In the key scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a man watches a real woman transform herself into his fantasy obsession. By preferring his idea of love over the reality, the man loses both. The pain he feels is not just that of someone who loses the same love twice but who must amputate his entire idea of love from his very mind. He ends up with nothing but the cold reality of his obsessions with no objects, his fetish not merely for women but for his dream of them.
12 Monkeys pantomimes this scene (with less panache) late in the film. To discuss it constitutes every spoiler in this movie, and none: it will be a discussion of a known causality loop, which reveals nothing not immediately known and yet aligns it so that it makes sense (this is the spoiler). If you want to watch 12 Monkeys, this should be the last sentence that you read.
Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe) disguises herself to get past airport security and becomes the version of herself that Cole (Bruce Willis) has seen in his dreams for his entire life. The appropriate track off the Bernard Herrmann score for Vertigo plays, and in case his theme somehow misses our open mouths, Terry Gilliam also inserts a scene in which they actually watch the scene from Vertigo first. So the allusion is not secret at all but diabolically deliberate.
But whereas Vertigo is a romance of such dimension that it threatens to stand in for all of them (or, every time someone fell more deeply in love with their idea of someone than with the reality, and every time someone else dressed up their spirit to approximate the fiction), 12 Monkeys struggles to include any romance. Predestiny is a pushy force in 12 Monkeys, uncompromising as air pressure, an anathema to true love in the movies. Even in similar arcs of logic in The Terminator, the romance was real, though inevitable. In the case of 12 Monkeys, love is as perfunctory as history we already know. Rarely was a film more apt for the cliché “doom and gloom.”
So why include the allusion to the most striking romantic obsession in movie history? I know that Gilliam's intended theme works because in order to explain it, I have to completely describe, summarize, and review 12 Monkeys. We’ll only get back around to Vertigo at the end, when it makes sense.
In 2035, where 99% of humanity died by a deadly virus, the remaining population lives in such seclusion that they scarcely know how their half lives, much less the other half. Cole lives in one among many rows of suspended cages in a universe of maintenance shafts and wire. The sky leaks and rusts the world. He knows nothing beyond his man-sized space, his tatty hammock, his leaky roof. It’s a struggle to fathom what he does with his time. We know they don’t masturbate, in a world without beautiful things. They wither. Compared to The Matrix, this state of affairs is a great and foreboding nothing. Where those human prisoners powered the robot apocalypse from their illusion of the real world, these in 12 Monkeys power nothing but themselves, in a world without any illusions at all. This is the world of Plato’s cave, of being chained against a wall and only occasionally seeing a shadow dance and disappear. I’d say they were counting time, if I thought that they remembered the concept.
The future as we see it is ruled by a band of kooky scientists who see everything magnified through jeweler’s or dentist’s glasses and occasionally sing swing ballads in unison. Of all the future people they are most proficiently Gilliam-esque. They send Cole to the past several times with varying degrees of accuracy, through a machine that is like bellows made of Seran wrap: they vacuform the tiny naked bodies into the air shafts of time. Gilliam is notably obscure with the science here, and he likes it that way. He incubates mystery almost to the point of nonsense, with so many radical dutch angles that the effect threatens to stop working. But the purpose is clear: to take our confidence away from how we feel about ourselves.
Cole is sent to gather information about the Army of the 12 Monkeys, the only lead they have on the spread of the virus. Notably, the scientists don't want him to stop the army: since the world has already died, this would be impossible. This is where 12 Monkeys is at its smartest. Where most films would twist at the end into a causality loop, where things happen because they have already happened, Gilliam’s film is built on the concept from the beginning. Cole keeps getting jerked in and out of time – getting shot in WWI, then being flung back to 1996, getting institutionalized and drugged, reporting his findings to the future – that he gets unstuck from the present (a sort of Kurt Vonnegut touch -- Willis is like Billy Pilgrim with a gym membership). All of reality becomes deviant to him, all constructed, with the real essential truths remaining completely unknowable. Gilliam has a way of making nonsense eerily literary.
Eventually, Cole doesn't know anything beyond what he thinks of it, not in memory, experience, or even immediate perception. Gilliam interprets this perfect subjectivity as Christ-like. He realizes that all things become knowable through Time, but that no one can know this; they can only know that they know it. Cole prophesies the end-Time in several periods throughout history, convinces non-believers with his wounds, and even dies for our sins. The court of leaders in the future know that he will die when they send him back – because it has already happened in the past, it has also been foretold in the future. They send him to death not to change history but to form it.
Even Christ had Gethsemane, the garden in which he waited to be taken by the Romans, and wept, and perhaps even doubted himself. Cole has this moment when he watches, and relives, that scene from Vertigo.
Dr. Railly becomes the version of herself that he sees in his dreams and when she does so and when Herrmann’s old score plays a note or two, Cole is invited into the film’s thematic in-crowd, like a mortal entering Olympus. He would weep if he fully understood the truth: that in order to love in this world, he must sever himself from it. He must give up his belief in sky and air in order to have them. He must choose the fantasy over the desert of the real. And because of these obsessions – with beauty, life, laughter, Louis Armstrong, puddles – he loses both. He loses everything real chasing a fantasy played by the same woman. Mercifully, unlike James Stewart’s character (and possibly, like Jesus), he never has to live to discover if it was worth it.
12 Monkeys is not pleasing to the mind or the eye. But when was Gilliam ever in the business of pleasure? Brad Pitt swoons against Willis gloriously manic, playing off-type to the point of madness even for a character supposedly called mad. Willis himself is used for none of his strong sympathy or sly irreverence, being asked instead to fake an abyssal stare he does not have and a mad person’s laugh that doesn’t compute. But there’s a clever rub to all of that: the future doesn’t use Willis any better than Gilliam does. The abuses align in canon.
This is what I enjoy in 12 Monkeys: the combination of Gilliam’s grunge-whimsy with a cute hostage romance filtered through Christ imagery. (Do I even need to talk about it? The film has plot points that I'm sure you can read about if you like.) It’s not a film that exudes enjoyment as anything but sweat, unless you're one of those people that thinks toil is the basis of all wisdom. I'm saying this is a gloomy ride. 132 minutes is a long time to stop on the street and listen to one of those “End is Nigh” sign guys, even if it can be intermittently funny, sad, and endearing. I think Gilliam has always been that guy, especially in the films where we didn't immediately realize it. 12 Monkeys is rain on your head, steam in a vent pipe, cage lines on your thigh. Like a messy love affair, I love this movie more the longer it's been since I put myself through it.
Image is a screenshot from the film.