The movie “12 Monkeys”, directed by Terry Gilliam, is one of my favorite films of all time. I recently revisited another Gilliam film, “Brazil”, which has similar themes, and I was reminded of why I find “12 Monkeys” to be the better film. (What follows assumes you’ve seen and can remember these films.)
Both films take up as their primary theme a sense of modern, epistemic claustrophobia. In the case of “Brazil”, the trap — however terrifying and complete — is purely mundane. While the bureaucracy itself is the main villain against which the protaganist strives, there are individual faces to it that are utterly culpable. Add a thousand Jack Lints together and you get an out-of-control and airtight bureaucracy easily capable of having one hand wash the other.
In “12 Monkeys”, one is ensnared by time or fate itself. There is no escape from what has already happened, which includes not just the past but also the present and the future. Furthermore, because you are at the mercy of what seems to be natural law, there is no one to appeal to, no one to blame. The fatalism seems to be complete.
However, unlike in “Brazil”, all is not lost in the world of “12 Monkeys”. This fatalism, in its completion, circles around to hope. In the final scene, which is also shown as a flash-forward/back throughout the film, the main character sees a future version of himself die. On the face of it, this is an awful, nightmarish event. In fact, the protagonist has been having nightmares about it his entire life.
Where the hope lies, for me, is in the exchange of gazes between the protagonist-as-child and the protagonist-as-adult’s love interest. While he has no idea what is going on or who these people are, she knows exactly who he is and what is happening. The thought I see running through her mind is, “It’s all starting over.”
It’s as if the film is saying, “Don’t worry, this has always happened and will always happen; nothing is starting or ending really.” Gilliam may feel that closed circuit as an incarceration of sorts, but to me it’s got a web-of-life element of comfort to it. Not only will I be young me and old me forever, simultaneously, but I’ll also be you and the people I know and a rock and a tree, etc. What could be more comforting than the certainty of eternal existence?