The Time Loop Legacy of 12 Monkeys and La Jetée

Syfy’s 12 Monkeys TV series looks to the past to save a future it, itself, is dooming.

12 Monkeys will be premiering some time in the not so distant future on Syfy and Michael Ahr promises it will be time well spent. The series comes from a film made in the not so distant past, 12 Monkeys, directed by the always timely Terry Gilliam. The cartoonist from Monty Python’s Flying Circus wrenched a time capsule called La Jetée that director Chris Marker buried in a time tunnel in France. The combined chronometrical energy of these three temporal forces threatens to create a loop in time.

The time loop, sometimes called the predestination paradox, the idea that you can go back in time to change to present, is probably as old as regret itself. The first caveman pulling a woolly mammoth tusk from his ass wished he could have crawled under a rock and gone back to sleep hungry that morning. All three times the 12 Monkeys are uncaged, they teach the same lesson, one that already infected us by having been told.

The Simpsons taught us that you should never change anything from the past because the present will only be worse. Stephen King tried to stop the Kennedy Assassination over and over in and on 11/22/63. It didn’t work. Christopher Reeve tried to go back in time for love. Captain Kirk went back in time to kill the woman he loved. It wasn’t that the beloved president was better off dead or that peace shouldn’t be given a chance, but the laws of physics are cruel.

Time abhors a vacuum and fills it with the most noxious of alternatives. This series, the third telling of a warning we’ve been ignoring since T2, has a theoretical probability of taking as much of a chance with the future of mankind as the testing of the supercollider. Earth could have been sucked into a manmade black hole then. Now it is threatened by an irreversible time loop.

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A time loop is different from The Time Warp, though just as danceable. All three versions of the story of James Cole depict multiple time loops that somehow contribute to the very thing he wants to avoid, the end of humanity.

In Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, James Cole is chosen to go back to a time he feels a connection to. He has a recurring memory of seeing a women in anguish over the death of a man. When Cole goes back in time to 1990, he tells budding scientist Jeffrey Goines about a virus, saying it has the potential to kill the entire human race. This gives Goines the idea, so when Cole comes back in 1996, Goines thanks Cole for giving him the inspiration to create the virus. However, Cole only knew about the virus in 1990 because he lived through it 1997.

The survivors in La Jetée live underground in the Palais de Chaillot galleries. Scientists are researching time travel in order “to call past and future to the rescue of the present,” but everyone they send on trips to the future become unhinged mentally. They pick the convict because he is obsessed with a memory from before the war. He noticed a woman, played by Hélène Chatelain, right before he saw a man die on the jetty at Orly Airport.

The scientists try a few times to sling the convict into the past. Each time they cast their loop wider. The man meets the woman from his past and they begin to fall in love. The next time the convict comes into the film’s present, our future, the future world’s past, the scientists throw him into the future to se if he can find any help there. Geeks from tomorrow give the convict a power unit that can regenerate the past’s society.

Having saved the present, the convict is set to be executed. People from the future get in touch with him to offer him a place in that time, but he chooses to go back in time, to the woman from his past that he was falling in love with. The people from his time period send an assassin to carry out his execution and he realizes that the person he saw die as a child was his future, future self.

In each story, the people who propel the subject into the past cast wider and wider circles. The experimenters are playing god and take bigger and bigger risks. It even takes longer now to tell the story. Each version gets longer. La Jetée has a running time of 29 minutes. 12 Monkeys runs 131 minutes and Christ only knows how long the 12 Monkeys Syfy series will run.

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Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps, this time, James Cole will save humanity without having to sacrifice his own life. There is something about ape movies that seem biblical. Maybe the drugs trigger something in my collective unconscious. I’m already on record as firmly believing that King Kong died for our sins. If Kong was Christ, then James Cole is JC, back to save the world from a future that must be. It just has to be. It is preordained, predicted and foretold as if it was written in the Book of Revelations itself.

If Kong is King of Kings, the army of the 12 Monkeys could be his disciples. John Connor from the Terminator franchise shares initials and goals with Cole. Another JC caught in a time loop with the future in the balance. But the future can never be balanced by proxy. Ask Homer Simpson, who lost out on a perfect world with donut rainstorms in the quest for perfect toast.

12 Monkeys could be one of Jesus’ temptations, as he was waiting to die on the cross in The Last Temptation of Christ. La Jetée was made in 1962. The 1995 film 12 Monkeys came 33 years later. Coincidence? Probably. Gilliam was planning to make Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities into a film when executive producer Robert Kosberg threw David and Janet Peoples’ script through his window.

