12 Monkeys


‘…12 Monkeys looks back fondly to a cleaner air world, before the virus wars began and societal norms collapsed, and can’t help but strike a chord now…’

Required viewing in pandemic times, Terry Gilliam’s free adaptation of Chris Marker’s striking, hypnotic short film La Jetee has worn well over the quarter century since release. Sci-fi has a job to do in terms of guessing things right; 12 Monkeys nails all kinds of elements, from the hazmat suits to the boarded-up businesses, from extreme enviromentalism to anti-corporate sentiment, from the fake-news era to the ongoing rumours about whether a virus may have come from a research lab. An entertaining thriller on the surface, it’s also a smart, thought-provoking film with ideas well above its station.

A deadly virus has decimated humanity; in an effort to stop that from happening, our future government sends a man back in time to nip the pandemic in the bud. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is blessed with a remarkable memory, and is able to hold his futuristic know-how in his head while at the same time balancing this with his memories of the 1990’s and what it was like to grow-up back then. A smart cookie, Cole is immediately incarcerated in the local mental institution, where he becomes the pet project of the physiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). Cole also meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), whose father (Christopher Plummer) may or may not turns out to be connected to the Army of the 12 Monkeys, a group who the history books suggest might be responsible for the virus leak…

Writer David Peoples (working here with wife Janet) co-wrote Blade Runner, and brings the same depth and seriousness to his script here, which asks a lot of the audience in keeping time-lines and motives straight. Gilliam also makes visual hay even with a small budget ($30 million), with stylish flourishes like the escaped animals that pop up over the films final 15 minutes. Not much detail remains from Marker’s film, although the references to Hitchcock and Vertigo are ingeniously re-woven into the narrative. Cole’s understanding of what the Army of the 12 Monkeys are turns out to be fake news, and the notion of unravelling the truth proves key. We already know from the opening flash-forward where and when this story will end; this is what predestination might look like. And there’s a stunning moment when Cole stands in a busy department store and inadvertantly flashes forward to the dismal wreckage of the future, an image that nails our current anxieties in a split-second.

Some talents work best on a budget, and 12 Monkeys is arguably Gilliam’s most consistent work; there’s great performances from Pitt (Oscar-nominated here) and Stowe. Often underestimated as an actor, Willis is quite extraordinary in the way he physically realises the transformation of Cole as he recovers from Marker’s patented time-travelling jet lag; he sets the tone of every scene with his physicality. 12 Monkeys looks back fondly to a cleaner air world, before the virus wars began and societal norms collapsed, and can’t help but strike a nostalgic chord now. But what’s more remarkable is that in a story that’s essentially more miserable than a Radiohead boxed set, that with 5 billion people and the main character dying, 12 Monkeys eventually feels incongruously life-affirming and upbeat. The truth is its own reward, and understanding the horror we’re capable of doing to ourselves offers the first step forward in solving our problems.



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  1. I remember this was huge hit for Gilliam, making several times its budget. After the production disaster of Baron Munchausen, he proved with the Fisher King that he could work to a budget and make money. And then Twelve Monkeys was huge, I guess partly because of Brad Pitt who took on a very different role to what he’d normally do. I really like it. It’s amazing that with all the convoluted plot it’s always easy to follow, and it still has Gilliam’s inventive flair. There’s a documentary called The Hamster Factory, by the same people who went on to make Lost in La Mancha – it’s worth watching, not least because it shows how obsessive Gilliam can be on set.

    • Good shout, I’ve got Hamster factory and planning to review it. Gilliam is one of the great original stylists, never makes anything which doesn’t feel like him. But although this film wasn’t his idea, his stamp is on every frame, and as you say, it’s always comprehensible, even if it’s complex. Interviewed Gilliam for Brothers Grimm and he’s got terrific stories, but I wouldn’t want to get in his way; he’s got incredible drive and it shows in his work.

  2. It’s a good one. Impressed enough back in the day to go and see it again. Great cast with Willis being knocked out of his comfort tree and Pitt still making his name.

    • Yup, I went to see this twice too, that overload of information requires a repeat viewing. And the big finale makes it worth tracing back the plot-line, once you know where we’re going. Pitt’s work here is terrific, supplies a nuanced portrayal, and Willis is anything but the wisecracker.

      • You needed to see it twice to work it all out. but I’m one of these guys that likes going back to see a movie fully aware of the plot, then you can enjoy other things about the film-making or performance.

  3. Glad to see it appears that the mad stampede has settled down. Let’s hope it stays that way.

    I liked Pitt in the Oceans 11 franchise, but most of the other stuff I’ve seen him in I didn’t have strong feelings one way or another.

  4. You know, I’m not sure I have the guts to watch this just yet in light of the pandemic. I missed this one the first time around, but I’ve always been a Pitt and Willis fan so I’ve got to catch it sometime (see what I did there?) I kept thinking of the movie Contagion when covid first started, and really wishing I had never seen that movie, to get my already overactive imagination going….

    • This is a much more creative story than Contagion. The plague that wipes out 5 billion people is obviously a downer, and hopefully far worse than what we’re currently enduring. but I would stress that this is a romantic film is several senses; one element carried over from the beautiful La Jetee is that the Willis’ falls for the girl and the world she comes from, a world he knows only as a boy. That’s some heavy metaphorical stuff right there; throw in Hitchcock, and I think you won’t regret it!

  5. Yipee we’re back in the room! This was a good movie, I really like Madeleine Stowe, though she kind of fizzled out of movies after the 90’s. One of Willis’s better performances for sure. Always like to see Mr.Pitt do well too. Think I might have to re watch at some point.

    • I think it’s on ye olde BBC iplayer right now. Stowe is a big missing in action of late, but does great with this role. Willis and Pitt are terrific if they get a chance, and they pull off some super work here. All very positive! The stampede suddenly cooled about an hour ago, so THANK YOU for your patience. Some very un-Paddington-like sentiments have been expressed by his fans, and I’ll report on the ongoing furore soon!

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