12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★

After a disease killed ninety-nine percent of the world’s population and forced the survivors to live underground, James Cole (Bruce Willis), a convict with a tough mind and knack for observation, was chosen by a group of scientists to “volunteer” in an experiment. If he decided to take on the project, he would receive a full pardon for his crimes. The assignment involved time travel and tracing the precise path of the virus’ introduction to the population. He was supposed to be sent to 1996 but actually ended up in 1990 where he was immediately apprehended by the police and sent to a mental institution. What made “Twelve Monkeys,” based on the screenplay by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, more than a standard time travel film was its ambition to eventually ask the audience which reality was “real” after it had actively blurred the lines among past, present, and future. Although we didn’t spend plenty of time to explore the ravaged future, it provided enough haunting images, from an abandoned metropolis covered in ice where wild animals roamed to the dismal jail where convicts awaited their destinies. The scientists of various specializations were of suspect characters. There was a general feeling that the experiment in question was not really what they claimed. Meanwhile, the present seemed equally unforgiving in aesthetics. The bright but claustrophobic mental institution was crowded by men and women under the influence of drugs, the deceptive calm often interrupted by a very colorful madman named Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). James and Jeffrey eventually became allies after the former unveiled his mission to the latter. I enjoyed that while the duo were given a chance to bond, the atmosphere of paranoia aimed to convince our gut from truly trusting Jeffrey even if his actions proved otherwise. Like the worlds that James jumped in and out of, his relationship with Jeffrey was equally full of questions and uncertainties. This was the reason why Cole’s relationship with his psychiatrist, Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe), turned out to be of utmost importance. It couldn’t be denied that Kathryn cared for her patient immensely. Stowe did a wonderful job in showing us her character’s struggle between professional and personal, between wanting to help James and being with him. The eventual romance didn’t feel like a distraction because it remained true to the theme of duality. For instance, James was a criminal and a potential savior; Kathryn was a pragmatist and a believer. However, the pacing was not always consistent. The kidnapping situation between James and Kathryn felt too contrived and contained very transparent seeds that would later move the plot forward. More importantly, we were never given a chance to really understand the mind of the person responsible for unleashing the virus. Therefore, its final scenes were not as impactful as they could have been given that we only appreciated the complexities of one side. “12 Monkeys,” inspired by Chris Marker’s “La jetée” and directed by Terry Gilliam, astutely diluted its bleak and gloomy environments with bright energy and questions that held weight. As a result, it was worth looking back and analyzing if we had mistaken certain red herrings for truths, vice-versa, which was a brilliant way of putting us in James’ shoes all over again.

3 replies »

    • Would love to read your take on it. Having only seen the movie at the end of high school, I forgot how complex it all was. It made me think more than I expected it to.

  1. 12 Monkeys is my favorite film by Terry Gilliam. I’ve never loved his film work as much as his work on Monty Python, but he does well here. Nice review.

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