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Review: Twelve Monkeys
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Twelve Monkeys (1995) is Terry Gilliam’s last great movie. It is a masterful work of dystopian science fiction, with a highly imaginative plot, a tight and literate script, fantastic steampunkish sets and props, and compelling performances from Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeline Stowe. Gilliam is usually far too ironic and self-conscious to deliver emotionally satisfying work. But in Twelve Monkeys, we see stylistic elements and themes from earlier Gilliam films—Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King—applied to much darker material with such virtuosity that it no longer seems labored and calculated. Nor does it smother real feeling.

I’d like you to watch this film, so no major spoilers. Most of what I will say can be inferred from the trailer. In the back story of Twelve Monkeys, practically the whole human race was wiped out by a virus in 1997. The survivors live underground, in totalitarian lockdown, under a Permanent Emergency Code, ruled by a politburo of scientists, a whole committee of Dr. Strangeloves.


In 2035, the scientists somehow invent a way to travel back in time. They wish to send someone to the past, just before the outbreak of the plague, in order to . . . No, they don’t want to prevent it. If the plague never happened, none of them would be ruling over the pitiful remnants of the human race. Instead, they simply want a pure sample of the virus, before it mutated. Their motives are never made clear. Is it for pure research? Would an earlier strain of the virus allow them to create a cure?

Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a prisoner, who has been pressured into “volunteering” to be sent back in time. But the equipment is a little tricky, so he first ends up in Philadelphia in 1990—six years too early—where he is arrested and confined to a mental institution, because that’s what one does with people who claim to have come from the future to prevent the human race from dying in a pandemic.

Cole meets a sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), and a mental patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who is a radical environmentalist and animal rights advocate. Cole tries to escape to complete his mission, but he is captured and locked in a cell, from which he mysteriously disappears. Apparently, the scientists have put implants in his molars that allow them to pull him back into the future, where he is debriefed and then returned to the past, first ending up in the trenches of WWI, where he is shot in the leg, then finally ending up in 1996.

Six years after her encounter with Cole, Dr. Railly has published a book on the “Cassandra complex”: people like Cole who warn society of impending disasters but are not heeded. After Railly gives a lecture on her book and signs copies, Cole kidnaps her. He needs her help. He now believes that the virus will be released by Jeffrey Goines and a radical environmentalist group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Cole is afraid that during their time in the mental hospital, he actually gave Goines the idea of wiping out the human race with a plague. (If you are going to construct stories around time travel, you might as well milk it for every paradox.)

Railly, of course, is terrified. But she does not go to pieces. She’s a doctor. She tries to understand Cole and convince him to let her go as he drags her through his quest for the origin of the virus. Philadelphia in 1996 turns out to be almost as dystopian as Philadelphia in 2035. After some harrowing misadventures, with Railly, Cole is pulled back into the future.

When the two are apart, a delightful role reversal takes place. Railly comes to believe Cole is not a madman. He really is from the future. Cole, however, comes to think that he’s actually mad. He does hear a mysterious voice that is never explained. The scientists also, frankly, act a bit crazy. And really, doesn’t the whole story sound a bit insane?

When Cole is returned to the past, he seeks out Railly because he wants her to cure him, only to discover that she has taken up his mission with the manic intensity of a true believer. You laugh when you see it, but the real delight comes in retrospect, when you see that it was completely inevitable.

After Cole and Railly get back on the same page, they go after the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, only to find . . . Well, I’m not going to say any more about the plot, save that there are many more twists and turns for you to enjoy.

Twelve Monkeys isn’t a “deep” film. It doesn’t invite us to ponder philosophical or theological issues. It doesn’t seem to be an allegory for anything else. It doesn’t need to be. The world it creates and the story it tells are highly satisfying in themselves: by turns surreal, terrifying, funny, and moving.

The lead performances are remarkable. Bruce Willis is compelling as a man who is heroic despite all his doubts, fears, and failings. Brad Pitt is charismatic and hilarious as Jeffrey Goines. But Madeline Stowe steals the film. She is not only beautiful, but she is highly intelligent, so she is completely convincing as a psychiatrist.

Twelve Monkeys is not just intellectually stimulating and emotionally compelling, it is also visually striking from start to finish, with imaginative sets, beautifully constructed shots, and a gauzy glamor that bring to mind Hitchcock. (One of the settings is a Hitchcock film festival.)

