Review Of 12 Monkeys
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/30/10
Chris Marker’s 1962 short film, La Jetee, is one of the most interesting and exciting films ever made. Its use of still photographs for all but a few seconds of its near half hour length, allows a remarkable bit of viewer empathy to occur. In recall, the viewer actually animates the film. Director Terry Gilliam is one of the most interesting and exciting film directors in America over the last few decades, and his 1995 film, 12 Monkeys, ‘inspired’ by Marker’s film, is an excellent film that, because of a forced love tale and a bit of predictability in certain scenes, falls short of being great cinema. Nonetheless, it shows what a person with a singular vision can do in the arts, even when one’s vision is almost wholly derived from another source.
The plot involves time travel, and, unfortunately, this is the film’s weakest element, as it relies on many of the standard circular plot developments that other classic sci fi films involving time travel, such as the Planet Of the Apes and Terminator series, fell into. That said, Gilliam wisely hedges hi bets by opening the film with a faux epigraph, supposedly taken from the notes made about a psychiatric patient. We soon find out that the patient is James Cole (Bruce Willis). Like La Jetee, the film opens and closes with a scene of a young boy’s eyes watching the shooting death of a man at an airport. Those who have seen Marker’s film will immediately know that the boy and shot man are the same person. Even those who have not seen La Jetee, will early in the film, suspect this ‘reality.’
Cole is a convict in a subterranean, post-apocalyptic earth, set in the 2020 or 2030s, years after a 1996 virus, let loose by a terrorist group called The Army Of The Twelve Monkeys, is thought to have killed over five billion humans, and forced the survivors underground to survive. To gain a pardon, Cole ‘volunteers’ for missions to the surface of the planet, as well as time travel missions, to help retrieve a pure sample of the original virus so scientists can inoculate the species and return to the planet’s surface. On his first jaunt back in time, to 1996, he is imprisoned in an asylum and meets up with Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), as well as a fellow inmate named Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a schizophrenic with delusions of wiping out mankind, via a virus his scientist virus may create. He escapes that year, because he was supposed to land in 1990. When he goes back he kidnaps Railly, and they go on the lam, looking for Jeff and his Army. They find him, after several murders, much violence, and the two characters switching positions. Cole believes he may be mentally ill, while Railly believes he is sane and from the future, after several things he says pan out, and she discovers a bullet that she extracted from Cole’s leg was fired in World War One, another time frame Cole was accidentally shipped to.
The duo find out that The Army Of The Twelve Monkeys, that Jeff founded, is not the cause of the pandemic that wipes out most of humanity. All they do is free some zoo animals, whereas an assistant in the lab of Jeff’s father, a redhead named Dr. Peters (David Morse), is the real culprit. Cole and Railly bump into him at the airport, after Cole has been given a gun by another time traveler sent to monitor him, and when Cole attempts to shoot and stop Peters, he instead is shot to death by a security guard at the airport, as a younger version of himself watches his own death. Railly then stares lovingly at the young Cole. Peters make sit aboard the airplane, headed to all the cities known to have been the places where the virus first erupted. He sits down next to a woman (Carol Florence), whom the viewer knows is one of Cole’s interrogators from the future. She claims that mankind is doomed and that she is in ‘insurance.’ In this manner, the film does mildly divert from the time travel gambit of needing to change the past to save the future. In this film, the past must be maintained to save the future. The film then ends as it began, looking into the eyes of the young James Cole.
The ending works on many levels, even if somewhat predictable. First, is the female future interrogator on the plane there to make sure that Peters delivers the virus, so that she can insure her own future, and that mankind will return to the surface? Or has it all been a pointless exercise since the future apparently is immutable? Cole, it seems, is thus merely sent back in time as an X factor to ensure the virus spreads and that humanity can reclaim the planet in the 21st Century. The future scientists then are betting on the devil they know, rather than that they do not know, hoping that Cole’s unwitting unmasking of the real villain, Peters, will save the future’s future, rather than messing with the standard scenario of changing time and possibly making the human doomsday even worse, if not unrecoverable from. Such moments and aspects are strong points in the screenplay penned by David and Janet Peoples, and Gilliam is rumored to have lamented that he did not pen the script, one of the few in his career that became films of his. He also made great use of abandoned buildings in Philadelphia for some of the scenes in the film. The cinematography, by longtime Gilliam collaborator Roger Pratt, is solid, if not spectacular. The music, by Paul Buckmaster, is a bit better. But, in reality, the film rises on its good, if flawed, screenplay, and some excellent acting performances. Chief among them is Bruce Willis, as Cole. While Brad Pitt got the raves as the lunatic Jeff Goines, that role is off the rack nutjob. Willis has the much tougher role, and proves he is a very good actor, when given good material. Stowe’s acting is also very good, although the forced love story (a carryover from Marker’s film, as is the tangent with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo) drags her role down from co-conspirator to ‘movie babe’ more than once. Other good performances are turned in by Christopher Plummer, as the Brad Pitt character’s father, and Frank Gorshin, as Stowe’s boss at the asylum.
The DVD, put out by Universal, is solid. The 130 minute film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and well transferred. There’s a theatrical trailer, as well as trailer for other films, as well as a long making of feature called The Hamster Factor & Other Tales Of Twelve Monkeys. The best feature, however, is the commentary track (carried over from the laserdisc version of the film) by Gilliam and producer Charles Roven. Gilliam shows that, along with Francis Ford Coppola, he’s amongst the best directors as film commentarians around, for his remarks are not only very entertaining, but quite on the mark in regards to not only the particular film at hand that he is discussing, but the whol bastardized process of filmmaking, as Hollywood does it. Roven is also quite good, and often does well in expounding upon the many tidbits that Gilliam mentions but leaves behind. All in all, one of the better film commentaries for a major Hollywood film going; thankfully bereft of the usual critical fellatio that infects such ‘extras.’.
12 Monkeys is not a great film, due to previously mentioned flaws, and some other minor continuity issues, as well as the sometimes heavyhanded ties of James Cole to Jesus Christ (both JC’s). Also, a caveat to anyone who has seen Marker’s film, for this film will, unfortunately, seem far less adventurous artistically than it really is. But it works both as a time travel fable and the depiction of an insane mind because event though, in the film’s diegetic reality, Cole seems to be a genuine time traveler, he is almost assuredly a madman, as well. As is Dr. Railly, who violates one of the cardinal rules of her profession, becoming emotionally and sexually involved with her patient. It is also one of the rare films that benefited from later historical events; in this case, obviously 9/11, for both Cole and Peters provide excellent depictions of the differing halves of the criminal/terrorist mindsets of believing in their own realities and the rectitude of their actions, despite the violence incurred. Thus, while 12 Monkeys is not a film in a league with other sci fi films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, nor is it as daring as Gilliam’s own earlier Brazil, it is a film of quality. And the fact that it was spawned in Hollywood shows that randomness can be a very, very good thing, in or out of the time travel scenario.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]
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