La Jetée (1962 IMDb)


Avant-garde science fiction. Shot in black-and-white, almost entirely using still photos explained in a monologue, in order to simulate memory and/or stretch the idea of film.


A man who has survived WW3 remembers a woman's face and holds on to the memory, thinking that he has perhaps invented it to stay sane. The leaders of his subterranean society begin experimenting with time travel, and send the man back to the time before the war, where he meets the woman. Through various adjustments of the travelling technology, the two meet again, with increasing control. A long walk through a museum becomes their final meeting until the childhood memory is explained. The leaders declare the technology perfected, and so they send the man to the far future, to beg on behalf of humankind.


Proust meets a great twist. A neat set of ideas.



Twelve Monkeys (1995 IMDb)


Visions of post-apocalyptic time travel. Todorovian tale of the fantastic, much like Time Bandits (1981) in that respect, but moulded as science fiction.


A man journeys back to the 1990s from the 2030s, or so he believes at first. He seeks information to help make a cure for the disease that has almost wiped out humanity, until his psychiatrist convinces him that he is nuts. Meanwhile, the Army of the Twelve Monkeys hones its plot to perfection.


Some of Gilliam's more conventional work, despite efforts against that: Pitt was forbidden to smoke in between takes, and Willis was handed a list of 12 clichés he often used before this film. Another significant downside is the Jesus figure dimension, although that does play out well.

References here: Brazil (1985), Noein: To Your Other Self (2005), Twin Peaks (2017).

Terry Gilliam movie


12 Monkeys (2015 IMDb)


Seen in 2017.

Review refers to the first season only.


Producer-driven “SyFy Original” fantasy drama.


Both Tzvetan Todorov’s ambiguity and the premise that time travel cannot alter outcomes are thrown out in the first 15 minutes. Cole is not trying to obtain a sample for research. He is trying to prevent the release of the virus, thereby undoing his own effort to prevent the release, an internal contradiction. The role of Jones is greatly expanded: She heads Cole’s faction against a separate faction that is working on a vaccine or cure whereas in the original, the efforts were seen as compatible, so there were no factions. Likewise, the Army of the 12 Monkeys is expanded from a red herring into a mysticist faction. Post-apocalyptic raiders, another major new faction, interfere.

Railly, here renamed from Kathryn to Cassandra instead of talking about the mythological Cassandra as in the film, teams up with Cole. He has superhuman abilities like rapid healing.

As in the film, time-travel accuracy is poor and those affected appear and disappear instantly, with little SFX. They’re on a “real-time tether” to the machine and malfunctions can pull them only part of the way they need to go. Even when it works, there are nebulous adverse health effects, but nobody is ever teleported into space etc. Chronological paradoxes are resolved with great blue explosions which turn leaves red, but if you inject yourself with your own blood you’re only healed by the explosion. The objective of the Army is to use such paradoxes to destroy magical people who help time “think”.

The loop of Cole seeing his own death, wherein he simultaneously dooms and saves humankind, is apparently dropped; instead he meets his child self under stupid circumstances and remembers a glass of milk.


There is an explicit reference to Proust in episode 10, but no travel to the far future. Despite the massive expansion of screen time there is likewise no “cozy catastrophe” post-apocalypse à la The Day of the Triffids (1951) because this is a TV drama, obsessed with its main characters and their personal relationships. The sets are cheap, always darkened for tension, and Japanese characters speak terrible Japanese: environments and societies are given almost no importance.

Cole mock-sacrifices himself in episode 7, but due to character myopia, this is presented primarily as an obstacle to his star-crossed romance with Railly. By episode 8, Cole’s romantic rival, a character probably named after Chris Marker who directed La Jetée, is putting the moves on her again, as if the audience should care mainly about that. Cole’s buddy José has his own star-crossed romance and is likewise fated to turn against Cole. The main characters are so important to the universe that in 2017, Railly speaks for the US CDC on an “international multicast” to Chechnyan TV, as if there is no WHO umbrella, no Chechnyan anchor and no spokespeople other than the research scientists themselves.

I liked Barbara Sukowa’s character, the expanded Katarina Jones (née Werner), at first. Then she had to spout a lot of nonsense. Referring to travel as “quantum splintering” is a pathetic attempt at technobabble. Looking into a perfectly ordinary analog microscope in episode 6 she says “Your molecules are in a constant state of flux. Shifting at quantum level. Only my injections could have done this.” That is layer upon layer of bullshit of the kind only a fool would write. There are many more facepalms. Quarantine procedures among the survivors are shit, unlike the film version. No clear distinction is made between being symptomatic and carrying the virus, or between a vaccine and a cure. Prime numbers are called “primary”. An ivy plant is identified as being from another era purely by a non-specialist’s analysis of its carbon content, as if a change in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide—varying only by a few per mille across the phanerozoic and a few ppm for the trip the ivy has actually taken—would noticeably alter the chemical composition of the plant and is the only thing that could.

In line with their disinterest in science and logic, the writers go well beyond the original’s Jesus figure. Jones prays in episode 8. So does her counterpart in the medical research faction. He says “faith” is required, implying the apocalypse was “meant to happen” so that he could find a vaccine. He ignores evidence that Jones has successfully implemented time travel and she burns evidence that his research is promising. No character is committed to honesty or rational thinking, because no writer was. Jones herself acts like a zealot, but it turns out she knows Cole is “preordained”, as she puts it, because they’ve met before through time travel. People are routinely bootstrapped in some such way, continually widening the plot holes of the closed loop. Railly’s recording, for example, becomes implausible and redundant in retrospect.

Prominent authorial captions provide a year and sometimes a location. I thought at first that these might be intended as a promise not to actively mislead the audience, but it only takes until episode 8 for that to fail. A sequence billed as taking place in 2015 is intercut with one in 2017. Primer (2004) does brilliantly without such lies. Todorov wasn’t dropped in favour of a competing artistic ambition. There is no such ambition. This is purely a commercial effort, leeching off of name recognition.

I suppose 12 Monkeys, like Primer, is made to be watched attentively, yet it has the recaps and weak artifice of traditional episodic TV drama. Knowing it would be hard to write a 40-hour time-travel epic that is internally consistent, interesting and comprehensible to a casual TV audience, the writers do not even attempt this feat. They make a complete escape from science fiction into a fantasy similar to The Lost Room (2006) but without its appeal. Noein (2005) and The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008) failed in similar ways.

There is little to be said for this series over Day of Resurrection (1980). I am surprised at the generally positive reception. In the era of Westworld (2017), I hope expectations will improve. Meanwhile, try reading a novel of time travel that could have made for a superior TV series, like The End of Eternity (1955).

References here: Twin Peaks (2017).