Directed by Terry Gilliam Twelve Monkeys is the second film that Gilliam did not write or co-write the screenplay for. The first film was The Fisher King (1991). An interesting thing to note about both films is the fact that they were both well received by critics and the public.
The film is set in the future. The earth’s population has been decimated by a manufactured virus that was released in 1996. The virus was so contagious that the survivors moved underground and can only go outside wearing protected clothing.
Bruce Willis is a convicted criminal who volunteers to go out and collect samples from the contaminated remains of the outside world. He is working towards a pardon and his freedom.
Scientists have discovered through intelligence that a group called The Army of the Twelve Monkeys were active in 1996 and 1997 and believe that this group is responsible for releasing the virus. James Cole (Willis) is recruited to go back in time and get a ‘pure’ sample of the virus so scientists can develop a cure.
Unfortunately the time travel ‘machine’ developed by the scientists is not exact and James is sent back to 1990. He ends up getting arrested and placed in a mental hospital for observation. When he is brought back, the scientists quiz him about a phone message from a female.
James convinces the scientists to send him back and after a bit of another ‘false’ start he ends up in the right year.
Twelve Monkeys has always felt like a curious blend of Time Bandits and Fifth Element to me. Despite this blend, the film is too non-linear to be likened to any other film too much. The film does have Gilliam’s stamp all over it.
The scene where Cole is being interrogated by the panel of scientists and he tells them that they are not real, they do not exist. The scientist’s react badly to this, with one female scientist sounding very hurt when she remonstrates Cole for his remark.
In another scene, Cole has been badly injured and is in a hospital bed in his own time. The scientists have surrounded his bed and are singing to him. Gilliam is a master of surrealism and Twelve Monkeys is about as surreal as you can get.
Willis breathes defeated life into James Cole and before the film is halfway through we recognise that this is a doomed individual, but we’re behind him every step of he way.
Brad Pitt’s character Jeffrey Goines is a complete fruit loop and his love/hate relationship with his father Dr Goines (Christopher Plummer) is what has made him rebel against the animal testing in daddy’s labs. Madeleine Stowe is Cole’s therapist who eventually believes his outlandish story of time travel and tries to help him find the virus.
In Twelve Monkeys the future is depicted as filthy, grimy and cold. Human life, especially in the prison, has little to no value. Animals have taken over the planet and man can only take very limited trips to the surface. Of course the 1996 and 1997 that Cole visits is also not very clean.
Graffiti is on practically every city wall and rubbish lines the streets. The authorities are cynical and bored. And towards the end of the film, we begin to wonder if all this time travel isn’t just some sort of nightmarish dream of Cole’s.
Having a limited amount of special effects has meant that the film has aged pretty well. It is still a compelling film to watch and I consider Twelve Monkeys Terry Gilliam’s jewel in his crown. Although The Fisher King could be considered a close tie.
My final rating of the film is ‘a two bagger’ for the constant to-ing and fro-ing that the film does between time. And a large coke to help wash down that bitter ending.
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