Twelve Monkeys is set within a materialistic, scifi universe, but what you see is almost never what you get, because madness and false memories can systematically estrange us from reality. Gilliam methodically mirrors events in the “real world” with movies, television shows, and commercials, placing us all in the world experienced by madmen, who see portents, intelligible patterns, and hidden intentions where sane people see only chaos and coincidence.

Twelve Monkeys is also mercifully free of political correctness. (Particularly when Cole calls a wrong number in 1990.)

In fact, I can’t think of a single false note in the entire film, not even the music. Given this film’s cinematic forebearers and touchstones, I was not expecting Paul Buckmaster’s score, which riffs off Astor Piazzolia’s Argentine tango music. But it works.

Even though Twelve Monkeys was released in 1995, it seems quite topical in the age of Corona Chan. So if you are looking for some more lockdown viewing, I highly recommend it. It is a depressing vision of the future, but it will make you feel lucky. James Cole had a lot more to complain about than we do, and he bore it far more admirably.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Coronavirus, Hollywood, Movies, Science Fiction 
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  1. You say you’re not gong to plot-summarize and then you plot-summarize. And that’s about it. Some “review.” Jeez, this website hires losers.

    • Replies: @Alfa158
  2. MEH 0910 says:

    • Replies: @El Dato
  3. Another hero vs prophet movie where the sympathy is with the hero.

  4. Homer says:

    Corona Chan – nice tag. I love it. Mind if I steal it?
    And 12 Monkeys is in my private DVD collection.
    Rewatchable and all white cast.

    • Replies: @schnellandine
  5. @Homer

    Corona Chan – nice tag

    Then you’ll love the Corona-chan art collection. Get started with your favorite image searcher!

    A living Corona-chan:

    Video Link

  6. Forgot to mention that it was remake of French idea.

  7. @Zarathustra

    remake of French idea

    It got the core wrapper idea from basically a narrated slideshow, and transformed it into something new. Remake?

  8. @Zarathustra

    LA JETEE is arguably the first truly intelligent sci-fi.

    METROPOLIS, while a great movie, is rather silly, and only about 10% of it is great.

    LA JETEE was a real breakthrough in sci-fi and came out the same year as Orson Welles THE TRIAL that could almost count as sci-fi.

    TWELVE MONKEYS is just awful. The title is stupid and suggests something circus-like, and yup, Gilliam’s idea of movie-making was imitating post 8 1/2 Fellini, the bad Fellini.

    LA JETEE is so perfect, it made no sense to remake it. Still, a longer feature film based on the idea could have been interesting(though one might argue THE TERMINATOR is a action-thriller version of it), but Gilliam’s overripe sensibility and excess of style turned it into a stinking mess, a heap of garbage.

    • Replies: @Franz
  9. Magylson says:

    No spoilers. Ha ha. As soon as you started disecting the entire plot I skimmed because I have it on DVD and have never got round to watching it. I will watch it now and then read the artical properly. I always meant to watch it. Love Brazil.

  10. Alfa158 says:

    He didn’t say he wasn’t “gong” to plot-summarize, he said there wouldn’t be any major spoilers.
    You must have been a loser in your reading comprehension classes.

    • Agree: Lancelot_Link
  11. I watched this again this evening at your suggestion, after not having seen it in over a decade. It was better than I’d recalled. Definitely a classic.

  12. I didn’t like Bruce Willis mooning the camera. It seemed unnecessary.

  13. Dumbo says:

    with a highly imaginative plot

    As others commenters already noted, this film was directly inspired by Chris Marker’s classic short “La Jetée”, even Terry Gilliam was very clear about it and it might even be mentioned in the credits. I wouldn’t call it a “remake”, though, because La Jetée is a very particular film… But the main plot is obviously the same.

    It’s strange that Greg, I mean, Trevor doesn’t mention it.

    As for “12 Monkeys”, it does have some interesting moments, but Pitt is overacting and Gilliam is all about style over content. A missed opportunity, I would say.

  14. Dumbo says:

    By the way, Chris Marker’s only other famous film is “Sans Soleil” (1983), a very interesting documentary/film essay about Japan (mostly, but not only). A review of that would be interesting.

  15. Franz says:
    @Priss Factor

    LA JETEE was a real breakthrough in sci-fi […] TWELVE MONKEYS is just awful.

