Twelve Monkeys

(USA - 1995)
by Mike McGowan & Mike Lorefice

Cast: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse
Genre: Sci-Fi/Mystery/Drama/Thriller
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: David Webb Peoples & Janet Peoples based on the Chris Marker short La Jette
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Composer: Paul Buckmaster
Runtime: 129 minutes

Mike McGowan: 12 Monkeys is an overly ambitious film with a several problems, but overall makes for a somewhat satisfying experience. The film attempts to tackle the complications of time travel and throws in a dash of psychology and madness to guide the audience towards a thought-provoking ending. Time travel, while one of my personal favorite subjects and a virtual guarantee of deep thought wrangling, is probably the toughest film topic to successfully produce.

Simply put, there are too many variables and nuances to deal with for the average or even near great director/screenwriter to handle. Only the best have been able to make a plausible go of it in either film or written fiction. Unfortunately, 12 Monkeys doesn't quite live up to my expectations for the genre.

The film follows the exploits of James Cole (Bruce Willis), a convict sent from the future to gather information on a virus that nearly exterminated the human race in 1996. The scientists of the future send him too far back, and he is institutionalized and labeled insane. As a patient, he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the wacko son of the doctor who designs the
virus, and Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) the psychologist who later comes to believe his weird tale of time travel and global apocalypse.

Visually, the film is hit and miss. In the future set scenes, we are treated to a dismal world where humans are left to live underground, shut off from the world. The only technology available is the remnants from the 20th century pre-catastrophe era. It sets the mood and tone of the picture, but gives us our first suspension of belief moment minutes into the movie. How is it that a small core of left over scientists with only pre-1996 technology at their disposal can construct a time machine, but cannot devise a vaccine for the virus responsible for the calamity? If this were the only instance of this, it would forgivable, but unfortunately such things tend to pile up over the course of this movie.

The scientists send Cole back to gather information on the virus in its pure state, before it mutated and killed nearly all of humankind. Moment #2, not 10 seconds after Moment #1. With the deadly strain of the virus existing in abundance on the planet's surface, it is a simpler feat to master time travel to study the virus origins than to study it in it's current form? Doubtful.

So Cole lands himself in the institution, and we are introduced to Brad Pitt. He plays a severe manic personality wonderfully, and is a bright spot in the movie. At this point he is merely eye candy, but these moments will seemingly become important to the plot later in the movie (WARNING! Possible spoilers throughout the rest of the review!!!)

After trying to escape from the asylum, Cole is apprehended and locked away. However, it is soon discovered that he has seemingly broken his bonds and scaled a shear wall to escape through the ventilation system. His character (within the film timeline) disappears for the next six years. In the film, we find him back in the future, where the scientists question him about his observations. Here is where I find another flawed area. The director, Terry Gilliam, tries to have a Total Recall type atmosphere, where the audience can't tell if Cole is really a time traveler or is truly an insane madman living in our present. Gilliam wants us to be unsure, and he leaves some of the technical details out on purpose. We don't see Bruce Willis transported through time back to the future, or the scientists rescue him from the asylum. He's just back in the future, and this is supposed to make us wonder, is this guy just crazy? Gilliam would have been successful if he would have had the courage to keep us guessing throughout the film, but he quickly abandons the scheme and makes it truly obvious that this isn't a delusional fantasy. So in abandoning the "keep em guessing" tactic, it makes the prior scene transitions choppy and disjointed instead of smart and edgy. To me, he undoes what he had accomplished.

The scientists, unhappy with his collection efforts, send him back in time again. This time they drastically overshoot and he lands briefly in World War 1. In his 5-minute stay, naked in the trenches, he sees another of his collector associates there as well. He gets shot in the leg, and is immediately transported to 1996, his target date. This scene is used later to give the final necessary proof to Dr. Railly that Cole isn't crazy...that he really IS from the future. She digs a bullet out of his leg that is proved to be an antique, and she finds an old photo from WW1 that contains him in the background. While the whole scheme is well executed and delivered, it plays like mop up work. It feels like the writers came to a point in the story where they wanted Railly to believe so the story could advance and they could forge a romantic link between her and Cole, but they needed a plausible reason for her to abandon rational thought and believe Cole is a time traveler. So they threw in the WW1 scene, and wallah, it all makes perfect sense. It was a cheap device, and it felt like it didn't belong. From a suspension of disbelief standpoint, you have to wonder, if time travel is such and unperfected art as to allow the overshoot of over 60 years, how is it they get it right on the very next try? And if the scientists immediately recognize and correct their error, why did they let Cole spend considerable time in the asylum in the wrong year before?
The scientists were shocked to learn they had sent him to 1990 earlier. It just doesn't wash.

