Review: Twelve Monkeys

A deadly virus in 1997 killed billions. I guess I was too busy doing my Higher School Certificate at the time and didn’t realise. Hey, at least I survived, though, apparently. Anyway, all poor jokes aside, surviving humans were forced underground as the animals took their rightful place at the top of the kingdom (No, really! It’s very Orwellian). Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a prisoner in the year 2035 who hopes to get parole in exchange for taking part in an experiment to travel back to 1996 to uncover how the virus got started. Unfortunately, something is amiss and he ends up in 1990, mistaken for a rambling crazy person, arrested, and thrown into a psychiatric institution. There he meets psychiatrist Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe) who doesn’t for a second believe his wild tale of time-travel. She’s specifically interested in patients who claim doomsday beliefs that no one will believe. James also meets fellow patient Jeffrey (Brad Pitt), a manic, rambling and gesticulating troublemaker who tells James of the Army of the 12 Monkeys. We soon jump to the year 1996, as James and Dr. Railly meet once again and she eventually starts to believe there is some truth to what he is saying. They head off to find Jeffrey, who by now has become the leader of the revolutionary outfit called, you guessed it, the Army of the 12 Monkeys. James believes they may be the key to what went wrong for humanity. Christopher Plummer plays Jeffrey’s dad, a medical researcher. David Morse briefly turns up as a colleague of Plummer’s, Frank Gorshin plays Dr. Railly’s superior, and Christopher Meloni (with hair!) plays a cop.


Overrated by some, this 1995 sci-fi flick largely based on the 1962 film “La Jetee” is typical Terry Gilliam (“Time Bandits” being the only one of his non-Python efforts I’ve found to be truly memorable). It looks great, and everything to do with the worldview works. In the first half in particular, Gilliam favours a boiler room-esque design that is pretty perfect for a depressing futuristic worldview. Conceptually it’s a mixture of post-nuclear and “Animal Farm”, fascinating stuff. However, as scripted by Janet & David Webb Peoples (the latter of whom worked on “Blade Runner” and “Unforgiven”), it’s predictable from the moment you learn Christopher Plummer is in the film. It also doesn’t help that the blonde wig on the woman in the flashbacks doesn’t fool one for a second. Honestly, the finale isn’t especially interesting because you know how it’s all going to play out. Add to that a not particularly interesting performance from the never particularly interesting Madeleine Stowe, and you’ve got yourself a typical Terry Gilliam frustrating disappointment (“The Fisher King”, anyone?). Stowe’s not awful, but not awfully interesting, either. She’s a bit of a cold fish, I find and it’s certainly no help having her around here.


On the plus side, Bruce Willis gives a shit for one of the last times ever, and it’s clearly one of his best performances. Despite earning an Oscar nomination, Brad Pitt probably isn’t quite as good. He doesn’t disappear into this character at all. He’s essentially Brad Pitt on too much coffee and 6 weeks of no sleep acting crazy and twitchy. It’s definitely something to behold though, even if I think his best scenes are the ones outside of the insane asylum where his character is trying to convey an outward civility and normality. Even then, one of the bigger problems I have with the film is that his behaviour is still too crazy to believe that he’d manage to get anyone to listen to him, let alone help him. It’s not a boring performance in the slightest, just not particularly credible. In a smaller role, David Morse is creepy as hell with light orange hair for whatever reason, but his character ends up kind of useless. Christopher Plummer, meanwhile, is a terrific actor but his role in things is pretty predictable and he should never have attempted a Southern accent. I did think TV’s Riddler from the 60s “Batman” series, Frank Gorshin was pretty inspired casting though, as the head head-shrinker in the future scenes. That was pretty hilarious. I also liked the music score by Paul Buckmaster (“Diving In”, “Most Wanted”), it’s quirky and playful.


I liked a lot about this futuristic sci-fi/thriller, but the things I didn’t like hold it back from me being able to wholly recommend it. It’s better than some Terry Gilliam films (I think “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” is virtually unwatchable), but typically disappointing by the end, and it’s not nearly the brilliant film lots of people claim it to be. Gilliam clearly peaked with “Time Bandits”, I’m afraid. He’s a visually inspired mad genius who doesn’t often manage to translate his images and concepts into truly compelling films. Here the screenwriters have let him down (He wrote “Time Bandits” himself, so perhaps he only knows how to tell his own stories). It looks great, but the story is so transparent that you end up twiddling your thumbs after a certain point.


Rating: C+


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