The movie “12 Monkeys”, directed by Terry Gilliam, is one of my favorite films of all time. Â I recently Â revisited another Gilliam film, “Brazil”, which has similar themes, and I was reminded of why I find “12 Monkeys” to be the better film. Â (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. Â In the case of “Brazil”, the trap — however terrifying and complete — is purely mundane. Â While the bureaucracy itself is the main villain against which the protaganist strives, there are individual faces to it that are utterly culpable. Â 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. Â There is no escape from what has already happened, which includes not just the past but also the present and the future. Â 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. Â The fatalism seems to be complete.
However, unlike in “Brazil”, all is not lostÂ in the world of “12 Monkeys”. Â 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. Â On the face of it, this is an awful, nightmarish event. Â In fact, theÂ protagonistÂ 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. Â 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.” Â 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. Â 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. Â What could be more comforting than the certainty of eternal existence?