James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a prisoner in a underground society that consist of a group of survivors. The world above the ground is ruled once again by the animals after a deadly virus was released in 1996; killing Five billion people. The 5 head scientist pluck Cole from his cage and have him search the bleak surface of the earth in effort to learn about the disease, but he’s unable to find anything. This prompts the scientist to have Cole travel back in time to gather information on how this disease came about, however preventing it will do no good for the future. They merely want to locate the virus in it’s purist form, which will allow them to create a cure for treatment.
Cole is thus sent back in time, landing in the year 1990, and ends up being placed in jail. A panel of 5 doctors and psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) listen to his plea that he’s come back in time to locate a group called “The Army of 12 Monkeys” who will release the deadly virus in 1996. This confession places him in a mental institution where he meets a mentally ill patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), but after a inexplicable escape from confinement; Cole returns to the present and informs the scientist that they put him in the wrong year. For a second time they send him to the correct year. He once again appears in Dr. Railly’s life and kidnaps her so he can use her to find the 12 Monkeys in Philadelphia. Cole learns that Goines father’s laboratory may harbor the virus, which leads him to believe Jeffery may want to return the planet to the animals, or his father may be the culprit. Ultimately this quest places him danger as he searches for these answers.
My expectations of 12 Monkeys was vastly different from what I saw, and that’s a good thing, but sometimes frustrating. I love how it was able to take from it’s source material La Jetée by Chris Marker and expand that premise into a much bigger story. I do prefer the former over the originally due to a few reasons. La Jetée, though shot through almost all still photos, was able to maintain a specific atmosphere. I was drawn into the shades of grey through the black and white photography and due to the nature of the scientist it left an ominous air throughout the picture. I’m not a big fan on narration but what else where they do due, and to my surprise it left for a beautiful told science fiction time travel adventure blended with a romance for a women he met. 12 Monkeys is able to retain these main components of the story but I was put off by all the lighting and the strong “90s feel” that the film gave off. In no means does this take away the time spent in constructing impressive technology of the future, and difficult story-line. A little past the halfway mark I was able to finally immerse myself in this film and allow all little problems to fade away.
As the film carries on the mental state of Cole begins to become weaker and he questions what is real and what is not. During Cole’s stay in the mental institution, L.J. Washington (Frederick Strother) tells him that he exist within his own mental construct “It’s a condition of mental divergence. I find myself on the planet Ogo, part of an intellectual elite, preparing to subjugate the barbarian hordes on Pluto. But even though this is a totally convincing reality for me in every way, nevertheless Ogo is actually a construct of my psyche. I am mentally divergent, in that I am escaping certain unnamed realities that plague my life here. When I stop going there, I will be well. Are you also divergent, friend?” During his search for the 12 Monkeys, Cole’s efforts are fruitless causing him to further question if he has created his own mental construct. Interestingly enough, initially Dr. Railly tells Cole that he has created this idea of the future world in his head, but sees things that Cole said would occur causing her to fully believe Cole was right all along. Which provides them to have their own little relationship together.
The best part of the movie and their relationship takes place in the movie theater with a Hitchcock 24hr fest playing. First off, why don’t all movie theaters do this at least once a year. I would prepare myself for a month to be able to make it through 24hrs of pure cinema. Secondly while they are watching Vertigo, the situation that Cole and Railly are dealing with is mirrored image of what Scottie and Madeleine are going through. Soon after Railly walks out of a phone booth to Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful score from Vertigo while wearing the same coat as Madeleine in Vertigo. Let’s just say, I’m not going continue this message in caps, but my sheer excitement for this whole sequence was through the roof and the notes I was taking for this film involved a lot of exclamation points!
The climax was anti-climatic for me, due to the fact it was played through Cole’s memories sequences several times during the film adhering to the themes of the inevitable tragedy and powerlessness. Furthermore, I’ve seen La Jetée which further enforced my disappointment in the climax, but I like the location of final scene which pays homage to the short film. To the films credit, the denouement was a brilliant way to close the film and was very creepy to watch what happens. The most fascinating thing about the films conclusion is that Terry Gilliam didn’t not want to have the scenes following the final climax but after a lot of discussion they decided to shoot it. After this the commentary brought up a very interesting aspect that I didn’t look at before. You may want to skip the rest of this paragraph if you have not seen the film. The commentary brings up the shot on the plane with the man and scientist from the future. What’s interesting is that she appears to be the same age on the plane as she is in the future, which brings up numerous questions; how is she there but not younger, did she travel back to save the future, did she attempt to save the present or worst off was she there to aid in the death of the 5 billion. Those are all intriguing questions but for me her being there gives the film meaning. Before the shot on the plane I was beginning to think the film had no purpose because the younger Cole saw himself die, and was heading on to repeat the same process. How he survived ground zero of the epidemic, I don’t know but back to my point. By including the scene on the airplane and creating ambiguity; allows for the cycle of Younger Cole watching Future Cole not be a endless cycle that continues throughout these time dimensions. The film is able branch out and is up for the viewer to decide what would happen next and whether that will be positive or negative.
Overall I enjoyed this film, it was not what I anticipated, but appreciate the ambition and creativity in the film. Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt were completely different to from the roles they usually partake in, which keeps it fresh. The plot carries through nicely to an already anticipated climax which is disappointing but the following conclusion is unexpected and leaves you wanting more.
Rating: ★★ / ★★★★★
Dir. Terry Gilliam
IMDb 8.1/10 – Rotten Tomatoes 88%
Academy Award Nom. – Best Costume Design
Academy Award Nom. – Best Supporting Actor
Golden Globe – Best Supporting Actor
Saturn Award – Best Science Film, Costumes, Supp. Actor
“The movie never changes, it can’t change. but every time you see it, it seems different because you’re different. You see different things”