Building Time Machines: From La Jetée to 12 Monkeys

time machine 12 MonkeysIn 1962, a brilliant cinephile with a passion for temporal distortion completed construction of his masterpiece – a time machine. His name was Chris Marker, and the machine was La Jetée.

This invention, built almost entirely out of black and white photographs taken with a Pentax Spotmatic and a brief piece of footage captured by a 35mm Arriflex, worked more perfectly than Marker could possibly have anticipated. Viewers who were exposed to projections of the aforementioned elements found themselves transported to a post-apocalyptic future, in which they encountered a man intent on achieving the opposite task – he needed to travel back in time and prevent the catastrophes that had ruined his own future world.

This strange man and his entourage of viewers were able to travel backwards and forwards through temporal barriers at will, and before long they repaired the future and secured a more prosperous existence for humanity. The mysterious man did not fare so well, and in one horrifying moment, he found himself sucked into a strange, beautiful but terrifyingly infinite loop comprised of both his beginning and his end. This unnamed stranger’s fate was sealed, and he was doomed to repeat his journey again-and-again in theatres across the world. The viewers were allowed to leave, but the stranger kept going.

In 1995, another madman, endowed with exceptional creative genius, built a time machine of his own. His name was Terry Gilliam, and strangely enough, he called this machine, 12 Monkeys. This man used very different materials from his predecessor, and was aided in his task by equally brilliant linguistic engineers, David and Janet Peoples. The window his machine provided into the future was both clearer and more frantic than Marker’s. It was equally profound, yet less precise. But most importantly, this image of the future was slightly different. As viewer’s clambered aboard, they once again encountered the strange man from the future, but this time he gave his name. He was James Cole.

Cole was still dealing with his temporal conundrum, but over time tiny variations in each loop had changed events, expanded details and opened up new possibilities. Soon enough, Gilliam’s machine was out of control, and Cole’s visage was appearing in millions of homes around the world.

One might have expected that all this would have seen an end put to any further ambitions regarding time travel. But now we hear that another device is being built by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, to be helmed by Jeffrey Reiner. This time the narrative possibilities will be expanded, but as a consequence we might expect the profundity of the original achievement to have dissipated.  Perhaps they only wish to visit Cole again? Perhaps they wish to rescue him from his seemingly interminable loop? It’s a brave mission. Let’s hope it’s not a disaster.

La Jetee (1962)


12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys (2014?)

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

13 thoughts on “Building Time Machines: From La Jetée to 12 Monkeys

  1. Pingback: In 1962, a brilliant cinephile with a passion for temporal distortion completed construction of his masterpiece – a time machine. His name was Chris Marker, and the machine was La Jetée. - #nerdalert

  2. We’re in a bit of a golden age of television writing, especially when compared to writing for feature films. So though tv may not be able to capture the same visual quality, perhaps the writing will go someplace new. That said, thank you for mentioning the Peoples. David Webb Peoples is one of the best screenwriters of the past several decades who rarely gets acknowledged (in this Auteurist industry.).

  3. You all seem more optimistic than me about this. I don’t see a need for a Syfy TV series of 12 Monkeys at all. I loved Marker’s short and Gilliam’s movie is a completely different kind of experience that stands on its on merits. But a TV show version of it? The production values look thin and the acting seems weak. I’ll skip this one and hang on to the memory of when I first saw 12 Monkeys atthe movies, and I was swept away by the opening credits alone.

    On to more positive things: I heartily endorse Pete’s recommendation, as well.

  4. Very well-written piece, James! I liked La Jetee a lot and found 12 Monkeys interesting, though a bit frustrating … mainly because of Brad Pitt’s performance. It’s interesting that we’re getting another remake; here’s hoping it works!

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