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12 Monkeys, written by David Peoples and Janet Peoples, directed by Terry Gilliam, 1995, 110 min.

Note: The credits indicate that the script for 12 Monkeys was "Inspired by the film 'La Jetée' written by Chris Marker."

I consider 12 Monkeys, quirks and all, to be one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. I also happen to think that Terry Gilliam is a genius. Perhaps he is not a genius in the same sense as, say, Kubrick -- Gilliam's virtuosity proceeds from his fantastically keen sense of the visual, whereas Kubrick is a little harder to pin down. Not to say that Gilliam has always produced masterpieces (a feat which has eluded Kubrick as well), and I would be the first to admit that a film like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a little rough around the edges. But when Gilliam is working from a smartly-written script -- as happened with Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, and most notably, 12 Monkeys -- then he can pull off wonders like few other directors. His long experience with Monty Python has always served him well, a troupe which would hone any creative instinct. In 12 Monkeys, all the elements came together perfectly, from the script to visuals to the acting to the music (which I talk about in a separate review of the soundtrack). And best of all, the viewer experiences a time travel movie with some open-endedness but remarkably little in the way of internal contradiction.

James Cole lives in our future. He's a criminal, a convicted murderer, used as a convenient guinea pig for a trip to the dangerous aboveground, and later, for trips through time to the past. In 1996, a deadly virus of some kind will destroy most of humanity -- there's nothing the people of Cole's time can change about the past, but they want to get ahold of the pure strain of the virus in order to study it. The storyline of 12 Monkeys follows the chronological timeline of Cole's life, as he skips back and forth through time. This simple device keeps us from confusion at the same time as it garners extreme sympathy for Cole -- time travel is a wrenching experience and as he says at one point, "the human body was not meant to travel through time." Cole meets up with Railly, a psychologist of the mid-90s, several times and under several different circumstances. Cole also meets Jeffrey, a somewhat unstable individual whose ultimate role in the events of the film is one of its best surprises. Cole has a recurring vision, of a man who gets shot in a public building, set to the most tragic violin solo imaginable. How do these elements work together? And what does the Army of the 12 Monkeys mean when they say "We did it!" and why might a message from Railly be Cole's only clue? Everything falls together seamlessly.

The characterization in this film is superb. Cole is in prison for murder, and he is shown to be quite capable of doing harm, as when he beats the two thugs in the abandoned theatre in Railly's present. He also radiates more menace in the scene "Home Dentistry" (as it is labelled on track 21 of the soundtrack) than most action stars -- Cole is a genuinely dangerous individual. But the film's power lies in its careful portrayal of him as a human being, a kind of normal guy, thrown into mental wards and world wars against his will. He struggles for survival, but also for some dignity of his own. What can I say, I think that James Cole is the best role that Bruce Willis has ever played, and that Willis' performance here outshines almost any other lead performance in a science fiction film that I can think of. 12 Monkeys becomes a time travel movie with a human core because of James Cole and his story.

The supporting roles are similarly excellent. Madeleine Stowe, who we certainly don't see enough these days, portrays the character of Railly with a sensitive balance that is stunning, really. As the psychologist who has lost her faith, as the author obsessed with the apocalypse, as the woman keeping her sanity in the face of intense pressure -- all of these aspects had me cheering. A science fiction movie without a screaming bimbo in the female lead role: it does happen every once in a while, and on those occasions, I can only applaud in relief. Yes, Cole is the main character, but at least the movie pays attention to Railly's dilemmas and emotions.

Brad Pitt received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the character of Jeffrey. And the role does seem to grab for attention. But as much as the role is flamboyant and over the top, there's a subversive edge to the typical things Jeffrey has to say: Gilliam lets Pitt have some fun as the madman who knows some bitter truths about life. Personally, I liked the function of the Jeffrey subplot in 12 Monkeys, although I know some people who were upset at the misdirection. I will say no more, only that I felt that not a moment in this film was wasted.

