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12 Monkeys

So it’s Labor Day weekend and the new releases are getting piss-poor reviews. Just as well for me, since I’m out of town with the family and away from all my favorite multiplexes. This seems like a good opportunity to catch up on the DVDs that I’ve been setting aside for a rainy day.

And today’s pick from the grab bag is 12 Monkeys.

This is another movie that I pretty much went into blind. I knew it was a film that had to be seen more than once, which goes without saying for a time travel story. I also knew that it was a Terry Gilliam picture, though I would have figured that out pretty quickly after pushing play.

From the get-go, it’s made abundantly clear that this could only have been made by the creator of Brazil. The visuals are dominated by wide close-up shots and weird camera angles. It’s like the film was designed to be oppressively ugly in a weird sort of way, and that basic idea seems to have affected the production design as well.

The film’s future scenes are dominated by transparent plastic, TV screens, pipes, wires, lights, and all manner of incomprehensible technology in grotesque configurations. The sets and props tend to suck all the humanity out of the scene, which is of course the entire point. The 1990s scenes aren’t nearly as oppressive, but they’re still presented with such exaggeration that Gilliam was clearly going for parody of some kind. The mental ward is overbearingly clean, sterile, and depressingly white. We see homeless people on the street, and the setting is grungy to an outlandish degree. We even see a party being thrown by so many upper-crust types with their noses held high.

All of these are of course used to express Gilliam’s standard themes. The film rails against authority, bemoans our increasingly technological and consumer-based society, and asks if we can declare people crazy when their only crime is denying conformity. We even meet a few characters who actively choose to embrace their possible insanity as a means of escaping the soul-crushing drudgery of the real world. All told, this film might easily have been the fourth entry in Gilliam’s so-called “Imagination Trilogy.” In terms of visuals and themes, it has more than enough similarities to Time Bandits, Brazil, and Baron Munchausen.

Getting around to the title, it turns out that there’s plenty of thematic and symbolic importance there. On one level, the monkeys refer to the concept of lab monkeys, which the film often uses as a symbol of our cruelty toward nature and scientific progress run amok. On another level, the film mentions the concept of “monkey business.” “Going apeshit,” if you will. This refers to the concept of going completely insane and enjoying every moment of it, which is a huge part of the film. If you care to stretch a bit further, you could connect “monkeys” to “gorillas” to “guerilla warfare,” which is a crucial part of the premise.

As for the number of the title and what it means, I don’t have an answer that’s quite so clear. However, the number is often seen against a stylized sort of clock. This could be a reference to the film’s time travel plot, but I prefer to think that it means “the twelfth hour.” As in “time’s up.” As in “it’s the end of the world.”

The premise to this movie is actually quite simple. At some point in the early 21st century, the last remains of humanity have been driven underground by a terrible virus. Our protagonist is James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner who’s been selected to travel back in time to 1996. There, he can gather information about the virus’ origins and its pandemic spread at the hands of the mysterious “Army of the Twelve Monkeys.” He gathers the information, he gets pulled back to his native time frame, and future scientists can use his intel to come up with a cure. It’s a solid plan.

Unfortunately, Cole doesn’t have any control over the time travel process. He’s completely at the mercy of future technicians who determine when he travels to and how long he stays there. This means that Cole can’t stay in the 1990s — back when air was pure, water was plentiful, flowers bloomed, and fine music was readily available — no matter how much he wants to. Even worse, Cole’s complete lack of control means that he has to live with any mistakes that are made in the process.

To wit, when Cole is first sent back in time, he’s sent to the year 1990. Six years off schedule. This means that all of Cole’s briefing is made completely obsolete. He’s babbling about things that won’t happen for another half-decade, and his precious few lifelines to the future haven’t been constructed yet. On top of that, it’s worth remembering that Cole is a mere prisoner who doesn’t seem to have much in the way of intelligence. Worst of all, Cole is completely new to the concept of time travel. He has a hard time coping with the mental and emotional stress of being sent back 30 years, much less explaining himself to people of the time. So naturally, Cole gets in trouble with the authorities and is sent to the nearest nuthouse.

