Review: 12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys


Terry Gilliam
David Peoples, Janet Peoples (Film “La Jetée”: Chris Marker
129 min.
Bruce Willis, Jon Seda, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, David Morse, Christopher Plummer
MPAA Rating

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How easy is it to recognize the brilliance of a film when you’re constantly asked to suspend disbelief and reason to accept the unusual and cluttered premise of a film. 12 Monkeys plays a delicate kind of Russian Roulette with the audience expecting them to constantly challenge the events in the film and hope not to get blindsideed by the lone bullet in the gun.

Set in the future, a group of prisoners is used by a frustrated government to seek out specimens in the ice-covered world above that might certify the massive plague taht wiped out a vast majority of the population has abated enough to allow them to emerge from the depths of the planet. After constantly failing to find a suitable environment, the scientists decide its time to experiment with a new procedure that will force the recipient into the past to relive what happened and hopefully discover who started the virulent plague and allow them to stop his nefarious goals.

Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, one of the experimented-on prisoners selected for his loyalty and fierce dedication to goals. They begin by sending him back too far, implanting him in the trenches of World War II before bringing him back and eventually settling him in the present, a few years before the virus will be transmitted. Thought crazy by the inhabitans of the world as he rattles on about the impending plague, he’s incarcerated in an asylum before being pulled back to the future and given a new destination time, this one more closely preceding the outbreak.

While in the present and recent past, Cole meets and falls in love with a skeptical psychiatrist played by the then-popular Madeleine Stowe. Willis brings a superb level of twitchiness to the role, constantly keeping the audience questioning whether he really is crazy and the future is simply a figment of his imagination or that he really is the time traveler he claims to be. Stowe keeps him sutiably balanced, but seems stuck in a limtied role with minimal depth. The same could easily be said for Willis’ character, but Willis does a fine job earning the sympathies of the audience. Yet, it’s Brad Pitt as a tick-ridden inmate of the asylum to which Willis is originally incarcerated.

All of the events surrounding the mysterious 12 Monkey cult suggest that they will be responsible for release of the deadly agent, which forces Willis to escape custody, kidnap Stowe’s Kathryn Railly and go in search of this organization, led by the crazed Goines who detests his father’s work, but uses is to his own ends. Pitt gives that kind of psychotic performance that certifies in your mind that he’s quite talented. After years of veneer-thin performances in films like Cool World and A River Runs Through It, it’s nice to see him branch out with a wonderfully looney performance. Whether the character is lacks full dimensionality or not doesn’t matter much while you’re watching him work.

Terry Gilliam is probably the most unusual director working in motion pictures today. Originating with the comedy troupe Monty Python, it’s not hard to see where Gilliam got much of his sensibilities (or at least honed them). Since then, all of his films have either been heavily centered on fantasy, science fiction or both. And every one of his films, even if not terribly thought provoking, has at least been somewhat fun and that even goes for his cinematic failures like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. My first experience with Gilliam was a film called Time Bandits which I saw when I was a very young boy. Although I had no idea who Terry Gilliam was at the time (nor did I even know his name), there was something compelling about Bandits. It may have been, along with The Hobbit, the film that got me most interested in the fantasy genre. However, until I saw Munchausen in the late ’90s and Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the early ’00s, I wasn’t really that familiar with his work.

After watching the excellent The Brothers Grimm in 2005, the next film I saw of his was Brazil a couple of years back. Since then, I’ve seen The Fisher King and now 12 Monkeys These are all films that have a strange, dark underside but provide engaging questions for the audience on how we view our society. Whether it’s the totalitarian regime in Brazil or the blurred realities between crazy and sane (evinced in both Fisher King and 12 Monkeys), his films are both visually engaging and sociologicaly expressive.

12 Monkeys may not be his most cerebral, though it may be his most compelling film since Brazil. That his science fiction work is more interesting than his fantasy output speaks to his superb understanding of the genre. Our society will always stick to what’s safe and unassuming, avoiding anything unusual or outlandish in an effort to quash individuality and assert on the people a set of norms that best suit its goals. A worker is a worker whether happy or miserable when they have no recourse but to work. If we were allowed to give in to flights of fancy, rebuking normality, we might begin go think for ourselves and explore the vaguaries of the world. This would expose the careful machinations of those in power and threaten to upheave what they’ve worked so long to manipulate. Individuality itself might be considered a disease worth eliminating and the plotline, associated with the eradication of much of the human race by a virus, is uniquely symbolic of this ideal

If you are looking for a pure form of entertainment, 12 Monkeys works for that. You can enjoy the film without thinking about its deeper associations. Gilliam has subversively created a film that could educate the viewer without allowing them to realize it. And like the questionably certifiable characters in his film, Gilliam doesn’t really care if you don’t quite understand where he’s going, just as long as you’re there for the ride and perhaps pick up a little something along the way.
Review Written
August 15, 2011

1 Comment

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  1. Confusing and fanciful, this film requires more than one viewing to get all the clues together. Willis is excellent, and Pitt is annoying, but effective, as a loony. Good Review!

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