Reviews of “La Jetée” (1962) and related work
“La Jetée” (1962) – previously
In a bunker after WW3, a scientist declares space exhausted, finding it necessary to traverse time to beg. He needs test subjects who can hang onto images. The method of travel hinges on mental fortitude. One subject remembers a woman’s face from before the war, thinking he has perhaps invented the memory to stay sane.
The man is back in the time before the war, with “real cats” and “real graves”. As he attunes himself, the two meet again with increasing control. They share a long walk through a museum of natural history, an older world within the old. She calls him her ghost.
The boss of the bunker declares the method perfected. They send the man to the far future, where the survivors are travellers too.
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 neat set of ideas, as if Marcel Proust had written SF.
I saw old transfers a couple of times where the visuals were dull. The restored version can hold its own more easily, but there is nothing visually impressive about it. Post-WW3 Paris is just post-WW2 Paris. The future is abstract patterns and small facial ornaments. The fun is intellectual.
‣ Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam (director).
A man helps make a cure for the disease that has almost wiped out humanity until his psychiatrist shows him he’s nuts. Meanwhile, the Army of the Twelve Monkeys hones its plot to perfection.
A Todorovian tale of the fantastic, much like Time Bandits (1981) in that respect, but moulded as science fiction. This film’s vision of post-apocalyptic time travel represents the beginning of Gilliam’s slide into conventionality, but he was still passionate enough to swim against the current: Pitt was forbidden to smoke in between takes and Willis was handed a list of 12 clichés he often used before this film.
Being largely conventional, the central mystery of the narrative is resolved: Cole is schizophrenic insofar as he does imagine the recurring voice from another room, and pulls out his own teeth because of his meeting with an unrelated homeless man—not the preacher—whom he associates with the voice. Nevertheless, Cole is a time traveller. It’s certainly better than “Frame of Mind” (1993), where the ultimate explanations are worse.
A few elements are left ambiguous, but only in their details: The recurring use of the Florida Keys, multiple cartoons including Prehistoric Super Salesman (1969) with its “Time Tunnel”, the clips from Vertigo (1958) with Cole’s reflection on seeing it again and Railly’s Hitchcockian transformation, the bizarre dieselpunk aesthetic of the future, the implausible need for obtaining the virus in its “pure form”, and the miscellaneous parallels, the strongest of these being the shower scenes and interrogations in front of the scientists and psychologists. Those residual ambiguities can be dismissed as mere red herrings, stylizations, homages or conventional concetti, but they do preserve an element of blurry subjectivity that I quite enjoy in this amount. It’s baroque but ultimately it embraces internal logic. Notice “La Jetée” also has a scene with growth rings on a sequoia, perhaps itself an allusion to Hitchcock.
The Jesus-figure dimension is more trite but it does play out well. Like the mythological JC who is identical to his father and therefore causes his own death, James Cole sows the seed of the apocalypse he dies to overcome. It is a less-complicated form of “By His Bootstraps” (1941), which makes this one of the smarter movies about time travel and a clever take on the escalation of blood sacrifice in the New Testament (ca. 110 CE): This time it’s the world.
The film has aged well. I saw it many times as a teenager and again at the 2018 Draken SF film festival. It is gloriously detailed on the big screen. Its negative view of the urban U.S., with dirty set dressing over healthy urban environments, is anachronistic but appropriate as a backdrop for the scenes of Cole incongruously enjoying the simple pleasures of the doomed world. Even a negative caricature with racist roots is paradise compared to his 2030s. In particular, Cole’s face distorted by euphoria, listening to sentimental music in Railly’s car, always holds me in thrall.
‣‣ 12 Monkeys (2015)
Seen in 2017.
Review refers to the first season only.
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.
A producer-driven “SyFy Original” fantasy drama.
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 (2016), 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).