Upon arrival, he meets a psychiatrist named Kathryn Railly, played by Madeleine Stowe. She has a strange tendency to give Cole the benefit of the doubt, based purely on some strange deja vu she feels towards him, though of course that flexibility only extends so far. The other relevant character is Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who claims to be in the asylum entirely by choice. Goines is a fascinating character, made even more intriguing by the incredible manic energy that Pitt brought to the role. Goines has a tendency to ramble at great length about majority rule and the oppressive nature of civilization, but he talks in such a way that it’s hard to gauge how insane he really is. Maybe he’s acting crazy to prove a point, or maybe he saw the evils of the world and went bibbledy over it. Pitt’s performance is such that it’s never exactly easy to tell.

Getting back to Cole, it’s worth remembering that he’s stuck in a mental institution, and the only person he can trust is a psychiatrist. As such, Cole has to constantly reassure himself that he’s not insane. Everyone thinks that he’s a delusional and violent madman who’s dreamed up an entire make-believe future world. Between the omnipresent pressure, the medical treatments forced on him, and the mental stress of going back and forth in time, Cole naturally starts to question what’s real.

Meanwhile, Railly starts out as a skeptic who firmly believes that Cole needs psychiatric care. But as she starts uncovering more and more information about him, she starts to believe that Cole might actually be from the future. This means that the two characters have opposing yet parallel development tracks. They simultaneously switch sides from believing to not, and it’s done in such a way that they’re talking around each other until neither one of them knows which end is up. It was genuinely compelling to watch, and incredibly smart in its execution.

The cast is generally amazing — Willis and Pitt both turn in jaw-dropping work — but I can understand why Madeleine Stowe’s career sort of tapered off after this movie. She was very good in this film, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t really see anything that set her apart from other actresses. If you put her next to Rebecca Hall, for example, I doubt I’d be able to tell them apart. On the other hand, I understand that Stowe has a lead role in “Revenge” on ABC, so at least she’s still working. I also assume that she scaled back work to raise her son, who was born the year after Twelve Monkeys came out. Still, it bears mentioning that Stowe also made The Last of the Mohicans three years earlier, and no one can take that away from her.

…I just realized that I spent a whole paragraph on that one actress. Sorry, but this actress got above-the-title treatment next to Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in 1995. Both actors are still huge now, and Stowe has faded away to near-obscurity in the years since. I don’t know about you, but that leads me to wonder just what the hell happened.

Getting back to the movie, I suppose I should mention the recurring dream storyline. Yes, Cole has recurring dreams of himself as a boy witnessing some mysterious event that gradually becomes more clear as the film goes on. The concept of a recurring fantasy worked in Brazil, because it presented something fantastic imagery and unique action while reinforcing the theme of imagination as an escape from the dreary real world. In this film, however, it’s nothing more than paper-thin foreshadowing that only serves to spoil the movie’s climax. I get what Gilliam was trying to do, but there had to have been a better way.

Aside from a weak flashback storyline, 12 Monkeys is an extraordinary film. The visuals are unique and compelling, the themes are explored with novelty and intelligence, the premise is simple yet developed in clever ways… really, this whole film is a sterling example of Terry Gilliam’s style and what makes him a master filmmaker. Similarly, the movie also serves as proof that Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt are both incredibly good actors. Even if you think there’s enough proof of that, this film will amaze you.

I have a great amount of respect for this film and I can’t wait to see how it holds up on repeat viewings. I highly recommend it, especially to science fiction fans and Terry Gilliam newcomers.


  1. Ping from CMrok93:

    Good review. The ending still has me scratching my head to this day, however, I will admit that it was smartly put together in a way I usually expect from Gilliam.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    Sadly, anyone familiar with Monty Python’s work will know that they never could figure out how to end their work. Holy Grail is a key example, and Flying Circus was specifically built so that none of the sketches had proper endings. Regarding Gilliam’s solo works, I only have to point to the head-scratching conclusions of Time Bandits and Brazil.

    Anyway, thanks for chiming in.

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