Twelve Monkeys’ Avant-Garde Roots

The 1995 Terry Gilliam film Twelve Monkeys as well as the 2015/2016 Syfy television series of the same name, now in its second season, both acknowledge La Jetée as the source for their inspiration. As convoluted as time travel tales can be, the 1995 film and more so the current series are basically straight-forward narratives that deliver up plot and imagery that aren’t overly challenging to the viewer.

Their source inspiration may require the burning of a few more mental calories in the watching, but the viewer will be rewarded for their effort.

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La Jetée is a 1962 science fiction short that unfolds as a series of black and white stills with a narration. The world has been through a cataclysm, and a time traveler is sent back and forward through time to witness the events of the past and perhaps even find a solution to the present’s problems in the future. The technology is dangerous, and the traveler is the only test subject able to withstand the rigors of the process.

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The narration is personal and subjective, leaving the viewer to piece together what is actually happening at times. The imagery is spare and haunting. The traveler’s present is a nightmare, bled out of hope, where the journey to the past would be a welcome escape even though it might result in the traveler’s death. This past is rooted in his memories of both a woman and a viewing platform at an airport which he had visited as a youth, a location which lends the film its name. What I find interesting is that the visual style falls into the background as I got caught up in the narrative, forgetting that I’m watching a series of still images.

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The later Gilliam film fleshes everything out, adding the dimension of possible madness to the mix, even though it’s never truly in question as to whether Bruce Willis’ character has time traveled since we saw it happen. The sometimes-frantic visual style and the Argentinean tango music raises the film from being just a grounded narrative that elaborates on La Jetée’s blank spots.

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The Syfy series is also quite watchable, but its chief concern is the time travel itself, and what happens when things are changed, as ripples in time adjust the disastrous plague’s breakout but never quite avert it. I’ll talk more about the show at another time, and only after I catch up with all of the second season.

La Jetée is an artful and original story that is a must-see piece of science fiction history. It may take more effort to watch for modern viewers not accustomed to less-linear presentations, but the images will stay with you long after its 28-minute run-time.

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