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Overall Rating
4.35

Awesome62.33%
Worth A Look: 20.55%
Average: 9.59%
Pretty Bad: 4.79%
Total Crap: 2.74%

8 reviews, 98 user ratings


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12 Monkeys
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Gilliam doesn't stoop to conquer."
5 stars

James Cole (Bruce Willis), the desperate hero of '12 Monkeys,' has been sent from the 21st century -- say, around 2025 -- back to the twilight of the 20th century. His mission is to gather information about the virus that will break out in 1996 and kill 99% of the world population by 1997.

Cole is supposed to arrive in late 1996, right before the outbreak, so that he can discover how it started and deliver his findings to his 21st-century employers, who will use his information to begin research on a cure. (They don't expect him to save the world from the virus; they know the outbreak is inevitable.) But instead of landing in 1996, Cole lands in 1990, where, of course, he starts raving about his mission and is locked up in a mental hospital.

So far, this sounds a bit like The Terminator, in which Michael Biehn dropped in from the future to do battle with a robotic killer and was similarly waylaid by authorities who found him delusional. But 12 Monkeys has a lot more going on. The director, Terry Gilliam, specializes in fantasies that can be viewed either literally or as the characters' own delusions -- or, at least, as expressions of their psychological states. Gilliam's cult classic Brazil is the obvious example, but you can also see it in all his other movies: The Fisher King, his previous film, with Robin Williams as the homeless man driven mad by his wife's murder, who constructed an elaborate medieval fantasy out of his anguish; Time Bandits, with the little boy who dreamed about visiting storybook legends and came rudely back to earth, where his home was in flames; and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which Gilliam co-directed, in which the knights "rode" not on horseback but on coconut halves they clacked together to simulate the sound of hooves. 12 Monkeys is far from the "Bruce Willis in Outbreak 2" thriller you might expect, and overall it's Gilliam's best film since Brazil. But all his movies are both dazzling and flawed (the brilliance and the flaws are often inseparable), and in this case -- I never thought I'd say this about a Terry Gilliam movie -- the flaw is his over-attention to the plot.

12 Monkeys was written by David Webb Peoples (who worked on the scripts for Blade Runner, Unforgiven, and Hero) along with his wife Janet, taking off from the 1962 short La Jetée by Chris Marker. Judging from his produced scripts thus far, I'd say Peoples has a gift for structure; his themes come together with a neat click when you mull them over later. I don't think Terry Gilliam was a wrong choice for this tidy script -- he was probably the only right choice, since the screenplay's concerns intersect so smoothly with Gilliam's. But Gilliam's strength (and weakness, in terms of narrative) has always been mess, chaos. He demolishes context, replacing it with the nightmare logic of clutter; he puts baffling things on the screen, and you don't know why you respond, or how you respond -- you just do.

Gilliam, who started as a cartoonist and contributed animated bits to Monty Python's Flying Circus before he began directing, is a master of sour visual hardware-surrealism (a klutzy label, I know, but Gilliam resists labels). His style is best described as antique-futuristic (perhaps one reason that his weakest film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, fell flat; it was just antique). 12 Monkeys has futuristic trappings, all right, and when Gilliam cuts back to 1990 or 1996 he gives us his own baroque vision of modern craziness. But the text itself isn't always fertile enough soil for Gilliam's inventiveness to bloom. Visually, much of the movie is cold and brackish in an undifferentiated way: 1996 doesn't look much worse than 1990, and Gilliam doesn't show us much of the 21st century except the junky interior of a prison, which Cole takes off from and keeps returning to. The futuristic scenes in 12 Monkeys are what Brazil might have been if it had never left the teeming Ministry of Information building.

In 1990, the institutionalized Cole meets two people important to his 1996 destiny: Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), an imbalanced wacko (even his eyes are crooked) with dozens of conspiracy theories, and Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist who studies the "Cassandra complex" -- the delusion that you have seen the horrors of the future and can do nothing about it because no one will believe you. Dr. Railly tags Cole as a textbook Cassandra; Jeffrey looks at Cole and recognizes a kindred spirit. Gilliam bounces us back and forth between three time periods, and the movie gets a bit too clever and plot-centered; the plot is just elaborate scaffolding for Gilliam's delusion theme.

