IMDB #172 Twelve Monkeys

Review spoiler: I have seen 1995's Twelve Monkeys many times and I already know that it is GREAT with a capital all five of those letters! This is because it involves one of my favorite directors (Terry Gilliam) and perhaps my favorite subject for any medium of any kind (time travel).

I would love to go back to before I saw Twelve Monkeys and stop myself from seeing it so I could write an unfettered piece for ya, but since the past is immutable I would probably slip on a banana peel, knock a glass of water onto a control board and cause the Chernobyl explosion or some such thing.

Time travel, am I right?

The Key Players:

You'd think Terry Gilliam might have called it a day on the Being Awesome front after serving as the American 1/6th of Monty Python (he did the animated shorts, bit parts, and co-wrote with the gang), but no: he decided to become some sort of Georges Méliès crossed with Steven Spielberg superdirector. He's got the creative vision and epic perfectionism that lead to inflated budgets and numerous delays, but it's all resulted in some of the most singularly wonderful films EVER (Brazil, Time Bandits, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (I will fight you on this one!)). Of course, fiascos are bound to happen as well (Tideland, The Brothers Grimm), but there's wonder to be found in the most uneven Gilliam projects (like the recent The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus).

Star Bruce Willis is of course better known as the recording artist behind the smash-success 1987 album The Return Of Bruno. Co-star Brad Pitt would only make a few films before tragically aging backwards into an infant in 2009.

But seriously folks, whatever happened to Madeleine Stowe? She broke out in the early 90s with The Last Of The Mohicans, Short Cuts, and this role, but has since faded into mostly supporting turns and tv guest spots. Last year she was in a Lifetime TV-movie, and you know what that means...

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The Story:

Willis stars as James Cole, a convicted violent offender in an underground, post-apocalyptic 21st century. He's forcibly "volunteered" to go up to the Earth's surface, unihabitable due to an airborne virus since December 1996, and collect samples of bugs and such to aid the scientists researching a cure.

They've also developed a ramshackle sort of time travel, and as such decide to send Cole back to 1996 to find a pure sample of the virus- problem is, he ends up in 1990 instead, and commited to the loony bin when he tells the truth about where he's from (is this ever a good idea? Not saying "I'm from THE FUTCHA!" is like Time Travel 101).

In said asylum, he meets scatterbrained zealot-without-a-cause Tyler Durden Jeffrey Goines (Pitt), the son of a prominent virologist, and his psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe). Goines helps him organize an escape attempt, but he's caught and locked up tight- only to dissappear into thin air.

Back in the "present," the scientists tut-tut about him getting locked up (and their own six-year error), and try again- this time with some more specific instructions about the people and places involved- supposedly the mysterious "Army of the Twelve Monkeys" had something to do with the virus outbreak, with Jeffrey Goines front and center.

Cole ends up in 1996, after a brief stop in WWI France to get shot in the leg- not the most subtle operator, kidnaps Dr. Railly (who's since become an expert on "Cassandra Syndrome") to drive him to see Goines. Goines (now released) denies any world-annihilating virus plans, and Railly manages to convince Cole that his experiences in the "future" are hallucinations, just before he disappears once again. He convinces the scientists (believing them just figments of his minds) to send him back one more time- meanwhile, Railly discovers various evidence that Cole's a real time traveler.

Eventually they realize that he's not crazy, and decide to up and spend the last month of the world in the Florida Keys (product placement much?).

Did I mention that Cole's been haunted this whole time by a dream (or memory) in which his younger self watches an oddly familiar man get shot to death in an airport? No? Well, it's pretty important.

The Artistry:

12 Monkeys would mark Gilliam's first attempt at directing a story he didn't develop himself (partially excepting the mythology-based The Fisher King)- the screenplay was ordered by Universal before his involvement, to be expanded from the 1962 short La Jetée- though it mostly takes the central idea of the dream and runs in other directions.

As such, it's probably the most tightly-structured of all of his films- where opuses like Brazil and Time Bandits are held together by characters and performances, Monkeys is propelled by its interlocking timelines and plot threads, woven at the center with the incrementally revealing dream sequence.

The backdrop for all of this is of course, Gilliam's trademark insanity, which makes the film more than a gimmick. The skewed camera angles in the asylum, the steampunk art-direction of the underground future- which seems to be composed mostly of banks of monitors and oversized magnifying glasses- or the harrowing Philadelphia slums.

Many of his films seemed marked by a sense of paranoia, and Willis' frenzied but numb performance might be the primary example- usually Gilliam's heroes are the only ones who see it straight in a world of fools ("Mom! Dad! Don't touch it! It's Evil!"), but Cole is harrowed enough to take tips from the inmate who introduces himself by saying "I don't really come from outer space."

The apex of this madness is the random hobo that seems to exist in both timelines at once, sometimes knowing key information (like the teeth thing), sometimes just a clueless hobo, and sometimes just a voice that outright suggests he could just be in Cole's head. He's a little overdone (why does he call Cole "Bob"?), but still fun.

The cast is largely game, too- especially the Oscar-nominated (and Globe-winning) Pitt, all tics and crazy-eyes to balance Willis's stoicism (which, as we'll see in things like The Sixth Sense, is the right use of post-Die Hard Bruce Willis anyway). Stowe's role is pretty thankless, but the rest of the bit players shine, from David Morse as a pivotal nutball to Christopher Plummer as the clueless scientist.

They combine to tug 12 Monkeys toward black comedy, though in the end it's a dark, dark film: all of the themes that it juggles (dehuminization of prisoners, rampant consumerism vs. environmentalism, delusion vs. reality) are swallowed up in the end by the lesson that the past (and thus, the future) are unchangeable (uh, spoiler I guess), which in this context is pretty hopeless.


That memory turns out to be Cole witnessing his own death as a child! The Army of the 12 Monkeys is nothing more than a guerilla animal rights group, and it's a wacko assistant to Goines' father that releases the plague (after an early, eerie cameo at Railly's book-signing). Cole rushes through airport security to stop him on impulse (with a gun given to him by another traveler from the future? This part is unclear to me), and is shot by security.

Railly sees the younger Cole and has a quiet Wow, this is messed up moment as we draw to a close. Enjoy the virus, everybody!


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Maybe just slightly higher- I like this film a lot, but the aura of unstoppable bleakness doesn't have me watching it once a month or anything- even Brazil is punctuated with some comedic and fantasia-based highs here and there.

The Legacy:

I think we can safely say that this (in tandem with Se7en) led at least to Brad Pitt being taken more seriously as an actor- his awards were the most notable. It's also Gilliam's most successful film by any measure, turning a $30 million budget into nearly $170 m worldwide.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

This fan-made(?) trailer makes it seems like an entire asylum set black comedy, but it's pretty great all the same.

Leftover Thoughts:

-If you had to trace the founders of cinema to their modern descendants, there would be a straight line from Georges Méliès to Gilliam and an even straighter line from Thomas Edison to Brett Ratner. (Zing! Film-nerd burn!)

-I've seen every Gilliam film except Tideland- someday, maybe I'll make it just for completism, though I understand it's woefully misguided at best and reprehensible at worst.

Coming Up...

171. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

170. V for Vendetta

169. Star Trek

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