The Acorn and the Oak Tree - a complimentary pairing…

La Jetée (Marker, 1962)
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Twelve Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995)

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Overview: Terry Gilliam, in his commentary on La Jetée rightly said that these two movies fit perfectly together; that La Jetée was like the an acorn - small, compact…perfect. And Twelve Monkeys is the oak tree that the acorn becomes, with branches going all directions. A much more complex, grand, dizzy state. But at the heart, they are the same thing.

In watching them together, it’s impossible to disagree. La Jetée and Twelve Monkeys simply fit as a wonderfully nuanced cyberpunk experience. While some of the details are different (nuclear holocaust versus a manufactured virus), the essential story is the same. Both involve extreme dystopian futures, where, upon the development of time travel, the powers that be send unwilling test subjects back in time (and to the future in La Jetée’s case) in order to find key supplies and information that will save them in their present situation. While on their journey, these test subjects develop deep soul-mate style relationships with a person from the past. Also, both share the same fantastical life ending experience.

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Both films also deal with the issue of memory, and how a single past experience became so powerful as to almost structure their reality. More interesting, the question of how time travel affects one’s understanding of reality in general. Would you really be able to distinguish reality after such massive time shifts, or would you drift into a dream state - never really sure whether what you were looking at was real or not, was the present or not.

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In both movies, the test subjects are prisoners, with no control over their own fate. The test subjects are both unique in that many others could not survive the experience. In both movies, the masters are the scientists and technologists - it is they who control the fate of the human race in this dystopic future. Normal traits we think of as humanity are abolished. In Twelve Monkeys, for instance, the test subjects live in chicken wire-style cages. In both cases, it is assumed by the scientists that the test subjects will use the opportunity to engage in self-fulfillment versus larger humanity concerns. The overall mood of imprisonment and inescapable fate permeate both movies.

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La Jetée as a movie is one of the most interesting I’ve encountered. Virtually the whole movie involves narrating still shots. While this sounds like a glorified slideshow, its anything but. The pacing is magnificent. The mood created is truly immersive. In a truly astounding feat, Marker traps the viewer in this "slide show" mentality, and then, as the movie is discussing whether the character can decipher what’s real or not, he pulls the run out from under us. The stills show a sequence of the woman (Hélène Chatelain) lying in on the bed - as the reality discussion ensures, just for a split second, you see the woman’s eye’s blink and her hand move ever so slightly. It’s such a subtle use of
movement that you never are sure if you saw it or not. In other words, Marker has magnificently turned the idea of a moving picture into an effect as powerful as anything a CG factory could produce - it totally emphasizes the questioning of reality, as you, the viewer aren’t even sure what you’re watching anymore!

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Twelve Monkeys has three magnificent performances turned in by Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt. Truly, I’ve not seen Willis or Pitt anywhere near as good as they are in this flick. While the movie isn’t as innovative as La Jetée, Gilliam’s incredible sense of cinematography and scene diversity is on full display here. The underground base in the dystopic future looks as grim as possible - truly this is an inhuman monstrosity. Make no mistake, Twelve Monkeys is terrific cinema.

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Degree of Cyberpunkness: Now, are they cyberpunk? To me, the answer an overwhelming yes!! (well, La Jetée is pre-cyberpunk). We have massively dystopic futures, controlled by scientists and technologists. Truly, humanity becomes a fleeting thing. Information plays a crucial role, as does technology. In Twelve Monkeys they have developed ways of communicating through a voice machine, and tracking them via a tooth implant. The underground is alive and present, especially in Twelve Monkeys. And we have a Japanese cyberpunk-style invasion of the body while forcing people into time travel. In La Jetée, the test subject (Jean Négroni) has wires attached to his eyes and other places, whereas Twelve Monkeys has a more effects-laden invasive proceedures.

The Bottom Line: If possible -watch these movies as a pair. If, like me, you’d only seen Twelve Monkeys, your in for a treat when you finally get your hands on La Jetée, your in for an experience! If you haven’t seen either, Twelve Monkey’s is coming out with a Special Edition next month - I’m guessing there will be some nice linkages there on the extras.


