“… may be the best time travel movie that I have ever seen.”
Just a heads up: this review will probably have spoilers for the film 12 Monkeys. If you haven’t yet seen 12 Monkeys I would suggest that you stoop reading this review now, go and watch 12 Monkeys, and then come back and continue reading this review. Or, you know, don’t do that. I can’t tell you what to do.
12 Monkeys is a movie that I have heard people raving about forever, but when I watched it a few years ago I wasn’t really impressed. I didn’t hate the film but it left no impression on me at all. But since it is Christmas time (and 12 Monkeys is a Christmas movie) I decided to give it another shot. When a virus wipes out 5 billion people on earth in 1997, the rest of the Earth’s population is forced to flee. Trying to rectify the situation, a group of scientist use prisoners to send back in time and try to find the cause of the virus. James Cole (played by Bruce Willis) is the lucky volunteer this time, and he is sent back (approximately) 30 years to try and find The Army of the 12 Monkeys and get a non-mutated sample of the virus that they release.
I’m not sure why I didn’t like 12 Monkeys the first time I watched it. Maybe because I found the film kind of slow at parts, or maybe I just didn’t understand it. Whatever it was, I obviously grew out of it because after watching 12 Monkeys for the second time I finally understood what people have been talking about for all of these years. 12 Monkeys may be the best time travel movie that I have ever seen. It is smart, it is stylish, and it is one hell of an entertaining film. First and foremost I want to talk bout the acting. 12 Monkeys features brilliant performances from almost all of its actors. Bruce Willis does a great job as James Cole because, though he is stoic toward the beginning of the film, he does a good job of conveying the fleeting nature of his sanity. Madeleine Stowe did a great job as Kathryn Railly, and her character was not really an easy one to master. She essentially had to play two roles: Kathryn before her realization, and Kathryn after. These two “characters” are very distinct, but she did a great job with both of them. I think it goes without saying however that Brad Pitt absolutely takes the cake in 12 Monkeys. Pitt’s portrayal of Jeffrey Goines is absolutely brilliant. Again, Jeffery has two sides to him: the truly crazy side (present in the mental institution), and then the refined crazy side where he carries himself more like a Bond villain than a mentally disturbed individual. Never did I feel at ease when Jeffery was on the screen, and that is exactly the way that Jeffery should be portrayed. He’s a loose canon, not in the sense that he doesn’t play by the rules but in the sense that he doesn’t even perceive that there are rules.
Of course the film is helmed by Terry Gilliam, who’s style is unmistakable. Most of the film is rather tame in the design sense, but there are areas where Gilliam gets to shine. Two examples that come to mind are the scientist’s room, as well as the mental hospital. The design of the scientist’s room is absolutely spectacular because it is pretty much timeless. The room looks like it could belong to any period of time, and that fits with the vagueness of the film itself. With small things such as the distance between the scientist and the single chair in the room, as well as the floating orb of misshapen televisions that floats along the ceiling, this portion of the film is unmistakably Gilliam. The second example I gave was the mental hospital, and though the design wasn’t necessarily Gilliam-esque, the presentation was. Immediately when we are taken inside of the mental hospital (specifically the main “meeting room”) the film changes. What used to be a bleak colour palate is now washed-out and made hyper-bright by overhead lights. The camera, which was very docile at the beginning of the film, grows a mind of its own and much like the residents of this institution, it’s not exactly sane. The camera floats around these scenes like figure skater doing a routine, and it makes full use of the Dutch angle. This does a good job of immersing the audience into the film because instantly, we feel crazy. We feel like we belong in this horrid place where people are constantly being screamed at to “get out of my chair”. We know instantly what the main character, James, is feeling. This camerawork then stays throughout the rest of the film, which gives even the more generic settings a very Gilliam feel.
What I like most about 12 Monkeys is the writing. 12 Monkeys is the kind of movie that shows you respect by not treating you like an idiot. The film is very layered (for lack of a better word), but it doesn’t shy away in fear of the audience not understanding it. Instead of putting on kid-gloves, so to speak, 12 Monkeys presents its story to you and if you get lost it’s your fault. It doesn’t wait around for you to understand every single part of its very involved story, and that is very welcomed. Not only does that make me feel like I’m respected as a viewer, but it also allows for a very rich mind frame after the movie, and it opens itself up to almost infinite re-watches. The story did have one hiccup however, and that is the involvement of a paradox. I absolutely loathe paradoxes because I think that they offer nothing to any story. Luckily, the paradox in 12 Monkeys is one that comes and goes, much like rest of its plot. The story doesn’t lean on it, and you might not even notice it if you don’t think too hard about it. This means that, despite that little issue (which really isn’t an issue at all), 12 Monkeys is an example of prefect writing.
Overall 12 Monkeys is a movie that garners a lot of praise, and it absolutely deserves it. With a plot that is smart, a presentation that doesn’t demean the viewer, acting that is superb, and a wonderful Terry Gilliam aesthetic, 12 Monkeys is a movie that everyone should see.
I give 12 Monkeys an A