Twelve Monkeys (1995) / Sci Fi-Thriller
aka 12 Monkeys
MPAA Rated: R for violence and language
Running Time: 129 min.
Cast: Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeline Stowe, Christopher Plummer, Frank Gorshin, David Morse,
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: David Webb Peoples, Janet Peoples (inspired by the short film, La Jetee, by Chris Marker)
Review published February 20, 2007
Surely there is very real and very convincing data that the planet cannot survive the excesses of the human race: proliferation of atomic devices, uncontrolled breeding habits, the rape of the environment, the pollution of land, sea, and air. In this context, isn't it obvious that "Chicken Little" represents the sane vision and that Homo Sapiens' motto, "Let's go shopping!" is the cry of the true lunatic? -- Dr Peters
In the year 2035, the world has been decimated by an unknown deadly virus spread years before, forcing the remainder of humanity to live underground, while animals, impervious to the disease, rule the land. They send a convict named Cole (Bruce Willis, Die Hard with a Vengeance) back in time to 1996 to try to get whatever information he can about the spread of the virus. They mistakenly send Cole to the year 1990 instead, where he is thought to be a lunatic and is thrown into a mental institution. He befriends a female psychiatrist there (Stowe, Short Cuts), along with another crazy patient (Pitt, True Romance), the son of a famous scientist who may know the key to the mystery of the 12 monkeys.
12 Monkeys is arguably Gilliam's (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Time Bandits) best and most coherent work, brilliantly conceived by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) in an homage to Chris Marker's French New Wave classic short, La Jetee. Gilliam offers his usual cinematic touches, with quirky characters, cluttered mise-en-scene, and a healthy helping of the surreal mixed in. Along with the themes of reality, fantasy, and drug use, the resulting dizziness serves the shifty story well, keeping us second guessing what we see and what we believe to be happening throughout.
In my opinion, Brad Pitt deserved to win the Oscar he was nominated for in his undeniably remarkable portrayal of Jeffrey Goines, the maniacal leader of the group called the 12 Monkeys; he steals the film. On the other end of the talent spectrum, Bruce Willis is not exactly the best person for his role (in fact, he is a bit of a liability in terms of the acting) but thankfully, doesn't do much damage, since it is the story that is the main source for the film's success (and it's one hell of a story).
Any film that tips the hand mightily to my favorite film, Vertigo, is a winner in my book. Not only is it partially shown, but it is deftly woven into the story, with Cole coming to the realization that the past, like the film itself, is not something that can be changed. Through time travel, we might go back to the same time period, but only our observations will change, and not the object being viewed. It's a brilliant, poignant moment among many, taken a step further by a scene between Cole and Kathryn featuring Bernard Herrman's score that recalls a similar scene where the protagonist of both films makes a connection between what he remembers and what he now knows, realizing that his dream has become a reality.
12 Monkeys is thought-provoking, insightful, and mesmerizing entertainment that, while not always making sense, delivers many moments of transcendence into genius. Stick in a thespian with better acting chops than Bruce, and you might even be looking at a masterpiece. Ah well -- it's a healthy irony; you can't go back in time to change the movie, either. Quibbles notwithstanding, sci-fi hasn't been this exhilirating in years.
©1998, 2007 Vince Leo