Back to La Jetée | Back to Back to 12 Monkeys


March 10, 2006

Metatron said:

12 Monkeys is a very immersive film, even though I was a bit disappointed to see the dark future elements and visuals played down as the action progressed. The opening sequence with those bunkerlike underground structures and the dead city above were glorius:)

SFAM said:

Hi Metatron, yes, that’s a great point. They really spent time on the setting up front but didn’t really return to it much as the story progressed. Although this too is pretty similar to La Jetée. But in thinking about it, I probably need to go back and get some more screencaps of that setting - it really is wonderful and needs to be shown more.

May 2, 2006

labas said:

Love 12 monkeys :)

SFAM said:

Hi Labas, welcome to cyberpunkreview. :)

And give La Jetée a try. You might love it as well.

January 22, 2007 » Blog Archive » La Jetee said (pingback):

[…] According to Cyberpunk review, 12 Monkeys is a remake of La Jetee.. SFAM over at Cyberpunk review has done a brilliant job of documenting and reviewing cyberpunk movies, good and bad. He also, compared the similarities of the two in his review The Acorn and the Oak Tree. […]

April 22, 2008

Anonymous said:

You have just saved my ass for my english final in 2 days THANKS!!!!!!!!!

October 16, 2008

Ni said:

Hi, I watched 12 Monkeys the other day, and I get this recurring uneasy feeling about time travel (”Back to the Future” is exempt of course!). It happens with any other time travel film as well, in that it doesn’t seem to raise the issue that if you go back in time, you’ll create an infinite loop.

Example: person goes back in time, sees self as a child, gets killed. Child grows up, goes back in time, sees self as child, gets killed, etc.

Hopefully a few of you can clear this up… bleh I should really get a forum name and start discussing on the forums.

December 23, 2008

Void said:

@NI: of time-travel films, I recommend japaneese anime “The Girl whol leapt trough time”. Not a cyberpunk, though :-)

I’ve just watched Twelve Monkeys. Excellent one.

Ah, Brad Pitt is also really good in “Snatch”.

February 23, 2009

960018 said:

Void is right about Snatch. Brad Pitt is amazing in that movie.
And is also very good in Fight Club, an amazing movie.

I just read this post, years after it was written, and found it very nice indeed.
I never saw La Jetée, but now I really want to see it. If I have the oportunity, I will.

Twelve Monkeys is the best movie about time travel I ever saw. And is the rare movie that doesn’t create a time paradox.

June 25, 2009

Stormtrooper of Death said:

Can anybody do a full review of this movie ‘la Jetee’, i think it is very interesting, but till now, cyberpunk review, does not have a full review. SFAM ? Anybody ?

November 21, 2009

Anonymous said:

Does anyone have a decent link to La Jetee with english subtitles. There is one on youtube but the subtitles are barely readable. Any links would be much appreciated, thanks!

June 14, 2010

xxx said:

Try this:
La Jetee

May 4, 2011

Una Benoit said:

In 12 Monkeys, they send Jose back to Cole to give him a gun. They must have intended that he kill someone, most likely the lab assistant carrying the virus; they must have intended that by doing so he would prevent the plague which wiped out the world. Of course, he failed to do so; but that does not alter the fact that those in the future attempted to change the past. It’s just like what they were trying to do with Fudge 44.

December 6, 2011

Marvin Krushkhov said:

Today i watched both films one after another: first it was La Jetée & then Twelve Monkeys. Comparsion to acorn & the oak tree is very sharp. La Jetée gives you a short but complex story and lots of laconic black & white images (form of photodrama is very unusual, never see films like that). Twelve Monkeys tells the same story, but it’s much more detalised & have Gilliam’s distinctive style. I think it’s pretty similiar to his another gem - Brazil, which saw recently & was really impressed. So, highly recommend to see both films together.

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