Twelve Monkeys


The more I see this film, the more I’m impressed by it. I love movies that are rich and complex, filled with different layers of reading. At first, you could think that it’s a big studio sci-fi thriller, starring action star Bruce Willis. Well, it is, but it’s so much more. This little time travel story (based on a 1962 French short, La Jetée) is just the framework for a thought-provoking exploration of how alienating our end-of-millennium world can be. It blends notions of the Bible’s Apocalypse, Greek mythology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, anarchist ideologies and ecology into a surprisingly cohesive, exhilarating epic of ideas. Watching it again on a winter 2000 night, I was struck by how ahead of its time it still feels.

In a post-apocalyptic world, we meet convict James Cole (Willis), who has just volunteered to take part in a special mission. Humans are now a species in danger, as a mortal virus has contaminated the air decades ago, killing 5 to 6 billions people, almost the whole world population, and leaving the survivors forced to leave underground. There are a few scientists among the lot, and with plenty of time kill, they managed to invent a time traveling machine. They’ve been sending people back in time to try and make things better. Cole has been picked to give it a try, and so they sent him back to the ’90s with little information that they have so far: around 1996, a deadly virus started spreading from Philadelphia, and they suspect that Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) and his group of radical, anti-establishment environmentalists 12 monkeys might be responsible. Cole is successfully sent back into time, only he arrives 6 years too soon! He tries to talk to people, but his babbling about coming the future to prevent the decimation of the human race leads him straight to a mental hospital. There he meets psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who tries to rationalize it all, and Cole starts wondering if he didn’t imagine it all…

It might look like I’ve summarized a lot of the film, but that’s actually just the set-up, before things really get weird! The film was written by David Peoples, and this is very ambitious work. Peoples explores all the possibilities brought up by the story and keeps adding dimensions to it. There’s interesting things said about the idea of insanity. The mainstream feels uneasy when individuals start predicting that the world is coming to an end, with humans destroying their planet and losing their souls, so they dismiss these scary ideas by deeming them and the people who preach them crazy. If that doesn’t shut em up, we’ve got places for people unable to “fit in” society, right? I’m not saying that all the wackos yelling in the streets are just misunderstood prophets, but you have to admit that a lot of visionaries have been wrongly outcast. Socrates was forced to take poison for his philosophy, Jesus was crucified for preaching love and tolerance, Galilee was persecuted for claiming that the Earth is round and revolves around the sun…

The movie was directed by Terry Gilliam, truly a visionary filmmaker, using his twisted intelligence to create unique worlds into his films. “12 Monkeys” is a wonder of art direction, cinematography and editing. The film is always very stimulating, and when it shifts to tragic romance, it gets oh so wrenching emotionally. Great acting all around, too. You have to have respect and gratitude for Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, who give brave performances as two men losing their grasp of reality. These two are huge Hollywood stars could just keep making easy, reliable blockbusters to please their 12 year old fans. Fortunately, they choose to use their clout to help daring, original and sometimes subversive films get made, most recently with two of the best movies of 1999, “The Sixth Sense” and “Fight Club”. The latter, actually, shares quite a lot with Twelve Monkeys. In both films, Brad Pitt plays the head of an extremist group fed up with the system which stages terrorist acts in hope of raising mass awareness and somehow, have the world return to a more primitive, nature-friendly stage. A lot of the stuff Pitt and the “twelve monkeys” talk about could have been said by Tyler Durden’s “space monkeys”. “12 Monkeys” is truly a masterpiece. It intelligently and originally addresses how alienating and depressing turn-of-the millennium life can be through compelling science-fiction.