Lately I've been very interested in wiping humanity out with a killer virus.
I mean, not personally, except when I look at my bank account, but it's the concept. It has a lot of similarities to zombie outbreaks, but with one detail so subtle you might miss it altogether: no zombies.
No zombies means the survivors have more room to figure out what to do next. In 1995's 12 Monkeys, they hide underground while animals roam the cities.
In 1997, a plague all but wiped out humanity, forcing the survivors to live underground. Years later, convict Bruce Willis is offered a pardon if he'll travel back in time and figure out how the virus first spread. Only he's sent to the wrong time -- and is immediately locked up in a mental hospital.
12 Monkeys is a Terry Gilliam movie. This is another way of saying it's a strange movie. Gilliam movies are like high school: frequently absurd, uncomfortable, grotesque. And sometimes when you watch one, you have to rush to the locker room before everyone else and run your hair under the faucet to make everyone else think you know how to shower. Metaphorically. (Protip: any time you say something that makes no sense, just say it's a metaphor. Incidentally, this is the secret of French films.)
Much of this itchy mood is created by Gilliam's willingness to make a movie that feels like it's missing whole scenes. Yet it remains stubbornly comprehensible, even when following Willis through different eras and degrees of sanity.
In fact, a lot goes unexplained in 12 Monkeys. We never learn how they achieve time travel, for instance, nor the specific rules for Willis and his fellow agents. Not that there aren't specific time travel rules here. It's more that Gilliam treats them like Calvinball: they're out there, but if you're not the guy running the show, good luck keeping track of them all.
As it turns out, they aren't really necessary. Rather than expanding his world through exposition, Gilliam paints its corners with weird little character moments such as when a cop's silent partner swabs his ear with a Q-tip. It serves no story purpose whatsoever. I'm not sure the man with the clean ears is even in another scene. It's just there.
Somehow, these moments add up to create a whole world.
Time-travel stories are rife with paradoxes. 12 Monkeys turns this to its favor, executing some truly devious plot twists on the way to its upsetting ending.
Still not convinced to check it out? Then maybe the bare butts of Willis and Brad Pitt will do what all these words couldn't.
* Contact Ed Robertson at email@example.com.