Cole returns to 1996, and kidnaps Dr. Railly. They search for the Army of the 12 Monkeys, the radical animal rights group believed responsible for the viral attack. It turns out that their leader is Goines (Pitt). Goines has infiltrated his father's organization and trust. Cole now blames himself for setting all these events on their path. He returns to the woods where he has stashed Dr. Railly, but as police close in on their location, he disappears again, only to reappear in the future. Here he is granted a full pardon for his successful collection efforts. Now, however, he thinks this is not real, and he truly is a man living in 1996 who is delusional. So he asks to go back, telling the council he only wants to help further.

On his second trip to 1996, the newly convinced Railly meets him again. She hides him away, and explains that she believes him now. But he tells her it's all an illusion, that she was right and he was sick and in need of mental help. It is an interesting plot twist, but she manages to convince him otherwise in no time flat. It would have been a nice tangent that could have deepened the audience's sense of unsureness, and they explored it for all of 4 minutes before abandoning it entirely. So in hindsight, it feels like it was just a tease for the psychological thriller crowd, and it just doesn't fit because it was given short thrift.

The cat and mouse theme gets explored, as Cole is a fugitive wanted for kidnapping, while he and Railly try to thwart the 12 Monkeys. Soon, they decide to essentially give up and fly to Florida to enjoy the coast. Their romance has superceded their quest. What?! The filmmakers try to dress this decision to write off 5 billion people as Railly and Cole are unsure if they are both mad, or if the apocalypse is really coming. But like I detailed earlier, it wasn't a very convincing job. To anyone sitting in the theatre or at home it was obvious there was no delusion at work here. It doesn't make sense that Cole would give up, especially since he loves this new world of fresh air so much.


It turns out that the 12 Monkeys Army is simply a prankster group that frees an entire zoo, and locks up Goines' father in one of the cages. Even when this happens, we know from the bombardment of foreshadowing throughout the film that someone else is actually going to unleash the virus. Hell, from the foreshadowing, you'd be a rube at this point to not know exactly who was going to do it (the lab technician who attended one of Railly's apocalypse obsessive lectures.) So, in trying to pull a "Gotcha", Usual Suspects surprise ending, they turned all of the scenes with Brad Pitt and the 12 Monkey's Army into a cheap plot device. For me, this was deflating, and the whole thing seemed forced. I was actually angry that they made me sitthrough all of those scenes, only for it to turn out to be a big misdirection. If I wanted that, I can go to a carnival and play the unwinnable ring toss games.

At the conclusion of the film, Cole dies trying to stop the villain from boarding a plane on his way to a round the world trip of mass murder. He's shot by the police, who finally catch up to him right before he catches the real villain (who they just happen to run into at the airport on their way to Florida.) Here, we see Cole's reoccurring dream of a young boy witnessing the shooting played out for the dozenth time, this time for real. As it turns out, the young boy is actually Cole as a youth, and he witnesses his own death. While this is a very interesting concept, Gilliam clubs us over the head with it throughout the movie in dream form. If you didn't guess that the young boy was really Cole by the time they were on their way to the airport, you must have been blind or up making a sandwich for most of the movie. Instead of being very dramatic and shocking, it was just a confirmation of what you already know. The scene falls very flat.

Now, had the movie ended right here, it still would have been a bit salvageable. The killer gets away, and humanity is doomed. Nice anti-Hollywood ending. But instead, we are treated to another scene. The villain boards the plane and takes his seat. Sitting next to him is a woman we recognize as one of the scientists from the future. They introduce themselves, and the plane departs.

I took this to mean that it was extremely ironic that this scientist had spent great efforts to find the original virus so she could save mankind, when all those years ago she had sat next to it prior to it being unleashed. That would have been a nice interpretation, had it not been completely wrong on my part. After watching Gilliam explain the ending on the Making Of special that accompanies the DVD, he explains that the scientist is there from the future to stop him from spreading the virus and will save mankind. Cole's death was not in vain, he led the scientists to the virus. Two big flaws with that. First off, if that's what he intended, he didn't convey it at all. You don't get any sense that she is aware of what's going on, or is there to stop it. I'm a pretty aware viewer, and don't need to get a message clubbed over my head, but I didn't get this at all. Second, it ignores the fact that the villain exposed the airport to the virus before getting on the plane. He opened the vial during a baggage check and infected a security guard. If she's there from the future to save us all, she's 30 minutes late. Ugh.