    I not only agree completely, but if the only version of La Jetée you see is the chop-up you can see for free on Youtube, you’re still better off. Criterion has a good DVD of it. Twelve Monkeys just riffs on the idea, adding not much new, which is saying plenty considering Monkeys is over four times as long.

    Both simple and surreal, La Jetée must have blown minds off the map in 1962. At 28 minutes and entirely of stills, it’s hard to believe you can get both drama AND actual performances, but amazingly, you do. I was able to see it on a fair sized screen at a sci fi con, and never forgot it.

    And never got over my crush on Hélène Châtelain. Born in 1935, she was just right at 27 or so when La Jetée would have been made. When she died this April of corona, it really pissed me off.

  16. nickels says:

    Ah Madeline Stowe. So gorgeous in this film.
    I hate that women age.

  17. “I hate that women age.”

    I beg your pardon . . . all humans age. Some age more subtle than others for various reasons; diet, exercise, genetics . . surgery . . . what have you.

    However, Miss Madeline Stowe

    Uhh, no doubt many a women and men for that matter would that age came with such grace.

    I thought it was well cast, when this reveiw appeared, I thought Miss Stowe is under appreciated talent.

    I haven’t come to a place to really resolve this film. Still thinking about it.

    • Replies: @nickels
  18. AWM says:

    This film was from, what, 1995?
    As fucked up as everything is in the film it pales in comparison as to how fucked up shit is today.
    In a way, it is beyond brilliant.

  19. Yes, a great film, and tremendously entertaining.

    I know it’s presumptuous of me to make requests, but could you review:


    Nueve Reinas and El Secreto de Sus Ojos

    Hana Bi

    Sexy Beast

  20. nickels says:

    I beg your pardon . . . all humans age. Some age more subtle than others for various reasons;

    Sort of true, but not really. Beautiful women age the hardest. They go from the the highest of pinnacles back to the plain of indifference, the greatest fall.
    Men keep their attractiveness well into their 50s. Women’s glory fails as their fertility fails, much sooner.
    But this is all why the prideful, hedonistic, materialistic life should be shunned. If the woman is at home cranking out babies, baking pies, and raising her children to be God fearing human beings, then her glory never fades, and she ages peacefully into eternal bliss of the kindly old grandmother.

  21. “Sort of true, but not really. Beautiful women age the hardest. They go from the the highest of pinnacles back to the plain of indifference, the greatest fall.”


    that is a different discussion. Sure women age, whether or not that is more pronounced in any one women or women in general varies.

    Uhhh you were saying . . .

    Now granted, women in the field of entertainment may be more conscientious about their bodies. But I am not sure I would support your comment as a definite it varies. In the case of Miss Stowe, even by strict standards I think it is fair to say — mighty graceful aging as with Mrs. Hackford (Dame Helen Mirren).

    I was going to post a set of images of black women . . . but they say black doesn’t crack – another expression that had to be explained to me – a suggestion about genetics I thought one might consider that unfair.

    We could tennis women images all day laugh suffice it to say, in my view, how women age varies.

  22. Gast says:

    One of my favorite films. One of the few movies I could bear re-watching. The apocalyptic theme, the question what is real and what is not, the question whether you are mad, when your opinions are so widely different from your environment – all this is very near to my soul. It was near to my soul even as a teenager when I watched it the first time, and I had no clue about the world I was living in, so in some ways this movie was prophetic for me as well.

    Normally I hate Terry Gilliam’s movies but in this case he adds with his typical gimmicks another dimension, although I suspect this might be pure luck (but I don’t care).

  23. I think I will watch this film again. Because what stands the most is the end of the film in which the time jumpers have a backup plan.

  24. “Twelve Monkeys” is love story about second chances and missed opportunities told though the lens of time loops, among several critiques, not the least of which is the deconstructive short take on the value and power of psychiatry to either know disease or determine truth and on those teeter totter planks exercise power over people’s lives – prescribing truth/reality instead of discerning it. And there’s this very clever argument that the way to change the future is by knowing the past and implementing changes in that present time, as opposed to changing the past. Always against the backdrop of hope that rests in James and his past and future self — of the little and the adult man – who finds purpose in life via the love of a woman — is forced to challenge her own assumptions about truth, reality and her place in space.

    There are a lot more take aways in my view that are actual critiques of the film. I have not seen the film on which this movies was based.

  25. Some critique. The film’s frustration is that it relies on too much of the chaos to tell the story. The backdrop for the love story is one that one actually hopes is successful. Humanity locates a cure and move out of the basement back into the pen air.

