LA JETÉE directed by Chris Marker (France, 1962)
12 MONKEYS directed by Terry Gilliam (USA, 1995)

Chris Marker's The Jettygilliam's 12 monkeysIf you have a good story, you don’t need elaborate sets or A-list actors. This is probably why most Science Fiction works better in books or graphic novels than in big budget movies. These two movies illustrate this point perfectly.

They each tell the same story but in very different ways. In both, a time traveller is sent on a mission from the future to find the origin of a deadly virus that has all but wiped out the human race.

Nothing can change what has happened in the past but if the source is discovered it will help the future’s future generations. The desperate search for the truth is neatly defined in 12 Monkeys by reference to the Cassandra complex whereby dire warnings are not taken seriously and our hero has to confront “the agony of foreknowledge and the impotence to do anything about it”.

The time travel in Chris Marker’s film is a kind of mental journey like we see in Matrix, while in 12 Monkeys a crude transporter shoots Bruce Willis back, often inaccurately and always stark naked, to the target year.

Chris Marker’s 28 minute film is essentially a short story with a twist told over a series of black and white photographs. Despite this simple (and inexpensive) format, it was voted equal 50th in the BFI/Sight & Sound list of best ever movies.

12 Monkeys still

“Who are you calling crazy?” Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis compare notes in 12 Monkeys

While Marker’s montage is a model of economy and restraint, Terry Gilliam straps us in for a white knuckle rollercoaster ride. Not only that but, for added company, we are introduced to bona fide lunatic Jeffrey Goines (played way over the top by Brad Pitt).

Goìnes’ Army of the 12 Monkeys aims to ‘free’ animals from being experimented upon in his father’s lab and all the signs are that this is how the virus originated.

Gilliam didn’t write to screenplay for 12 Monkeys but was drawn to the project because it contains his favourite themes of time, memory and madness. As with all of his movies, the excess of creative yet self-indulgent imagery is both a strength and a weakness.

A lot of this film’s look is one of primitive sophistication (George Orwell meets Charles Dickens) which is quite similar to Brazil made in 1985. He throws a lot of striking visual ideas into the melting pot most of which work but which also tend to bewilder the viewer particularly when stretched to a running time of over two hours.

12 Monkeys is well worth seeing for all its flaws though watching La Jetée beforehand will be a big help in making sense of its convoluted plot. It’s also a better movie!