The saving graces of the movie were the performances. Bruce Willis is very good, as is Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe. Each rose above the material, and really did try to save the movie in my opinion. But dragging it back down again was the future settings and art design. While many liked its 'visionary' look, I thought it looked borrowed, and uncreative. I understand that the budget for this movie was very tight, but that wasn't the problem. The sets had a very definite European art look to them, despite the fact that it was set below Philadelphia. It looked out of place, and worse, appeared to be lifted straight out of Alien 3.

Overall, while the movie was entertaining while it was going on, it left a bad taste in my mouth afterwards, and the more I think about it, the more I dislike it. When I began the review, I figured it would be a 2 star movie, but as I analyzed it further, I am forced to chop off half a star. It just seemed liked Gilliam couldn't decide which movie to make, and it lost its focus too often throughout. It turned out to be a science fiction drama, masquerading as a thought-provoking thriller with a gotcha ending. But it didn't do any of it successfully. It didn't help that they were also trying to tackle a very difficult subject in time travel. If there weren't so many film-merit flaws, I would have noticed the technical time travel paradox flaws a lot easier. The fact that I had to clear those hurdles before getting to the time travel flaws didn't sit well.

Mike Lorefice: I sat on this review for four months waiting for this film to be on again so I could defend it's good name. Remembering it as quite a good film from my initial viewing of it in 1996, I was shocked at Mike's low rating. Now, I think Twelve Donkeys would be more appropriate title because I must have joined the army of asses to have thought this movie made any sense.

The plot wraps the James, Kathryn, & Jeffrey characters so tight that we are suffocated by the implausiblities. Some of the lowlights include Jeffrey, who improbably met James in a mental institution six years before he was supposed to meet him in the outside world, getting the idea to destroy the world from James' mention of it in a different context during their last meeting at the mental hospital and Kathryn going on to write a theory book about people who are condemned by knowing the future. This book talks about the nutty French soldier who only spoke a bizarre dialect of English and claimed he was from the future (actually a time traveler who, at about the same time as James, was mistakenly sent into the heat of a WWI battle) and through this research she happens to have in her possession a picture of James from the five minutes he was in the war. This might all be acceptable if the film wasn't set on the idea that the time travelers couldn't change the future. The premise is actually good because without it the point should be the tired old go back and eliminate the evil bit. However, in the end, eliminating the evil is exactly what's attempted, so you see how much sense this is all making and why segments make huge chunks of the film irrelevant.

The movie starts off good, but at the point where Mike talks about Cole just being back in the future, the film totally falls apart. At this point it's obvious that Willis is not insane and is indeed a time traveler. The only other option, which endeared people to such films as Boxing Helena, is that J.R. really wasn't shot. Unfortunately, the film repeatedly makes failed attempts to make us continue to (more like start) believe James is really just a loony toon, going so far as to conveniently have James start believing he's insane seemingly 5 seconds after Kathryn is finally convinced he's telling the truth.

It's safe to say that the goal here is to throw so many contradictions at the viewer that they are too confused to figure out what is real until the end. That can be an effective technique if there aren't such gaping holes that one must count on the viewer being so disoriented they are unable to notice them. Where this movie falls so short is when you start putting sequences that are broken up by a distraction together. While not falling to the Dukes of Hazard level where the General Lee is flying off a cliff and then in perfect condition when we come back from the commercial, there are too many scenes where we are just being toyed with for the sake of it. Take, for instance, the scene where James apparently feels he has no choice but to use violence on Kathryn. He starts squeezing her wrists really hard as he announces that he wishes he didn't have to do this, and they seemingly want us to believe he killed her. When he returns from the Goines party, he lets an unbound Kathryn out of the trunk. Now, if all he was going to do was put her in the trunk wouldn't it be much easier to scoop her up and drop/stuff her in there rather than alerting her that he was going to do something bad and employing some unknown wrist sleeper?

I like the way the ending was played out from a technical standpoint. The performances, slow motion, and music would make it a moving albeit unoriginal scene if not for the fact that we have to scratch our heads at why James is walking into his own dream we'd seen bits and pieces of it so many times that it wasn't dramatic because we knew the outcome and "revelation." The idea of the past turning into the present or a dream turning into reality is interesting, but ideas must be well presented to maintain interest. Like the ridiculously overrated masturbatory Willis film The Sixth Sense that everyone inexplicably thinks is so great, it's all about trying to trick the audience with magic that's far below 101 level. At least this film takes more than 10 minutes for it to become painfully obvious that it's nothing but a pretentious filmmaker repeatedly blowing his wad on celluloid.