    Note; while this film doesn’t seek to change the past to change the future, if it were possible to improve the future by changing the past — then films based 0n that concept make sense. This film makes a unique choice not to change the past, but to change the future in the future. That is really thought provoking and avoids the unexpected negative side effects for making said past tense change. But the main protagonist has been given so many flaws in his psychology that its a tough row that he would be selected time and time again. Despite whatever qualities he has for being locked up — there’s simply not enough stability to propel success. Now maybe they were attempting to give Mr. Bruce Willis enough flaws to make him believable and needy to fall in love with — however, there are just too many instability issues. Again relying on the chaos to make a case that doesn’t need to be made — the world is full of unexpected and unknown events. But the value of that is lost in that nearly everything is chaotic almost all the time.

    So that valuable short critiques about WS and the top tier elites which are central to issues today in the US gets lost as asides as opposed to the suggestion why Bob is so intent on releasing comeuppance to level the field.

    There’s an inside hidden support for the Mr. Assanges (Mr. Assange is a reporter in my view) , anonymous and other would be subversives — who see the light.

  26. Mr. Hack says:

    I’ve watched this film 2-3 times, way over a decade ago. It was frenetically exciting and the bizarre plot twists definitely take the viewer on a gigantic roller coaster ride. Like another great movie from the past, “The Maltese Falcon”, I seriously doubt that anybody that watches these films (including this reviewer) really fully understands all of the nuances of the plot designs of both films. I guess that this is what is called “artistic license’. 🙂

  27. Twelve Monkeys (1995) is Terry Gilliam’s last great movie.

    What is the theory on Gilliam movies going from great to sucks?

    • Replies: @Dumbo
  28. Dumbo says:
    @Morton's toes

    Personally, I don’t think he ever made a really “great” movie (outside of the collaboration with Monty Python) but “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys” were good, if derivative and ultimately unsatisfying.

    Most others, such as The Fisher King, Grimm Brothers, etc, were pretty bad. I think he actually doesn’t have the ability to differentiate good from bad, and he’s too over-the-top.

  29. El Dato says:
    @MEH 0910

    I’m waiting for COBOLA to emerge.

    The basis of “12 Monkeys” is a featurette called “La Jetée” btw:

  30. Great films represent the dreaming of the collective mind. In such movies, alternatives are reviewed, possible futures examined, choices mulled over. Twelve Monkeys is in this category. From the standpoint of white separatism and anarcho-primitivism and the way these might figure in a possible future, the most interesting character in the movie barely has any screen time at all. I refer of course to the Kaczynski-like character Dr. Peters, played by David Morse, the genius who releases the virus that brings down the existing order and irrevocably changes the world. That, in the technological future that is developing, the possibility arises that this could be done by only one man, without any political organization behind him at all, speaks volumes. The collective mind finds the possible existence of such a man very disturbing, and that’s why it’s in the movie. Compared to this seemingly minor plot point, the rest of the film is just incidental. For white separatism and anarcho-primitivism on the other hand, this plot point is a clue to a way forward. Political organization in the attempt to build a mass movement has failed abysmally for at least 70 years now. It could not be more plain that it’s useless and should be abandoned. White separatists who are actually serious about taking action to ensure the survival of the white race should devote themselves instead to the study of the new technologies that could enable them to dispense with it and act independently as solo operators, or at most, members of a small cell. Biotechnology, including virology, nanotechnology, and AI are promising fields from the standpoint of anyone who would seek to overthrow the existing order and bring down the technological system in its entirety. Few such people exist, or even could exist, that’s true. But it will take only one.

    • Agree: commandor
    • Replies: @schnellandine
  31. @Dr. Robert Morgan

    the most interesting character in the movie barely has any screen time at all. I refer of course

    Oh, of course! What a manipulative crock. With the wave of your pipe, mere opinion regarding a movie character becomes—or would be in a just world—common knowledge.

    Fitting, you’re also portrayed in the film. I refer of course to the doc who accuses MS of being defensive, another classic rhetorical offensive-chickenshit tactic.

  32. Che Guava says:

    I disagree with Trevor stating that Twelve Monkeys was Gilliam’s last great film.

    Has he seen Tideland (or Tidelands, I forget the English-language title)?

    A great film.

    Also, re. Marker, most of his work other than the two named by OPs, mainly communist propaganda and simple documentaries, is also well worth watching for anyone interested in film as such.

