May 24th, 2021
MOVIE: 12 MONKEYS
STARRING: BRUCE WILLIS, MADELEINE STOWE, BRAD PITT, CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER
DIRECTED BY: TERRY GILLIAM
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
Watching Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys today is a weird experience. It feels like nearly all of it’s wild, apocalyptic future predictions came true. Not entirely, I mean, five billion people haven’t been lost to a deadly virus, but Covid-19 did take 3.39 million. That’s a lot and yes, Bruce Willis’ character has to climb from underground and go up to the surface of earth in a haz-mat suit, which could be viewed as an extreme example of humans wearing masks today. It borders on frightening, just how much of 12 Monkeys became our reality, but for director Terry Gilliam he was trying to keep a hot streak going, after the rousing success of The Fisher King. Gilliam attempted to stick with a similar playbook, using a small cast of big actors, and let the futuristic setting do the heavy lifting. With Arrow Films releasing a special edition steelbook, it makes for a great time to revisit the fascinating science fiction time warp, which has some of the best work by Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, and Madeleine Stowe. When done right, made with an introspective collection of artists, the results are some of the best science fiction in the past 25-years.
It’s not that Terry Gilliam wasn’t already a legend of the genre. He directed Brazil and Time Bandits, but even those two were not as mainstream as 12 Monkeys would be. Bruce Willis was coming off his stellar work in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp FIction and was in a state of choosing projects that pushed him beyond the Die Hard persona. Little would audiences know, but it would be some of his best work acting. He bravely took on the role of James Cole, one of the lowly “volunteers” chosen to go up to the surface to inspect and collect animals for study. Underground is a steampunk future, with the minimal humans alive being kept in cube cages, while lab coat specialists test their community of surviving humans to see who is good enough to be of service. Above ground, it’s a frozen Philadelphia, running rampant with various animals, Lions, Bears, and monkeys. The goal is for James to figure out how to revive humanity, but soon he arrives back in time, before the virus struck the world, and he becomes the only hope to save the human race.
Besides the narrative, with a sharp screenplay written by Blade Runner scribe David Peoples and his wife Janet, the main attraction of 12 Monkeys is the entire production. The aesthetic appeal is pure Gilliam, where the visuals resemble Brazil, the science is rooted in a predictable future, where video is the only form of communication, brain implanting alters the memory, and the outside world must be power washed away. It also helps that the majority of the look of 12 Monkeys is tangible, real sets, real designs that never feel outdated, but instead lived in. The majority of this future is broken down, boarded up businesses, and a freedom fighting group known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys preparing to take down the world.
That brings it back to the biggest and best performance from 12 Monkeys and that is Brad Pitt. We first meet his character Jeffrey Goines in a mental institution, spewing wild conspiracy theories, his eyes bugging out like a lemur, and fingers twitching like a junkie. It’s something entirely anti-Brad Pitt, a character that is not smooth, not a matter of sexual desire, and not a person someone would fantasize about in any capacity. He’s the son of a Nobel prize winning virologist, played perfectly by Christopher Plummer. Pitt’s delivery is scary and flawless, a character that believes what he’s selling, and confused about all reality. The moments when 12 Monkeys feels less than is when Pitt’s character takes a back seat to the time travel of James Cole and Madeleine Stowe’s Dr. Kathryn Railly.
It’s also the time travel stuff that 12 Monkeys excels at. The narrative never messes with the complexities of time and space, but only sends Cole to the time before the virus and his time after it’s release. Along the way, his goal becomes clear that he must figure out a way of stopping the outbreak, which is when the matters of time travel, the past, and the present, all begin to merge. The visions or dreams that Cole has had become more clear, whether what he saw was his traumatic childhood or a warning of what could potentially happen. The person that is on his side all the way is Railly, initially his doctor, pumping him with psych meds, later a hostage in Cole’s attempts to get her to believe him, and eventually helping Cole find a way to stop the Army of the 12 Monkeys. By the end, the journey of Cole and Railly’s relationship has gone full circle from the past to the present.
As far as where 12 Monkeys lands as a science fiction film, it’s arguably one of the more unique. It’s undoubtedly inspired by the look of Gilliams films, rooted in the history of great cinema such as Blade Runner, Metropolis, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and Total Recall. And it’s ultimately pure Terry Gilliam, an auteur who has the mind of a madman laughing at the rain, the determination to never move an inch on his vision, and the ability create cinematic art that is entirely his own brand. 12 Monkeys is arguably top five Gilliam and this Arrow Films release cements it there today and far into the future.
12 MONKEYS BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION STEELBOOK IS AVAILABLE TODAY FROM ARROW FILMS AND WHERE ALL BLU-RAYS ARE SOLD
Written by: Leo Brady