La Jetée – the origin
If ’12 Monkeys’ has taught us nothing else, it’s that every cycle has an origin. With this in mind, it seems only fitting that we look back to the source of Project Splinter, at least Project Splinter as we recognize it. Its initial cycle, which would go on to morph into the 1995 Terry Gilliam film ‘Twelve Monkeys‘ before becoming the Syfy series which we love, begins in 1962 with the film ‘La Jetée’ (The Jetty).
Written and Directed by Chris Marker (paid tribute to in the naming of 12 Monkeys character Aaron Marker) ‘La Jetée’ has only trace elements of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 adaption and the series re-imagined by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett. Rather than a live film, this avante garde classic is in the form of a narration, given over a series of still, black and white photographs. The French classic can be viewed with English subtitles on YouTube.
Although there is a clear time travel motif in the film, there isn’t a lot in the narrative to recognize from the last three seasons of the Syfy series. When the male protagonist does move through time, the act of time travel itself is more akin to astral projection than the full-bodied experience of time travel which James Cole encounters in the film and the series narratives. At times it is easy to question whether the traveler is indeed travelling at all, or if his trips are merely some fevered product of his imagination. There’s a tendency towards him delving back into repressed memories that highlights this angle. It is only in vividly recalling the past that he can travel back to it. It is the fact that the man can recall the time before the war with such clarity which assists in his selection for the “experiments” to begin with. How the leap from memory into time and space is achieved is never clearly articulated. In some ways, this adds to the surreal aspect of the story.
Another certainty is that as well as there being no physical time machine, there is no plague. The end of the world, a product of World War III, is not elaborated on and neither is the Army of the 12 Monkeys ever mentioned. In this instance the destruction of humanity, it seems, has been accepted as something of an inevitable fate. This is echoed in the 1995 film, in which Bruce Willis’s iteration of James Cole is harboring no plans to try and avert the end of humanity. In the case of both Syfy predecessors the circle is already closed, alterations to the future are impossible. This quality in and of itself adds something to the original film. As a viewer, you’re aware from the outset that it is not going to be a story that has a happy ending and yet you’re drawn in anyway. It remains to be seen how much of a change the current James Cole and Company will be able to exact (perhaps very little at all). I guess we’ll find out in the next few weeks!
Perhaps the one area in which La Jetée and Syfy’s 12 Monkeys do touch is in the ability of the James Cole character to move into the future. In Gilliam’s 1995 film, Cole only moves from his present into the past. In ‘La Jetée’, the traveler commences his journey by moving into the past (where he encounters and falls in love with a mysterious woman – the basis for the Railly character) before moving into the future. It is in this future time that he encounters a group of travelers who provide him with the solution to rebuilding society. In some ways we might draw similarities between these mysterious masked figures that inhabit Titan, but only in so far as they are travelers from the future and they have strange symbols on their heads. These symbols could be read as antecedents of the masks which are worn in the series, then again, these have been based on plague masks, so maybe not.
In any case, by finding a way for humanity to rebuild itself, the traveler is allowed to stay in the future time. Instead, he opts to return to the past so that he can be reunited with the woman. He returns to the past, finding himself on the Jetty at Orly Airport, a location where the woman waits for him but where there is also a boyhood version of himself.
Much like the 1995 film, it is not until the final moments that the traveler realizes that the memory which has bought him to the jetty at the airport is of himself being killed. Unlike the 1995 film, in the original film it is a scientist from the traveler’s current time that has come to kill him.
The pared back dialogue and the simple shots, particularly of nature, make the film visually stunning. The series of shots which indicate the unfolding love story between the male and female leads are also expertly orchestrated. Even though the characters are nameless, by the time the film ends you feel a connection to them and an intense sadness that the fate of the traveler is one which cannot be avoided.
Some other perspectives:
inverse.com – ‘Revisiting la Jetee the 1962 experimental inspiration for 12 Monkeys’
tv.avclub.com – ‘Syfy’s 12 Monkeys is a faint copy of a classic movie’
flavorwire.com – ‘Copy of a Copy: The Lowbrow Charm of Syfy’s 12 Monkeys’
denofgeek.com – The Time Loop Legacy of 12 Monkeys and La Jetée’