Which brings me to my next point. Time travel... it's been done before, and poorly enough to make everyone a little wary of the idea. (Anyone seen Time Cop lately? I know, I know, I should stay away from the easy targets.) So what about 12 Monkeys? Where does its theory of time travel fit onto the spectrum between the mutable and immutable past? Rather firmly on the immutable side, and everything about the film fits together to support that assertion. I won't talk about James Cole's fate, because I will leave that particular surprise (or rather, non-surprise) for the movie's ending. And I have already mentioned how the script takes us along on the subjective chronological ride of Cole's life in a very effective manner. But the film supplies many smaller details in a way that demonstrate great care and cleverness. For example, I love the scene where Railly tells Cole about the message she has just left on an answering machine. Gilliam, up to his usual visual tricks, gives us an ingenious bit of imagery when Cole breaks into the brain-scan room of the mental ward. And have some sympathy for Cole when Jeffrey starts ranting about where the Army of the 12 Monkeys idea came from -- poor old Cole is having a bad day there. His brain works hard to discover the truth, and the truth is indeed around somewhere. But what does the truth matter, in the end? Some things can be changed, when they are the future. But when they are the past, only tragedy is possible.

I just want to mention a few things about the disembodied voice that calls Cole by the name Bob. There has been a great deal of controversy over that particular aspect of 12 Monkeys, and new theories pop up in the newsgroups like clockwork. I don't know why I might feel this way, but I have no particularly vehement things to say about the Bob-voice. None of the conflicting theories convince me -- Cole is crazy, it's all a dream, the Bob-voice is a former time-traveller, it's a test of Cole's sanity, and so on -- and I suspect that this might only be another elaborate red herring. Cole might be crazy, it might all be a hallucination, the Bob-voice knows about the tooth, and so forth. I'm inclined to think that the screen-writers got a little carried away, although I could accept the Bob-voice as part of the general atmosphere of the film. As for the ending (I'm referring to the "I'm in insurance" scene), I think that either way it might be read (triumph of the scientists or horrific coincidence) would work just fine for me. Frankly, there's not much difference between the two interpretations. Cole meets his appointed fate, and the virus is still on its way around the world. More elaborate misdirection, in a movie that makes a bravura performance of this very thing, of shifting the veils of what we think is truth and what we think has happened in time.

12 Monkeys is an interesting expansion of Marker's original film, La Jetée. Anyone who is even mildly intrigued should search out this short film immediately -- it's well worth the effort. Marker uses several artsy-fartsy techniques, while 12 Monkeys uses some Hollywood gloss here and there. But the core story of the man who is standing on a pier with a younger version of himself remains powerful and moving in both films. Marker tends to encourage more of the esoteric speculation of the academic, but Gilliam seems to have many of the same aims in mind. I've seen one of Marker's video installations (the one about black and white films) at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and it was a fascinating parallel to Gilliam's use of the old Hitchcock films in 12 Monkeys. Both La Jetée and 12 Monkeys certainly hold their own, no matter the company.

DVD Note: The Collector's Edition of 12 Monkeys is available on DVD. This edition changes nothing about the film itself but rather includes some substantial and nifty extras. The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys is a 90 minute making-of documentary put together by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. The Hamster Factor has high production values and a great deal of information about the movie and its making. Interestingly, Fulton and Pepe made the recent documentary Lost in La Mancha, which is the story of Gilliam's efforts to make a movie based on Don Quixote, a production which failed due a catastrophic confluence of factors. The other main feature of the 12 Monkeys DVD is a commentary track by Terry Gilliam and the producer, Charles Roven. The commentary is somewhat disappointing; not only does it repeat some of the information found in the documentary, it is less scene-specific than I was hoping for. I can get general information about the production of 12 Monkeys from any number of places, but scene-specific commentary by Gilliam himself would be limited to something like a DVD commentary. Of the Gilliam commentary tracks that I've listened to, I would put 12 Monkeys at one end of the spectrum, with his solo commentary on Brazil as the most helpful and the commentary on Jabberwocky with Michael Palin somewhere in between the two.

First posted: February 8, 1999; Last modified: January 20, 2003

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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