The Original-Original Inspiration for '12 Monkeys'

by Marisa LaScala

"It's got to be based on comic book." That's basically what I say about every movie ever, especially if it has any elements of sci-fi (or zombies). Sometimes, I'm right. In the case of 12 Monkeys, I was dead wrong. We all know that 12 Monkeys, the TV series debuting on Syfy on January 16, is based on Terry Gilliam's 1995 movie of the same name. But what was Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys based on?

Shockingly, it's really not a comic book! Instead, it was based on La Jetée, a French short film from 1962. It was directed by Chris Marker, who's also known for the movie Sans Soleil.

Let's see what concepts Gilliam (and, by extension, the TV show) "borrowed" from La Jetée for 12 Monkeys. Post-apocalyptic setting? Check. Prisoner sent on time-travel experiments in hopes of rescuing the present? Check. Mind-bending time-loop stuff with frustrating ambiguity? Check. There are more similarities, but they involve major spoilers, so I'll let you figure them out for yourself.

La Jetée is considered exceptional not just for its subject matter, but for its unique look, which uses a combination of still images and voiceover. Here, Gilliam describes how that technique really stuck with him.

I suggest you watch that clip twice. (It's short.) The first time, you'll be so distracted by Gilliam's Tintin sweater and his pink sneakers that you won't listen to what he has to say. I know we've never officially named Gilliam a Bustle style icon, but maybe we should take a second look.

But back to La Jetée. It's been incredibly influential, and not just for 12 Monkeys. It's sometimes described as the secret inspiration behind the Terminator movies. It's important enough to have its own release from the Criterion Collection, which called it "one of the most influential, radical science-fiction films ever made." It even landed a spot on TIme's list of "Top 10 Time-Travel Movies."

It's remarkable that it's been able to have such a deep cultural impact, considering that it's less than a half an hour long. Think about it: When was the last time you saw a short on the list of 10 best movies in any category? Or, when was the last time you even saw a short film (especially one that wasn't animated)? La Jetée has to be pretty special for it to be so widely seen, revered, and, finally copied.

Since it'll take you less time to watch La Jetée than it'll take to watch an episode of Syfy's 12 Monkeys, I recommend seeking it out. So, how do you find it? There's the aforementioned Criterion Collection release, which comes with Sans Soleil. Subscribers can also watch it on Hulu Plus, or it can be purchased on iTunes.

Image: Gavin Bond/Syfy