12 Monkeys (1996)
Release Date: January 5th, 1996 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Terry Gilliam Actors: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer
ive billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997, with the few fortunate survivors abandoning the surface of the earth to retreat underground. Or so says an excerpt from an interview with a rambling, paranoid, schizophrenic patient in a Baltimore insane asylum. This sets up the premise for the film, in which James Cole (Bruce Willis), living in that hellish future, is plagued by dreams of a man being shot in an airport. A blonde woman rushes to his side, his bloodied hand caressing her face (supplemented by mournful orchestral music, like the dream sequences of “Brazil”). These visions are a mystery to the violent convicted criminal, residing in a post-apocalyptic subterraneous prison, where he volunteers to run dangerous errands for the government in exchange for a reduced sentence. These missions involve time-traveling to the past to collect information on the virus, thought to have been initiated as germ warfare by a terrorist group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.
Accidentally transported back to Baltimore, April 1990, instead of the year 1996 as anticipated, Cole is visited by psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who informs him of the date. Disoriented from the time-travel process (arriving naked, like the soldiers of “The Terminator”), Cole is thrown into a county hospital, where he slowly regains his memory but is unable to convince the doctors that he’s not crazy. He befriends Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a perturbed individual not entirely in control of his thoughts, moods, and physical actions. Medications don’t seem to work. But he’s somehow connected to the Twelve Monkeys. Cole is returned to the desolate present, where the error is addressed and he’s transported back again, this time to November of 1996, where he searches for Railly – the only person he believes will help him with his task of locating the pure virus before it mutates into the life-threatening epidemic.
The characters are all peculiar, the cameras work to distort faces and backgrounds or sit at odd angles, lights create overexposure, movements are exaggerated, and the music is mismatching (with the zany sounds of an accordion). The story moves in a serpentine fashion, sparingly revealing clues to the plot and purpose, instead of following a more discernible narrative. It’s to be expected from visionary director Terry Gilliam, who has created yet another science-fiction masterpiece, this time based on Chris Marker’s seminal short film “La Jetee.” This complexity combines with the various roles to focus on character development, embellishing them with details that primarily increase their perceived lunacy. Pitt is particularly convincing as a spastic, jittery, babbling nutcase, presenting a loose-cannon rebel capable of just about any spontaneous outburst.
The incredibly knotty mystery unfolds through steadily revealed additional pieces of Cole’s dream and through repeated episodes of time travel that cast him to and from the futuristic present, where oddities abound and where communication is so abstruse, it takes several minutes to sort out the chaos. It’s mind-boggling and influentially unique, despite ultimately resembling a save-the-world type thriller with a ticking clock and disbelieving allies reluctantly aiding in a reckless scheme of search and destroy. It’s Hitchcockian (appropriately including a brief scene from “Vertigo” and mirroring the dressing up and mistaken identity components) and reminiscent of the crazy central relationship in “They Might Be Giants.”
There is a shot in which Cole is dragged away from Goines’ dinner party, down a winding spiral staircase, with the camera moving in a circle along with the captive. It’s a perfectly symbolic image to suggest the confusing, helical progression of the plot and the obscurity of what is real and what isn’t, including Cole’s point of view – which is frequently challenged or suggested as merely voices in his head or a figment of a delusional mind. This is made even more convoluted when he desires his world to be an illusion and the past a blessed reality. But each piece contributes to a fascinating journey, topped off with an unforgettable conclusion, made even more compelling with repeated viewings.
– Mike Massie