jetée was turned into the bombastic blockbuster 12 Monkeys. As Gilliam said in one of his less curmudgeonly moments: “I’m not proprietorial about the films; once they’re done, they belong to anyone who wants so watch them, and each person who watches creates a different film in their watching of it.” While the latest incarnation of 12 Monkeys may be wrongheaded, Kord has shown that Gilliam’s film contains enough complexity to inspire future artists and filmmakers to continue approaching dystopia, free will, and non-linear time.