The end of the human race is just a matter of time in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian classic.
Who made it?: Terry Gilliam (Director), David Peoples, Janet Peoples (Screenwriters), Charles Roven (Producer), Universal Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse.
Tagline: “The Future Is History.”
IMDb rating: 8.0/10 (Top 250 #235).
There’s a moment in Twelve Monkeys that crystallises the pain of aging so perfectly that it strikes a nerve. Fugitive James Cole (Bruce Willis) is seeking refuge in a cinema screening Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo when he looks up at the canvas, confused. He remembers seeing it as a child but his memory of the film contradicts the projected images. Cole thinks about it for a moment, before rationalising that “the film is different, because you’re different.” The same could be said for this apocalyptic masterpiece. Twenty-two years after it first baffled audiences, Twelve Monkeys is still debated, analysed and decoded. Each time I revisit Terry Gilliam’s film, I see a new detail or a new layer of philosophical intrigue.
The film is a mere science fiction tale at first glance, but the broader strokes reveal a rumination on the fallacies of time and memory. It isn’t a coincidence that the picture starts and ends on a close-up of a young boy’s eyes; the very second childhood innocence is lost.
Opening text informs us that “5 billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997.” It is a past that haunts Cole. He awakes from a dream in a grim, totalitarian 2035. The remnants of humanity are living underground, safe from the plague-ridden surface that was reclaimed by animals decades before. Recruited by a group of scientists, Cole is sent back in time with the intention of tracking down the Army of the 12 Monkeys, who may be responsible for the outbreak.
Time-travel films have always been a tricky beast. The concept of altering the past, however minor, presents paradoxes and plot-holes that can’t be adequately explained. Twelve Monkeys manages to overcome such obstacles due to a tightly-wound script that probably required a flow-chart to keep in check. Gilliam also infuses the picture with a dark humour that distracts you from asking too many questions. Early in the film, the scientists make a mistake in their calculations and send Cole back to 1990… six years early. This very human error has rather sizable effects on the future, and lands our protagonist in a Baltimore mental institution. It is here that Cole crosses paths with the certifiable Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), whose animal rights and anti-consumerist ideals drew opposition from his wealthy virologist father (Christopher Plummer). It also brings him to the attention of psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who is kidnapped by Cole when he escapes under mysterious circumstances. Like the audience, she is constantly trying to figure out if Cole is playing with a full deck, leading to a series of revelations that make repeat viewings a necessity.
The journey into madness is what clearly enticed Gilliam the most. From his days as a visual component on Monty Python’s Flying Circus to such films as Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam has always embraced the absurdity of life. Twelve Monkeys was his first production as a hired hand, but the finished film is so quintessentially Gilliam that you’d swear he wrote the script. It is, in some ways, the director’s most commercial film, but a commercial film littered with peculiar moments, such as a monkey being lowered into a pipe with a ham sandwich to nourish a trapped child (one of the picture’s finest grace notes). Or a sudden sojourn to World War I. Or even a lion roaring atop a New York building like a shot from King Kong. Unbridled weirdness abounds.
Twelve Monkeys also plays like a spiritual sequel to Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), itself a comment on the perceptions of insanity and reality. In that film, homeless man Parry (Robin Williams) was on a quest considered crazy by the other characters, just like Cole. One would assume that these similarities were intentional, but Janet Peoples and David Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) based their screenplay on the short French film La Jetée (1962), which featured time-travel and a future ravaged by nuclear war. The black-and-white curiosity was remarkable in terms of narrative technique, with a story told almost entirely in still images. It also had a bleak, cynical tone that Gilliam’s version retains, brought vividly to life by first-rate technical credits. One of the stars of the film is Roger Pratt’s evocative cinematography which does full justice to the director’s multi-faceted vision. Sequences set in the future or in the mental ward have an off-kilter approach, with Gilliam employing foggy wide-angle lenses to give the scenes a dreamlike quality. The flat, dark tones of the present day contrast beautifully, painting a picture of a society in decay. Twelve Monkeys is appropriately nightmarish from beginning to end.
The cast acquit themselves admirably. In the same year that he headlined Seven, Pitt landed an Oscar nomination as Goines; an unrestrained performance that gives in to a never-ending series of facial tics. He might have stolen the limelight, but Willis has rarely been better, bringing a tortured vulnerability to Cole that is atypical for the action star. He shares the audience’s confusion, carrying the film on his shoulders and helping us to navigate the various timelines with (relative) ease. This is a fearless performance and easily one of Willis’ most layered. He also shares great chemistry with a sizzling Stowe, incorporating a romance that never feels perfunctory. While I don’t agree with the assertion that Twelve Monkeys is really a love story, the presence of some heart is definitely welcome.
If you have yet to see Gilliam’s masterful mind fuck, I won’t go into the greater details of the plot – the film, with its jaw-dropping resolution, is best enjoyed with as little knowledge as possible. Those repeat viewings really are key, allowing the themes of the film to grow over time and reflection. The questions it raises about the future of the human race are grim, and even the tagline points to the director’s notion that our destiny is predetermined. Life is nothing but a hamster wheel in which for us to spin. And, like that monkey with the ham sandwich, ultimately pointless.
There are plenty of memorable scenes in Twelve Monkeys, but to avoid any potential spoilers, I’ll go with Cole’s admission to the mental ward and his delirious introduction to Goines. Gilliam goes all-out with the Dutch angles and textured photography, creating a true vision of lunacy that sticks in the mind long after viewing.
- Pitt’s twitchy, motormouth portrayal was partly aided by a speech coach, but Gilliam discovered that taking away the actor’s cigarettes worked best. Despite losing out on the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, he did win the Golden Globe.
- At one point, Willis has a prophetic line: “All I see are dead people.” Four years later, he appeared in The Sixth Sense (1999), the most famous line from which is “I see dead people.”
- Willis waved his usual fee for the chance to work with Gilliam, and it wasn’t until the film was released (and made nearly $200 million) that he received compensation. The director also gave him a list of “Bruce Willis acting clichés” which he didn’t want to see, including the star’s trademark “steely blue eyes look.”