RogerBW's Blog

12 Monkeys 14 December 2023

1995 science fiction, dir. Terry Gilliam, Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt: IMDb / allmovie. After the plague, a man is sent back in time to try to get a sample of the original strain.

Well, sort of. It's very Terry Gilliam in style: everything is always distractingly mobile and loud, and Bruce (who'd made the transition to leading man after Die Hard in 1988) does the traditional shift of a tough-guy actor who wants to be taken more seriously as a dramatic figure—playing a character who's largely put-upon and reactive.

Meanwhile, Brad Pitt was cast in this (and his salary set) when he was a struggling young actor… then Interview with the Vampire came out. He plays this like an actor getting his one big break: everything's over-emoted, bouncy, ranty, remember me you critics, you audiences. His high energy makes an interesting contrast with Bruce's world-weariness, but my goodnes it can be hard work actually to watch.

Gilliam deploys his usual metaphors for mental illness: there's really no way for anyone to tell whether Bruce is really on a mission or making the whole thing up, and that "anyone" includes Bruce himself. It's entirely reasonable that when the TV advertisement says "this is a personal message for you", or when a mysterious voice starts talking through the ventilation system, it might genuinely be useful information… or just the delusion reinforcing itself.

The message in the end, though, is that whether you think you can trust your memories or not, what else do you have to go on? (Well, I've always found it helpful to imagine what a normal person would think of my proposed course of action, but apparently not everyone does that.)

One problem is that, like any story in which time can't be changed, it renders everything pointless. If this is the way it was always going to happen, what is the point of struggling?

(In which case, what is that closing scene all about? Is Dr "I'm in insurance" on a backup mission to try to prevent the plague? Or is she just there to get the sample?)

I talk about this film further on Ribbon of Memes.

  1. Posted by J Michael Cule at 12:26pm on 14 December 2023

    I find your standard of judgement odd.

    While being aware that I'm not particularly 'normal' myself I am also aware that I don't think I know any normal people nor do I have a mental model of how such a person might act.

    Perhaps there are masses of normal people out there but all the people I meet have their own obsessions and odd habits having formed their lives out of advice and experience just as I did. The results are always surprising when you look at the details.

    I don't think it's just living in High Wycombe and hanging around with geeks and nerds that gives me this impression.

    Maybe it's being an actor that makes me like this. Maybe being like this is why I didn't make it as an actor. I have been accused of being 'always on', always performing. And I think my reply nowadays would be 'Yes? And why aren't you?@

  2. Posted by Owen Smith at 05:48pm on 14 December 2023

    Normal people, at least by taking that as the largest fraction of the population, watch football, Strictly and EastEnders. I have no mental model that explains such madness.

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 10:59am on 15 December 2023

    I would mildly disagree that everything is pointless if you can't change anything, only because that's not a helpful when it comes to coping with events beyond your control.

    But that's a real life strategy, not one that applies to a story.

    So let's go to the closing scene.

    My take is that sending him back was inevitable, but the mechanics of time travel they were using meant that they had to send him back so the doctor could lock onto patient zero to get the sample.

    From a viewers perspective this is a pre-determined outcome.

    From the characters perspective it is action taken to get a sample of the virus that results in the creation of a closed time loop that pinches off one timeline from another.

    As for the question of what would a normal person do, this is a story with fictional people who act according to the script. They have no agency.

    Real people may also have no agency. In which case they rationalize what they do and carry on believing what they believe is the right thing to do.

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