A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

12 Monkeys

October 1, 2010

12 Monkeys

This may be the most perfect time-travel sci-fi movie ever filmed. Or at least the most Gilliam time-travel sci-fi film. It appeals to me on so many levels. It has a fantastic script that addresses things like the apocalypse, time travel, madness and pre-determinism. It’s hard to believe that this movie wasn’t written by Terry Gilliam because the movie incorporates the best bits of Time Bandits, Brazil and The Fisher King. It’s like the uber-Gilliam masterpiece that was the culmination of all his work up to that time.

The movie starts with a dream. It’s a recurring dream that James Cole has. The only dream he has. He’s a young boy in this dream, in an airport, and he witnesses a shooting. There’s a blond woman and a red-headed man. When Cole wakes up it is the present. He is in a prison in a post-apocalyptic world after a virus has wiped out most of humankind. A virus that was released thirty years ago in the year 1996. Cole is “volunteered” to research how the virus began. He is chosen for his tenacity, his toughness, and his memory and attention to detail. The powers that be in this dystopian present send him back in time to try to figure out where and how the virus got started.

The trouble begins when he ends up in the wrong time. He’s supposed to be looking for clues in 1996, but he arrives in 1990. Here he is arrested and put in an insane asylum because he is a violent raving lunatic who thinks that he is in the past. His court appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly, is fascinated by his delusions. She has pity for him and thinks there is something more to his story. In the asylum he encounters a manic crazy man named Jeffrey Goines who befriends him and eventually helps him to escape.

When Cole returns to the present he is disoriented and confused. In 1990 he was pumped full of drugs to keep him sedated in the asylum. But he discovers, while being interrogated by the scientists of the present, that Goines, the asylum patient, is somehow mixed up in an organization known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys. And that they might be related to the release of the virus back in 1996 that wiped out five billion people and drove the human race to live in hermetically sealed environments underground. He is returned to the past, this time to 1996, where he seeks out Dr. Railly again and resumes his quest to find out the truth behind the 12 Monkeys.

I’ll go no further with the plot than that, because I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of the plot. It’s an extremely tight script that works its way inside your head and makes you question everything. As things progress Cole begins to question his own sanity. Perhaps the present world he comes from really is all in his head. Perhaps there is no pending apocalypse.

The movie does a great job building the tension. It has a mystery at its core to do with the virus and the Army of the 12 Monkeys. It has Cole’s crumbling sanity. There are parts of the movie that are deliberately ambiguous. There’s a voice in Cole’s head, for example, who may or may not be somebody else travelling through time from the present to the past. At one point in the asylum he hallucinates one of the guards from the prison in the present. Clearly he IS cracking and going mad, but the question then becomes just what exactly is real.

As with The Fisher King one of the primary attractions of this movie is the astonishing performance that Gilliam gets from his cast. Bruce Willis shows throughout the movie that he is not afraid to completely lose himself in his character. James Cole is a severely unstable and tortured man. He is at the same frightening and pitiable. Capable of frightening acts of violence but torn apart by the journey he is on. It’s a fascinating performance. Then there’s Madeleine Stowe as Kathryn Railly. She’s so fantastic. Kathryn’s arc somewhat echoes Cole’s. Through her interactions with him she starts to doubt everything she holds true about her own world. She’s a strong, intelligent, competent and caring woman caught up in something that feels too large for a single person to understand.

By far the most surprising performance for me though was that of Brad Pitt. At the time that this movie came out I thought he was just some pretty-boy actor and teen heartthrob. But here he not only played completely against type as the lunatic Jeffrey Goines, but he excelled at creating a compelling and upsetting character. Goines is all manic paranoia. He’s loud, abrasive and impulsive. He’s full of ticks and twitches and he has this crazy cockeyed stare. This performance was so startling and so compelling that it blew me away, and it still does every time I watch the movie again. Amazing.

Then there’s the aesthetic of the movie. The design and the lighting and the way it was filmed. The dystopic present is like an extension of the world of Gilliam’s movie Brazil. It’s all giant rubber seals and crazy cobbled together electronics. You get the feeling that when the human race almost got wiped out much of our technology was destroyed as well, and that everything in this new age is constructed from remnants of the old world bodged together and re-purposed. We do eventually get to see the time machine in action, and it looks more steampunk than futuristic. Everything looks as if it is cobbled together and falling apart at the same time.

In the past James and Kathryn find themselves descending into some frightening and chaotic fringes of our society. They look very much like the homeless haunts from The Fisher King, to such a degree that at times I expected the camera to pan over Robin Williams singing about New York in June. In the end both the present and the past have an unsettling feel to them, which is fine because the movie is, ultimately, unsettling. There’s a fatalism to the whole thing. Cole often goes on about how there’s nothing he can do to save the people of the past. The virus that wiped out humankind has already happened. He can only observe. There’s a wonderfully self-aware and meta part where Cole observes that living in the past is like watching a movie you’ve already seen. Everything is going to happen the same but the experience will be different because your perspective on it will have changed.

Finally, in the closing act as everything comes together neatly and answers are revealed, the whole tone of the movie changes. Gilliam moves things into a soft focus with a sort of over-exposed washed out feel. It has a very deliberate dreamlike quality to it, and the final minutes of the movie resonate with me and stick in my mind.

This movie is a masterful work of art. From the script to the acting to the directing. Every part fits so perfectly with every other part that I cannot find fault with any of it. If you are at all a fan of disturbing science fiction that will get inside your head and make you think then you owe it to yourself to watch this movie. If you’ve seen it already then you should watch it again. Everything is going to happen the same, but the experience my be different. And it’s a ride worth taking again anyhow.

October 1, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,


  1. Worth watching “La Jetée” just to see where the concept came from. Includes the most obscure film reference ever (in the opening credits). No hamster though.

    Comment by Doc Wheat | October 3, 2010 | Reply

    • I have seen La Jetee (long ago.) It was part of a DVD of shorts -one of a series put out in the late nineties called just “Shorts.” I should see if those disks are still out there anywhere.

      Comment by tanatoes | October 3, 2010 | Reply

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