James Cole is a convict. He is volunteered for future duty. You get the feeling that the alternative would be much worse. Jesus was imprisoned and purged. The depictions of Cole’s torture in the photoplay La Jetée are more effective on a human level than in the subsequent movies. The still image, one moment frozen in time, gives more relatable detail than anything more modern. In La Jetée, it really looks like it would suck to be him. Sure, you can see that James Cole is in pain, but in a place like that, the world that Gilliam created, it’s cool just to be there.

I’m not saying that Gilliam’s prison is anywhere near a low security tennis camp. It’s a shithole. Livestock kept behind chicken wire have it easier. But there are so many distractions just because the setting is so vast. In La Jetée, Chris Marker creates a stark and ugly place where time stands still. Every frame is a self-contained universe of encroaching claustrophobia. 12 Monkeys is too vast.

Cole is considered crazy and dangerous. He doubts his own memories. Is he who he is or the reflection of another trauma? Gilliam shook the foundation of trauma induced reality in Brazil. Terry Gilliam is immensely far-reaching in his artistic quests and is always looking at a bigger picture. Gilliam creates worlds, universes, as a singular cinematic visionary on the scale of Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, or Orson Welles. He is an auteur. He started out drawing pictures and wound up using the vast screen as a canvass to look for the meaning of life itself.

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And who better to do it than Bruce Willis? Every other movie Willis made in the period was great. He said he would alternate between pay and chops from picture to picture at the time. He may not be all things to all people, but Willis is an everyman. If you don’t like at least half his movies, then you’re the problem. He feeds every aspect of film, from indie to big budget. Gilliam’s first choice for Cole, Nick Nolte, had a similar work ethic until he went for just the roles.

Bruce Willis has tattoos on his head, kind of like a crown of thorns. Madeleine Stowe is Dr. Kathryn Railly, the woman he saw as a child, the love of his future self. His Madonna and his Mary Magdalene. Davos Hanich, the post-World War III Parisian prisoner in La Jetée, is an everyman because the black and white images capture frozen encapsulations of the minutest detail. It is so naked, hanging there, the image is anyone. La Jetée‘s lead actors, Hélène Chatelain and Davos Hanich, are human. They speak poetically, even when it’s translated into subtitles.

While Gilliam waited 33 years to resurrect Inmate 87645. The upcoming series only sat for twenty years and might not have such lofty aspirations. The series opener was directed by Jeffrey Reiner who directed episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, The Sentinel, Haunted, Columbo, The Division, Surface, Friday Night Lights, Caprica, and Trauma. He was also an editor on the 1988 slasher classic Cheerleader Camp.

Chris Marker was part of the fifties Left Bank Cinema movement. He also made the films A Grin Without a Cat in 1977 and Sans Soleil in 1983. In 1985, he profiled the Japanese cinematic master Akira Kurosawa in AK. Chris Marker movies are usually called “essayist,” he makes documentaries and mock-docs. La Jetée is his most fictional movie. Time ranked La Jetée first in its list of “Top 10 time-travel movies in 2010. In 2012 it was named the fiftieth movie of all time by Sight & Sound Poll with the British Film Institute. La Jetée also influenced the music video for David Bowie’s “Jump They Say.”

In La Jetée, Jean Négroni was the narrator; Hélène Chatelain was the Woman; Davos Hanich was the Man; Jacques Ledoux was The Experimenter; Ligia Branice was a woman from the future; Janine Kleina was a woman from the future; William Klein was a man from the future.

Gilliam had to be convinced that Brad Pitt could play Jeffrey Goines, so Pitt did time in the psych ward at Temple University to get into the part. By the time 12 Monkeys  came out, Pitt had Interview with the Vampire, Legends of the Fall, and Se7en under his belt, which was almost enough for Gilliam to get his next movie greenlit.

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In the series Aaron Stanford from X-Men and Nikita plays James Cole. Amanda Schull plays virologist Cassandra Railly. Emily Hampshire play Jennifer Goines. Kirk Acevedo plays Cole’s friend Ramse. Noah Bean plays political insider Aaron Marker, Cassandra’s lover. Barbara Sukowa plays Jones, who builds the the time machine. Tom Noonan is Monkey Face.

La Jetée was a minimalist masterpiece. Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys was a vast and expansive work of fine art. I’m hoping that the Syfy series does for science fiction TV what True Detective did for supernatural thriller TV. I will be happy that they don’t just mess up the time continuum formulations and make the future present our past. With technology and entertainment progressing to ever-smaller bits of information for an audience with incrementally shorter attention spans, one day the series will be encapsulated to a gif that will predate the original photoplay, thus erasing all three.