In 1996, Cole kidnaps Dr. Railly, who gradually begins to believe him, and they try to track down Jeffrey, who is now an animal-rights activist turned terrorist -- part of an underground group called the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Jeffrey is rebelling against his dad (Christopher Plummer), an eminent virologist; Cole suspects that Jeffrey plans to steal a virus from his father's lab and uncork it, killing off the humans and letting the animals take over. There are also flashbacks that might be flash-forwards -- they're flashes, anyway, and they hint at something dark. 12 Monkeys isn't hard to follow, but sometimes it seems that too much of Gilliam's energy is spent trying to keep things clear for us, taming the wild time-tangle of the plot. In a simpler plot (and Brazil really had no "plot"), Gilliam is free to tear the fabric of logic and stitch the tatters into a crazyquilt all his own. 12 Monkeys is more like individual, dazzling quilt squares that Gilliam shows you one at a time, so that you don't get confused.

Yet within those squares, Gilliam is free to doodle and embroider. In this movie and The Fisher King, he disproves once and for all the old, false charges against him as a graphic artist who lets humans recede into the design. It might be a coincidence that the three main characters here correspond almost exactly to three of the main characters in The Fisher King, and Gilliam's actors here deliver performances of comparable depth. Bruce Willis (like Jeff Bridges' self-hating shock-jock) is wounded and vulnerable; Madeleine Stowe (like Mercedes Ruehl's strong, responsible video-store clerk) is low-key and logical until circumstances force her into angry action; and Brad Pitt, in the Robin Williams holy-fool role, is a revelation -- this is his second solid performance of 1995, after Seven, and I'm daring to hope that his blank-stud days are behind him. Watching him pose and pout over candelabras and horses in Legends of the Fall or Interview with the Vampire, you'd never dream Pitt had this Gilliam-esque wingnut in him. As in his other films, Gilliam calls time-out so that his characters can pause to appreciate pop culture -- Fats Domino, Hitchcock. This is where Gilliam's soft artist's heart comes out: Unlike Quentin Tarantino, Gilliam doesn't drop pop-culture references for a goof or a tickle, but to illustrate art's redemptive power.

Again and again, Cole finds himself up against people who don't believe his story; after a while, he himself doesn't believe it, and resigns himself to the fact of his delusion. 12 Monkeys flips back and forth after this -- the movie, unlike Brazil, doesn't end with an icy "And it was all in his head after all" parting shot -- but the idea of Cole faltering in his mission and thinking it's all a mind trick is uniquely unsettling, as I'm sure Gilliam means it to be. It's a common metaphysical dread that, say, Angel Heart fumbled: What if everything that seems to be happening to you -- the life you experience as reality -- is in fact your delusion? Terry Gilliam, as a primarily visual fantasist, must place singular importance on his senses -- not only his eyes and the way he sees, but his whole set of artistic antennae and what they pick up.

Well, what they pick up is pretty strange: Gilliam's art doesn't look like anyone else's. Artists who scare us with stories about unreliable perceptions are really inviting us into the way they perceive things, and letting us know how lonely and frightening it feels to look at the world and see what no one else sees; this, I think, is the true heart of 12 Monkeys, despite the plot apparatus. All artists have their delusions, and the lucky artists -- the geniuses -- can forge imagination from delusion. In 12 Monkeys, Gilliam's images -- a mental patient in a tux and pink bunny slippers; a lion prowling atop the ruins of the city; the barcodes tattooed on Cole's grimy flesh; the metal-intestinal hell of buildings crammed with air vents -- tweak parts of you that you didn't know were there. And this, as I said, in a plot-heavy movie that gives him comparatively little room to doodle.