The déjà vu aspect of the film was painfully setup not only by the dream sequences, but also by James & Kathryn seeing Vertigo at the movies. A superior director like Nicolas Roeg would trust the audience to follow him, to create the link in their mind, by simply utilizing a series of quick cuts between the chosen segment from Hitchcock's classic and James & Kathryn dressed as we'd seen them countless times in the dream. Like M. Night Shyamalan, Terry Gilliam treats his audience like 3-year-olds and goes so far to make things blatantly obvious that he actually has Willis say what we are watching is just like what's happening to us. Brad Pitt, who talks with his hands throughout the film, gives his character this great way of pointing with his middle finger turned up rather than his index finger. I decided this was the time to see if I could employ it.

These aspects of the film and others may be the pits, but Brad's performance certainly isn't. Before he became a major star and started involving himself in worthless prattle like The Devil's Own and The Mexican, he gave very good performances as more of a character actor in quality films like True Romance, Kalifornia, & Interview with the Vampire. His over-the-top, bouncing off the walls, jittery, head jerking lunatic in a way stands as his best work.

Unfortunately, while Pitt is the nuttiest of the nuts (in the film, certainly not exceeding Jack Nicholson), everyone else in the stereotypical cuckoo's nest also seems to have as much chance of improving as Charles Manson does of becoming a model citizen. The movie, which spends so much time "dealing with" mental illness, does an absolutely embarrassing job. More insight about the mentally ill could be derived from Beavis & Butthead when they were three years old. Pitt's performance is perfect for the movie Gilliam was making, but that movie was a sideshow rather than an exploration. Thus, I can't fully endorse Pitt's performance for the same reason no one could brag too much about the normally good Juliette Lewis' retarded portrayal of the mentally challenged in the reprehensible The Other Sister.

To be fair, Twelve Monkeys actually has one scene with some lines about insanity that make a lot of sense, the one where Pitt offers the classic lines "Do you know what crazy is? Crazy is majority rules!" and "There's no right. There's no wrong. There's only popular opinion!" However, this is hardly Frances, the film where Jessica Lange gives an astonishing performance as an actress wrongly institutionalized for going against her domineering mother's will and being a nonconformist. If even one person looked remotely like they were wrongly institutionalized, the points would have far greater impact. Instead, Gilliam just uses the institution to demonstrate his demented sense of humor. Even James acts like an extremely unstable individual when we first see him in the mental institution, which is a gross writing miscalculation they believe helps them screw around with their James is crazy subplot. Let's forget how difficult it makes it for us to identify with James and simply focus on the grossly obvious point that it's no revelation everyone will think James is insane when he simply tells his story about coming back in time to gather information on the deadly virus. In other words, this previous scene does not need to be included at all. It's a regular occurrence in the film for people to suddenly change though. Look how rough, violent, and aggressive James is with Kathryn when he kidnaps her only to like her again 5 minutes later. Don't tell me he thought they were going to spend at least half a day together without her realizing his identity because he was cloaked by a little sweatjacket hood. And what are the chances Kathryn would happen to have a book signing near where James landed, and James would happen to notice a mini poster in a store window for it? The plot is littered with so many such "likelihoods" that it's hard to decide which is the most ridiculous.

In spite of all the reminders of why Gilliam did not make a good film in the '90's, Twelve Monkeys stands as his crowning achievement from a technical standpoint. He succeeds in creating a bleak, doom-laden, claustrophobic darkly moody atmosphere of paranoia and delusion. The film stock certainly doesn't look like brilliant Technicolor, which is absolutely to the advantage of this film. James is constantly trapped by men in white and observed by every method known to 20th century man as well as a few others. During the scenes from 2020s, the intrusive camera approaches James from seemingly every possible angle. My only complaint would be that the bleakness of the pre apocalyptic '90s somewhat lessens the effect of the 2020s scenes.

Gilliam is a master of the bizarre, and he shows it here on several occasions. Actually, scratch that, there is nothing "normal" looking in the pale, damp, cold surreal world of his film. The cinematography by Roger Pratt is excellent, particularly in it's use of non-color, creating the feel by contrasting shades of gray with bright white. A great deal of distance is always created between James and the scientists. I particularly liked this roving cylinder of TV monitors that kind of interrogated James. The screens had close-ups of the scientists' faces, but the kicker was a giant eyeglass that was in front of one of the screens in the area it would normally rest on the doctor's cheek.

