Edited by Dorrin Gingerich
James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner of Earth's distant and dystopic future, volunteers for a special mission. In order to secure a pardon, he must travel back in time to learn more about the plague that caused humanity's downfall. 12 Monkeys follows Cole as he blinks back and forth in time, gathering information about the pre-apocalypse world of 1996 and struggling to preserve his sanity all the while. The world that greets him thinks he’s crazy, of course, and he spends a portion of the story in a mental institution. There he meets a compassionate psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and befriends a fellow inmate, Jeffry Goines (Brad Pitt). Cole and his two new friends try to understand the impending disaster, but as it inches closer, Cole begins to wonder if he himself may have unwittingly triggered the event.
What Works – Bruce Willis performs competently, and this role certainly calls for more than his typical action hero derring-do… But Brad Pitt gives the more memorable performance as the inmate Jeffry Goines, manic and paranoid, yet too intelligent to be ignored. A typical conversation between Cole and Goines would end with Goines yelling incendiary comments, breaking furniture, and upsetting every inmate in the mental ward, leaving the place an absolute zoo of shouting people, restraints, and forced sedatives. Pitt really commits, and his portrayal sits on the line between chilling and comical, earning him the first Oscar nomination of his career. If I hadn’t seen any of his other movies, I would’ve thought he was actually deranged!
Secondly, Terry Gilliam put some real work into crafting the atmosphere of this film. Both the world of 1996 and the world of the future bear up under an oppressive air of decay and age, foreshadowing the approaching cataclysm. Gilliam reinforces the asylum’s insane atmosphere with series of quick cuts, strange angles, and distorted, magnified sound effects.
Lastly, the film’s concept goes a long way toward making this an interesting and intriguing tale. Cole believes that the plague cannot be prevented, that each “change” he makes to the timeline has already been accounted for in the future from which he came. Yeah, think about that. To me, this deterministic setup is one of the few ways time travel can (almost) make sense, avoiding the tricky paradoxes and the parallel universes other films throw around. I am aware that this premise may impact other viewers differently (Dorrin, for instance, hated this movie), but I was enthralled with the concept and more than willing to forgive the film’s flaws.
What Doesn’t Work –Even knowing a few shadowy indications of the story’s conclusion, the film can still generate suspense as the details of the story emerge. Unfortunately, 12 Monkeys does not retain much of that tension past its first forty minutes. Perhaps it should have spent less time on character moments in its final hour; some of them began to feel extraneous.
Speaking of characters,… Railly, who fears Cole at first, falls in love with him almost before she has completely decided the question of his sanity. Their rapport begins to feel more natural as the film continues, but the initial switch was quite jarring. Even once I accept the fact of their relationship, I would definitely call it one of the less interesting parts of the film.
Mostly, the film sticks to its central conceit. The few times when it strays, however, it almost dissolves into typical Hollywood heroics. Don’t get me wrong; heroics are great, but when the main characters are convinced of their own inevitable fates, certain heroic actions no longer make sense. This was my biggest gripe.
Overall – Not a perfect movie, but still a unique, interesting, and entertaining one. Time, causation, and destiny are upended in this headscratcher of a film. The ending is partially forecasted early on. Thus, most of the excitement must come from learning how the pieces of the story fit, how they lead up to the feared, yet anticipated, conclusion. People expecting a straight, tense thriller may be disappointed, but fans of the stranger, more ambitious brand of sci-fi may be pleasantly surprised. I recommend it; hopefully you can tell from this review whether or not it’s your kind of thing.
A quote from the movie -
Jeffry Goines - He couldn't quite grasp the idea that the Charge Nurse couldn't make it be yesterday.
So what do you think, do any time travel movies actually make sense?