Gilliam has taken on a conventional Hollywood sci-fi thriller with big stars and turned it into his own rough beast. '12 Monkeys' confirms his status as the leading movie fantasist of his generation.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=494&reviewer=416
originally posted: 01/06/07 15:02:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival For more in the 2006 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/27/14 Nick Very average movie. Doesn't innovate in any way and there are many time travell flaws. 3 stars
9/19/13 Annie G Can be watched over and over - it's a classic! 5 stars
9/29/12 bob uninvolving 2 stars
4/20/10 PAUL SHORTT BLEAK, CONFUSING AND DERIVATIVE 2 stars
7/23/09 Steven M Lol the worst bruce willis film! load of shit!! crap film!! Boring!! 1 stars
8/01/08 Quigley An expertly executed virus thriller with great direction from Gilliam and great acting 5 stars
3/05/08 ladavies Well, unfortunately I thought about it too hard, and hated it. 2 stars
2/05/08 kam Who knew Bruce could act? I'm an official fan now! 5 stars
9/03/07 Double M Interesting, thought-provoking, CONFUSING and a briliiant ending. Gilliams's masterpiece. 5 stars
6/28/07 Ez Waste of my life. i agree id rather walk into a fart at seArs. 1 stars
6/15/07 Steve Newman Great film - wish there more sci fi films like this!! 4 stars
5/04/07 malakogavlis The best film ever behind ''requiem for a dream" 5 stars
4/21/07 fools♫gold Took me a try and a half (a rare thing) to become in awe of it. 5 stars
2/06/07 David Pollastrini saw it but have no memory so it must have sucked 2 stars
1/11/07 Jake Pretty interesting plot with good characters 4 stars
1/09/07 Drew Galletti Brad and Bruce at their best 5 stars
8/05/06 Stanley Thai An over rated movie with a clever ending. Nothing special but still a good movie. 3 stars
12/19/05 Bree It is crazy! 5 stars
10/16/05 Moctezuma A highly entertaining sci-fi flick. Plus, Pitt's performance is flawless. 5 stars
9/02/05 ES Can't run around recommending it, its over the top and has way too much craziness 3 stars
8/08/05 Del IMO, The best Sci-Fi Flick Ever! 5 stars
3/13/05 Ronin One of the best SF movies ever. And it doesn't have spaceships and laser guns! 5 stars
2/14/05 M A Smith Just my kind of movie 5 stars
9/24/04 Al Guy Great movie that requires focus to enjoy. 4 stars
6/22/04 John better than expected remake of La Jetee 4 stars
4/20/04 ALI HBOUS a decent deal 4 stars
2/21/04 Denise Duspiva Creepy 5 stars
1/03/04 A F Best movie ever 5 stars
11/14/03 Gogo All parts fit together. This movie gets even better everytime I'm watching this. Intense! 5 stars
10/17/03 Josh Standlee You have to see it to believe it! 5 stars
10/11/03 Jack Sommersby A near-masterpiece. Imaginative, challenging, w/ an A+ perf by Willis. 5 stars
10/07/03 tatum One of the best science fiction flicks of all time 5 stars
10/01/03 yui the story bring me a great sad feeling, Good 5 stars
7/24/03 Max This film and Pulp Fiction showed us Bruce Willis could actually act. Who knew? 5 stars
7/09/03 natasha_theobald great acting, great direction, fascinating story, something to think about - I loved it! 5 stars
5/24/03 Ryan F. Very trippy. Great performance by willis. Brad Pitt was fuckin awesome!!!! 4 stars
5/11/03 Geo78665 In the top five, of the best films of the 1990s. 5 stars
2/13/03 Cartzca Pity about Willis. Still good enough for me 5 stars
2/11/03 Ubu the Ripper Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. AWESOME. 5 stars
1/23/03 Pinkline Jones It might help if Bruce could Act! 2 stars
12/31/02 Jack Sommersby One of 1995' best. A staggering cinematic achievement! 5 stars
12/22/02 Pigwidgeon TG even got a good performance out of Bruce. And Philly was awesome. 5 stars
9/29/02 Fuze44 It's the end of the world. 5 stars
9/29/02 Morally Sound One of Gilliam's best films. 5 stars
8/08/02 Jack Thompson hell yes 5 stars
8/07/02 Jon Shouldn't a plot have a beginning, a middle and an end? 2 stars
8/05/02 Del Only people who don't like to think would hate this movie 5 stars
7/04/02 KMG I'd rather walk into a fart at Sears than watch 1 millisecond of this again! 1 stars
5/26/02 erick gilliam strikes again 5 stars
