12 Monkeys (1995)

by J.C. Jordan

MSign of the 12 Monkeysany gifted filmmakers started out in art direction or as cartoonists and were able to bring striking images and, from cartooning, cleverly structured sequences to their work. Terry Gilliam is one such director. Originally from Minneapolis, Terry was a cartoonist when he met John Cleese, who was touring America, and went with him back to England to became one of the Monty Python Flying Circus. One of his contributions were the wonderful animated cut-outs that were the titles and skit separators of the Python television show.

Terry Gilliam's vision in 12 Monkeys is stunning in a dark and disturbing way. This is so in most of his movies, especially since Monty Python broke up and he became his own filmmaker. Brazil, Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King all are fantastic but dark meditations on man and his place in the universe. Even Time Bandits, his most commercially successful work, deals with many of the darker crags and crevices of childhood.

The script of 12 Monkeys was written by Gilliam, and David & Janet Peoples, a husband and wife writing team from the San Francisco area (David wrote the screenplay for Blade Runner), and is about a time traveler chosen to go back from his underground future society into the past to find the source of a manufactured killer virus that destroyed almost the entire world population and drove the survivors underground. The time traveler, played by Bruce Willis, is a trained observer; behind the opening credits we see him making a foray to the surface dressed in multi-layered protective clothing. During this foray we see the desolate and empty planet, overrun with animals but with the vacant city buildings still standing. He's a valued trained observer because "he remembers things". He is instructed to find the source of the virus, not to stop it from destroying mankind and changing history but to get a pure sample so the scientists of his time can make the surface habitable again.

This is the bare-bones of the story but, despite this straight forward kind of description, the script is convoluted and twisted in many delightful ways. Time travel can be that way. Most people that like the film when they see it, like it because of it's striking visuals of the future underground society and the empty, snow covered planetary surface. They like it because of the competent to brilliant acting of several of the main performers. They even like it because of the story, but if truth be told, few people GET the story the first time through and require a second or more viewing. In this case, it doesn't matter. You can see 12 Monkeys the first time and enjoy it's rich gifts and have a enjoyable and satisfying time and not feel cheated, and still want to see it again.

Bruce Willis as James Cole, the time traveler, is single-minded in pursuit of the objective given him to find the source of the virus but is dazed and confused by the past he's sent to. It seems the scientists that sent him back in time overshot their mark and he arrives several years earlier than wanted. Cole ends up in the city nut house and meets Brad Pitt as a fellow not-playing-with-a-full-deck patient named Jeffery. Madeleine Stowe is assigned as his psychiatrist.

Bruce Willis is very good. He shows his character's confusion and paranoia quite clearly while letting us know of Cole's powerful inner strength that keeps him moving forward despite obstacles put in his way by everyone who thinks he's crazy. And that's just about anyone who hears him say he's from the future.

Brad Pitt's characterization is going to have to grow on you. If you like it at all. His hand waving, half-loony Jeffery, son of a famous scientist and founder of an environmental guerilla group is a little hard to take. Pitt looks like an actor playing a crazy person rather than a truly believable nut case. His character though is a powerful influence on the story. He spews out madness and paranoia that affects everybody around him and may (or may not) be the genesis for many of the twists and turns that toss our hero Cole back and forth.

Madeleine Stowe as Dr. Kathryn Railly is the heart of this film and Stowe's characterization is near brilliant. Her character, starting as the practical physician who sees Cole only as a patient but who, through a series of events, comes to believe him to be from the future grounds the story and all the craziness contained therein. The plot provides Dr. Railly and Cole with a solid relationship and Stowe sells it. You believe her warmth and compassion and that she comes to love this man and sacrifices everything to protect and help him. It certainly helps that Madeleine Stowe is a beautiful woman and remains so through all the travails her character goes through.

The plot has only been touched on briefly here. The third paragraph above (starting with "The script of 12 Monkeys was written...") is believed to be fairly solid. Everything else in the movie could be hallucinations or something else. The script suggests that this may be the case. Any viewer who thinks that everything that happens was suggested by one character or another during the course of the film is invited to let us know.

For striking visuals, a twisted but thought provoking screenplay and great acting, especially from Madeleine Stowe, this is an terrific movie.

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