12 Monkeys is a thought-provoking movie which delves into a number of issues, such as time travel, dystopian future, as well as the subjective nature of reality, unreliability of memory, determinism and free will. Also, themes such as insanity, entropy, as well as Gilliam’s favorite cranky technology feature prominently in the movie.
Review by SAndman
November 14, 2009
12 Monkeys (Special Edition)
Director: Terry Gilliam
screenplay: David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples
Bruce Willis as James Cole
Madeleine Stowe as Kathryn Railly
Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines
David Morse as Dr. Peters
Christopher Plummer as Dr. Goines
James Cole: Look at them. They’re just asking for it. Maybe the human race deserves to be wiped out.
The movie has a non-linear plot which relies heavily on clues strewn throughout the movie. In addition, it is densely packed with cross-references to time travel, some iconic some less so, from quantum physics to, say, cartoons, which conveniently play on television in the background.
12 Monkeys is a story of man from year 2023, James Cole, a convict, who lives in a world in which a deadly virus killed 5 billion people and having contaminated the atmosphere made the surface of the Earth unlivable for mankind.
The pitiable remnants of humanity are forced to live underground and limit their visits to the surface to the barest minimum.
Hoping to reduce his sentence Cole volunteers for the government-run project which entails sending a human guinea pig back in time to year 1996, which marked the outbreak of the virus.
Instead of the intended destination Cole winds up in a jail in Baltimore, and the year is 1990. He is heavily medicated and in restraints. And has no clue what got him landed behind the bars.
Dr. Railly, a psychiatrist who works for the county, explains to him that he assaulted a police officer. He repeats that he needs to “go and collect information”. Brushing aside his protests she has him transferred to a mental institution.
Cole tries to explain to the doctors that in 1996 the so-called Army of the 12 Monkeys, a home-grown terrorist organization, will conduct a series of raids in a few major cities in the USA. The organization is responsible for the release of the virus into the general population.
Cole also informs the doctors that the purpose of his mission is to gather information about the virus so that when he returns to the future he can provide the scientists of his time with the means to fight the epidemic.
Interestingly enough, Cole repeatedly says that he doesn’t intend to change the past, nor can he aspire to such goal, and influence the future in any way. He just wants to do some field work to help the men of the future mitigate the effects of the virus.
He asks to make a phone call. They let him do it and it turns out that the number he dials, instead of being the number at which he was supposed to leave a voice message for the scientists of the future, is a number to a private apartment.
That night he has his recurrent dream. In the dream he is a little boy who witnesses a shootout at the airport. Dr. Railly is in the dream too, but her hair color is different – in the dream she is a blonde, whereas she is really a brunette.
One of the inmates in the institution is Jeffrey Goines, a deranged son of a renowned scientist. He comes across as harmless, if hopelessly paranoid, mental case. However, next morning Goines proves unexpectedly resourceful in effecting Cole’s escape.
However, Cole fails to break out of the institution and after being subdued, and drugged, he is placed under solitary confinement. The next day the doctors and orderlies come to pay Cole a visit and, to their great surprise, find his cell empty, though it doesn’t seem possible that he found a way to escape from it.
Back in the future – we never really learn the mechanics of the time travel in the movie – Cole is grilled by his supervisors about his escapades in the past. They play to him his garbled voice message from 1996, of which he has absolutely no recollection.
The message contains the information about the hideout of the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Furthermore, his supervisors present him with the evidence, which he supposedly gathered in the past, though he can’t remember ever doing it, which links Jeff Goines, his inmate from the mental institution, to the Army of the 12 Monkeys.
After Cole reaffirms his commitment to the mission they send him back. Again they transport him to the wrong time. It is the year 1917 and Cole is thrown right in the middle of the trench warfare.
Next time we meet Cole, it is the year 1996, and he hijacks Dr. Railly and takes her to a motel where he keeps her bound to the bed. He has his dream again. Sure enough, Dr. Railly is in it again. But some things in the dream are different from the previous time.
Cole forces Dr. Railly to help him follow the leads to the Army of 12 Monkey. However, as the truth about the terrorists starts to unravel, Cole stumbles upon a terrible revelation. Could it be that the one person responsible for the outbreak of the virus, and the subsequent deaths of billions, may actually be…him?
At this point Cole begins to suspect that everything he experienced up to that point was a complex psychotic episode, an elaborate construct which he made up in order to deal with his overwhelming sense of guilt.
12 Monkeys is a bleak and tragic story. The conclusions the main characters arrive at are profoundly pessimistic.
In Gilliam’s disjointed world paranoia seems to be the norm and man, at best, is a helpless traveler caught in the ever changing time flux where there is absolutely nothing he can hold on to, not even his most private memories.
Gilliam’s style of directing, which relies heavily on claustrophobic close-ups, erratic cuts and surreal settings, is immediately recognizable. Tracking down the plot lines and deciphering the clues, and the numerous cross-references, is more fun than hard work, and Gilliam goes to great lengths to provide enough surprises to keep you on the edge your seats.
However, the raving-mad humor of some of his other films, say, Brazil is missing. Absolutely nothing saves 12 Monkeys from a sense of desolation.
Despite this, I feel certain that neither the gloomy ending nor fragmented narration, will deter true SF aficionados. 12 Monkeys has enough heft and a satisfyingly engaging plot to make it a rewarding, if disconcerting, movie-watching experience.