2/16/02 Bertha Venation The world will not appreciate Terry for awhile, inexplicably 5 stars
1/27/02 Andrew Carden Highly Overrated, but Still A Very Interesting and Engaging 4 stars
1/10/02 daniboy it's not that hard. a masterpiece 5 stars
12/01/01 Scottish Kilt Decent film, but the end fucked me, a bit over the top. 4 stars
10/30/01 Mr. Hat (formerly Joe Zappa) Weird. Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Terry Gilliam doing a movie together? That's creative. 3 stars
9/06/01 spaceworm Among so many pluses: Willis gives finger to those who write off his acting talent. 5 stars
7/26/01 dog great movie 5 stars
7/03/01 Obi Wan Loved Pitt in it!! Very good film, good dialogue not all that Hollywood "eyecandy" 4 stars
6/26/01 Geebo Very interesting. About the ending, I am still clueless though. But very interesting. 5 stars
5/02/01 BrainPan Weird, plus Madeline Stowe is one of the most beautiful women on earth now or in the future 5 stars
3/28/01 Monster W. Kung Very good, very sad sci-fi ALMOST masterpiece. 4 stars
2/16/01 Del R Time travel could (almost) make a man go crazy or think he is- AWESOME FILM 5 stars
2/16/01 Jake what trash. 1 stars
6/24/00 Naushad Khanji Willis is as usual terrific.Plot drags.Weak ending. 3 stars
6/24/00 Aaron White Star Wars? Pshaw. Trek? Away with these annoyances. 12 Monkeys is real SF cinema. 5 stars
6/04/00 perverted pixie It's directed by Terry Gilliam and set in the future- It has to be brutal! 5 stars
5/25/00 Elvisfan Brad was great & so was the story; Bruce was less successful, ditto Mad Stowe 5 stars
5/24/00 julie great movie 5 stars
2/23/00 Neil Austin Top film, Pythons can still rule. Pitt was cool too. 5 stars
2/14/00 mark great movie ,terrible ending. 4 stars
10/26/99 Karahde Khan In the 1990s they still make great Sci-Fi films. They're not many, but they do exist. 5 stars
10/25/99 jillian george art director / director 2 stars
10/17/99 Shelagh Excellent!! I loved it. Such an atmosphere ! 5 stars
7/24/99 Hagbard Celine You need to watch this two or three times to appreciate it. Excellent film! 5 stars
5/08/99 davebo I *heart* Terry Gilliam, just a great movie :) 5 stars
4/26/99 Michael Grimm could have been great, Willis made it average 3 stars
4/25/99 JDC Best crafted scifi in a long time. All the leads are great, even Willis. Well thought out. 5 stars
4/21/99 Robert Williams Vivid and thought provoking 4 stars
2/23/99 Jeff Terry Gilliam is genius--this movie is Fantastic--See it. 5 stars
2/20/99 Piz Well intended mess, won't hold a restless viewer, sci fi fans will enjoy. 3 stars
2/18/99 Daria It's GREAT to see Brad acting instead of his hairdo! Good movie... 4 stars
12/31/98 Todd The music alone made this movie 5 stars
12/29/98 Schizofrenic Now that's showbiz! 5 stars
12/09/98 www.your-name.net Science fiction flicks doesn't get any better than this. GREAT MOVIE! 5 stars
12/08/98 Shadow Raider It isn't pure shit like Lost In Space and ID4, it's 100% authentic film. Period! 5 stars
11/27/98 BBReBozo The closest Bruce Willis ever got to acting. 5 stars
11/26/98 Mr.Pink Willis and Pitt are terriffic! T. Gilliam's best film!! 5 stars
11/25/98 Fred Pretty good once you realize it's not as deep as it seems to be. 4 stars
11/12/98 Jules I don't know why, but I love fatalistic shit like this... GREAT story! 5 stars
11/06/98 David Torpey Killer movie worth DVDing that has a plot! 5 stars
10/18/98 Kwyjibo Scifi films DO get better and this was no BladeRunner. Willis=pain. 3 stars
10/05/98 Negative Creep Sci Fi Films dont get any better than this. 5 stars
9/29/98 Johny Gilliam is crazy, gotta love him 4 stars
9/23/98 Patti Brad, Brad, Brad...he makes any movie good. 5 stars
9/16/98 Chuck-D the only time I've gone to a mainstream film in a firstrun theater and everyone stayed... 5 stars
9/12/98 kanatcha im too lazy for this... 5 stars
9/01/98 MikeF I liked this a lot. 4 stars
8/26/98 Pete Cool flick. Pitt is amazing. Gilliam is pure genius. 4 stars
8/23/98 Superfly Brad Pitt is amazing in this. Check it out if you like strange movie concepts. 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  05-Jan-1996 (R)
  DVD: 10-May-2005

UK
  19-Apr-1996 (15)

Australia
  14-Mar-1996 (M)




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