WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: A prisoner in a hopeless subterranean future, James Cole ‘volunteers’ to be sent back in time to research the origins of the virus that wiped out the majority of the human population. His paths cross with psychiatrist Kathryn Railly, who strongly believes that James is disturbed; his insistence that she’s literally the woman of his dreams does little to convince her otherwise.
It’s 2035, forty years after an airborne virus killed five billion people. The surface of the Earth has been given over to animals, and only intrepid prisoners like James Cole (Bruce Willis) venture outside, looking for clues to a possible cure. Cole’s hardiness makes him a prime candidate for a journey of another kind – travelling back in time to 1996 to find the ‘Army of the Twelve Monkeys’ which released the virus in the first place; not to change the past – impossible, so Cole says – but to do more research.
The only problem is, Cole lands six years too early and is promptly incarcerated in a mental institution alongside fellow fruitcake Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), son of a wealthy vivisectionist (played by Christopher Plummer) and would-be leader of the titular Army. James is attended by Dr Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who understandably attributes his far-fetched tales to mental trauma, while Cole sees echoes of the pretty doctor in a recurring dream he’s had since childhood. As the future slowly comes to pass, and Cole struggles with his mind as much as his meddlesome jailors, sometime hostage Kathryn comes to realise that his stories are not so outlandish after all.
I’ll try not to dwell on it too much, but no comment on Twelve Monkeys is complete without mentioning Chris Marker’s extraordinary La Jetée*, an innovative and utterly beautiful photo-roman which gives Gilliam’s film its overall structure and quite a lot of design pointers. Comparisons between the two are not entirely helpful, but I urge you to seek it out (it’s not even half an hour long, so there’s no excuse not to watch it if you can find it). Twelve Monkeys is obviously a much bigger and bolder project, with a big star to draw the crowds in; and though some will be disappointed that Gilliam’s fanciful, semi-lunatic tendencies have been compromised to serve the demands of a recognisably mainstream movie-going experience, they shouldn’t be.
The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, because the film still features plenty of visuals to please fans of Gilliam’s aesthetic, his vision of 2035 not a gleaming world of white rooms and super-advanced technology but of scrubbing brushes, recycled plastic tubing and decrepit machines straight out of Brazil. Gilliam also does marvellous things with his Philadelphia locations: the shock of seeing (properly) wild animals marauding through urban streets has stayed with me since the mid-90s, and always makes me smile.
The second reason is because – amazing though this might be to the producers of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and some of his other movies – Gilliam is more than capable of turning out a disciplined, conventionally appealing film. In the case of Twelve Monkeys, this means a gripping thriller which keeps us guessing throughout, thanks to tightly-filmed, kinetic action sequences, unpredictable and complex characters, and intelligent science fiction plotting that nerds can obsess over if they like, but which doesn’t take centre stage. In fact, like La Jetée, the genius of Twelve Monkeys is that, as it builds to its very affecting climax, the science fiction and time travel elements act less as plot drivers and more as background atmosphere to a story of love and the sudden but urgent desire to live. As such, questions surrounding the circular nature of the plot fade away – in any case, James isn’t changing history, merely researching it.
Handsome, stylish and clever, Twelve Monkeys is further bolstered by a commanding performance from Willis in the lead role. As an often-violent criminal with a murky past, Cole doesn’t command sympathy, but Bruce makes us feel every bit of his pain, his mental confusion, and finally his love for Kathryn. Opposite Willis, Stowe – not an actress I know well, cinematically speaking – also does well to communicate Railly’s transformation from calm self-assurance to surrendering completely to James’ fantasy, right up to the heart-breaking denouement.
If there is a weak point, it comes from Brad Pitt; in stark contrast to his co-stars, Pitt makes Jeffrey a cartoonish, flailing loon, a man so utterly crazy that he doesn’t convince at all. Neither does he convince as someone pretending to be mad but really an anarchic genius, which is a shame as the plot relies quite heavily on this ambiguity.
I can’t score Twelve Monkeys any higher, not so much because of Pitt’s exaggerated performance but because – despite all the nice things I’ve said about it – it’s not as engrossing a sci-fi thriller as either of James Cameron’s Terminator films, nor as brilliantly audacious and singular as Gilliam’s extraordinary Brazil or The Fisher King – its originality is also unavoidably diminished by the presence of La Jetée. Nonetheless, Twelve Monkeys is powerful, visually arresting, often darkly comic; and like Marker’s short, you really should see it when you get a chance.
NOTES: Though it’s referenced in Twelve Monkeys, I’m deliberately avoiding any reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo for the simple reason that I know nothing about it, or indeed most of Hitchcock’s work. For shame!