  33. I disagree with Trevor stating that Twelve Monkeys was Gilliam’s last great film.
    Has he seen Tideland (or Tidelands, I forget the English-language title)?
    A great film.

    Really? I hate just about everything he did since TIME BANDITS with the exception of FISHER KING, but even that works thanks to the tower-climbing quest. A truly touching moment, it was one of the few times when Gilliam was not in over-the-top mode. TIME BANDITS ain’t much either but it was done in the spirit of fun. Beginning with BRAZIL however, Gilliam presented himself as an AUTEUR, and the results have been painful. But then, TIME BANDITS also suffered from over-ambition. What could have been a magical fantasy-comedy — best moments were with Sean Connery as Agamemnon — just got bigger and bigger until it collapsed under its own weight. It was exhausting than exhilarating. Gilliam thinks he’s the heir of Welles, Fellini, Tati, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Murnau, Lang, Griffith, Powell all rolled into one. Actually, his sensibility is closer to Lucas and Spielberg, and he would have done better in the mode of Zemeckis or Joe Dante. Watching Gilliam is like Robin Williams pretending to be Shakespeare or Spike Jones pretending to be Beethoven. He has real strengths, mostly in short bursts of nonsense humor(as with his contribution to Monty Python), but he’s not an artist. It’s like an acrobat should not pretend to be a ballet dancer.

    12 MONKEYS sounds promising on paper but is miserable on the screen. Gratuitousness of style and effects clutters up the entire movie from start to finish. So many details are showy and superfluous. When Willis’ character is before the panel, why must he sit on a chair that rises into the air? No reason at all. Just a stupid effect that gives Gilliam an excuse to use the crane for high angle shots. Why all the lenses before the panel? For cheap Wellesian effects with visual distortion. Welles did it so well and purposefully in LADY IN SHANGHAI and MR. ARKADIN. With Gilliam, it’s just more cheap effects. It goes on like this for the duration of the whole movie.

    LA JETEE has a sense of terror, hope, and tragedy, all of which are intertwined. The underground world is dark and grim. We can understand why the hero would want to escape by time travel(or maybe it’s all just a dream) to another world/time/place when things were normal. Because of the fallen-ness of the world following the WWIII, even the mundane and normal things of our world seem magical, special, and poetic to him. What we take for granted is a dream-land for the hero who saw the civilized world vanish when he was a mere boy.

    But in 12 MONKEYS, the underground world, though unpleasant, is full of color and fun/goofy things everywhere. It’s like Toys R Us. You would never be bored in it. And then, Time Travel takes the hero to ‘our present'(before the apocalypse) that is as nutty and silly as the post-apocalyptic underground world. Thus, both worlds are simply kooky. There is no contrast. Everything is really part of Gilliamsville or Gilliam’s ringling brothers circus. As such, nothing is terrifying, nothing is poetic, nothing is hopeful, nothing is tragic. It’s all goofy.

    In contrast, LA JETEE begins with a lost soul who is called up for an experiment. He expects to be used like a guinea pig by mad scientists, but they seem like refined and sympathetic men of science. They put him at ease and bit by bit, he is able to travel to a time and place that are so normal and mundane to us(who live in it) but so special, dreamy, and romantic to him. But then, he realizes that the scientists are indeed ruthless men who plan to dispose of him once his usefulness has been served and…

    Done with possibly the most artful and subtle use of still-photography montage, sound effects, and brilliant narration, we the viewers come under hypnotic spell not unlike what happens with the hero.

    Now, given 12 MONKEYS had to be a full-length feature film, I understand it couldn’t follow the original short’s format, but still, what a waste of an idea. A poetic nightmare turned into a gaudy circus.

    • Replies: @eD
    , @Mr. Hack
  34. eD says:
    @Priss Factor

    And the commentator lives up to his moniker!

  35. Mr. Hack says:
    @Priss Factor

    Any thoughts about Gilliam’s closest tribute to the “Ringling Bros circus”, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnusses”? At the very least, I thought that it was visually interesting. Welles really did do it very well in both “Lady in Shanghai”and “Mr. Arkadin”, but then again I have an illogical preference for films of the black & white era. My favorite film of Gilliam’s was perhaps the first one I ever saw of his, “Brazil”. It was a load of fun for me to watch – The protagonist’s mother’s preoccupation with her many plastic surgeries was worth the price of admission alone! 🙂

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