12 Monkeys (1995)


Director:  Terry Gilliam
Cast:  Bruce WillisMadeleine StoweBrad Pitt 
Plot:  In a future world devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population on the planet.

Genre:  Mystery / Sci-Fi / Thriller
Awards:  Nom. for 2 Oscars - Best Supporting Actor, Best Costume Design.  Won 3rd place of Reader Jury, and nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin).
Runtime:  129min
Rating:  NC16 for violence and language.

One of Terry Gilliam’s more accessible works from his filmography that ranges from the painfully frustrating to the oddly brilliant, 12 Monkeys is still quite a hurdle to cross for those who usually don’t use their brains when watching a film.  

A smart, near flawless science-fiction mystery that explores the conundrum of time travel, this film sees the director at the very top of his game.  Gilliam skillfully misdirects us, yet consistently engages us with the film’s ingenious plotting, with the story unfolding like a puzzle that could be satisfyingly pieced together by the time the film ends.

The premise hooks you from the start: Set in the near future in which only a handful of humans survive in a world ravaged by a deadly virus, convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) is promised a pardon if he successfully undertakes a mission to travel back in time to find the source of the pure virus before it devastated the entire world so that a cure could be developed.  His mission is to gather information and not to change the past, because the past cannot be altered.  It is this time travel theory that makes 12 Monkeys more realistic than most time travel-themed films out there.

Two supporting characters meet James Cole when the latter travels back in time (let me call it the alternate timeline).  They are Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Kathryn is a psychiatrist who has also done extensive historical research on people with apocalyptic visions.  She becomes intrigued and frightened by James’ appearance, who “predicts” that a virus will wipe out 99% of the human race in 1996.  Jeffrey is a nut case who stays in a mental institution and has a world renowned virologist as a father.  He would lead an Army of 12 Monkeys in a mystery plan to make a statement to the world.

These characters weave in and out of James’ existence in the alternate timeline, though they play crucial roles in the cause-and-effect paradigm that would determine the future that has already been set.  Gilliam’s repeated but strategic use of flashbacks accentuates the mystery element of the film.  His trademark use of Dutch angles in shots capture the psychological unease of James’ mind, which is subjected to the torture of being in different realities and being unable to tell what is real and what is not. The film’s probing into perceptual and subjective realities is treated intelligently through strong human drama and dialogue rather than sensationalized via visual effects.

Despite its sci-fi roots, 12 Monkeys does not have a dazzling visual style (apart from its prologue sequence), but is curiously shot in a raw, gritty, home-video style. Its cinematography for most parts does not even have a slight color tint to mark it as a genre film.  Thus, it is a strange experience to watch the film shot in a rudimentary style and juxtaposing it to the film’s complex treatment of sci-fi themes.  But that is not to say the film is technically not proficient.  In fact, Gilliam’s film is technically well-constructed with strong efforts going into its art direction and production design.

The acting is uniformly excellent with Willis and Pitt getting the kudos.  Willis throws away his tough-guy John McClane persona, connecting well with the psyche of his character, though his brawn remains intact to serve his character’s violent, protective tendencies.  If you think Pitt in the Coens’ Burn After Reading (2008) is wacky, wait till you see his performance here.  It’s lunacy personified from an actor who would go on to be an A-list celebrity star. 

12 Monkeys is a unique film that not only stimulates the brain, it is also a stinging social commentary of the world we live in today, a reflection of humanity as a collective mass of faceless, ugly breathing creatures.  


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