The nameless bit characters were probably the most interesting. The scientists were always twisted, tormenting James in interesting ways. All these scenes, as well as the evangelist giving his sermon of doom with the big fire in front of him and the bum who flashes his toothless smile to show how he outsmarted The Army of the Twelve Monkeys (he believes they have gotten a tracking device into everyone's tooth) are effectively filmed to create their proper disturbing aura. Even in this science fiction, Gilliam -most famous for being a member of the anarchic satirist troupe Monty Python - is able to incorporate his wit regularly in a way that only serves to enhance the material. His take on the animal rights issue was pretty interesting, as were his shots of the animals running amuck in the city, including big game on a big roof. One can't help but laugh at Bruce Willis hopping around in a stream acting like an excited child as he raves about how he loves the frogs and the spiders.

The lesser characters that do have some role are pretty much wasted. One wonders why quality performers like David Morse & Christopher Plummer are even in the movie given the scraps they are asked to work with. Morse does little more than grin, and this was before the days where grimacing was enough to win Russell Crowe, who was a worthy nominee the prior year for The Insider, the bogus best actor award. The underrated Christopher Meloni from the best show on television, Oz, does manage to create an interesting Lt. in his few minutes of screen time.

Mainly the film is Willis, which is hardly the best thing, but he's definitely more impressive than usual. Stowe was extremely beautiful before she inflated her lips and a good dependable performer even though she didn't make enough movies and tended to be in mediocre ones when she did show up (Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans being a notable exception). She is better than Willis here, a stabilizing force that does the best job of making you care about her character. Unfortunately, her passionate performance doesn't erase the fact that the character the screenwriters David & Janet Peoples drew up for her seems like a bunch of cliches pasted together and starts becoming somewhat unbalanced. She's an observant reasonable intellectual who is also tough and spirited with an attitude, but then goes against everything that previously seemed logical first to believe James is telling the truth and then to abandon this idea and decide to give up her life to run off with him.

12 Monkeys because far more disappointing once you've seen the experimental short it was based on, La Jetee. In his lone entirely fictional work, the great French filmmaker Chris Marker tells his story through still black-and-white still photos (time as a series of individual moments), voice-over narration, and largely hollow score. That makes it sound really boring, but it is not a gimmick and each of these aspects enhances and reinforces the other. I was on the edge of my seat throughout this little film that despite being strictly regimented technically (except one transcendent flicker of movement) was as a whole so expansive and free. Marker knows how to balance the varying aspects of his story, and his filmmaking has its own rhythm, building momentum through it's consistency. His work, as is the case with many of his non-fictions, is concerned with memory, history, and time. The Peoples' lifted Marker's script, but to do that with a Marker work is to start out with something so alive and wind up delivering a severed head. The film we get here shows no understanding of Marker's work, and certainly no reverence, with a lot of unnecessary characters and subplots being added and Gilliam, who supposedly hadn't even seen La Jetee, throwing in a bunch of bizarre and side show scenes to show off how anti-Hollywood he is.

Twelve Monkeys still succeeds at providing something different. It an interesting film with a skewed world view that is at least occasionally gripping. It's well made in the sense that the scenes in and of themselves are good. However, I can't recommend it because they never come together into something plausible and the ideas aren't compelling in the dumbed down and illogical manner which they are presented. Gilliam wants us to believe that he's an extremely radical director who repels Hollywood, but it's quickly apparent that this film doesn't have near the balls necessary for it to succeed. Plain and simple, it needed to be challenging and it absolutely wasn't.

My initial question was how come some aspects of the future can be changed while others can't? After 130 minutes, I'm left with that burning question as well as all the others that piled up. Now, the movies I look for are ones I'll be thinking about for days, weeks, even months after I saw them. There's a big difference between a ridiculously underrated film like Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead where the material stays with you because the ideas and decisions can apply to life - your actions, choices, and decisions - in many ways and this dribble that only occasionally makes you think about logical ways the fascinating subject matter could have been dealt with. If you want to see an extremely compelling and thought provoking psychiatrist and patient film, search out Sidney Lumet's Equus instead. If the science fiction and time travel aspects are what you are looking for, Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, which Twelve Monkeys even rips off with the enticement of the Florida Keys commercial, stands as both a far more compelling and technically proficient vision.

Mike Lorefice
Mike McGowan



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