Apocalypse now and again: 20 years later, Terry Gilliam’s ‘12 Monkeys’ is just as frightening and brilliant as ever

February 10, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 10, 2015

12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s 1995 science fiction movie, is the story of a frequently injured and befuddled time traveler who is attempting to investigate a devastating plague. I saw it when it was first released; I did not much like it then, although I thought it was undeniably clever and impressive.

Recently, I re-watched the movie. It is a brilliant and harrowing film.

In 1997, when James Cole was a child, a disease wiped out the vast majority of the human population, forcing the survivors to flee to a nightmarish subterranean complex. The adult Cole, a violent convict played by Bruce Willis, is sent back in time by a group of somewhat buffoonish scientists. The experts believe they can render the plague harmless by studying samples of the original disease, before it began to mutate.

It’s never explained why examining the earliest iteration of the disease would be more helpful in finding a cure than studying its current varieties. Then again, as the mysterious Louis sardonically tells Cole, “Science ain’t an exact science with these clowns.”

When Cole is first projected back in time, he tussles with police and is incarcerated in a Baltimore asylum. There, while heavily drugged, he’s interviewed by Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist who can’t shake the suspicion that Cole seems familiar somehow. Even so, neither she nor the other doctors at the facility give much credence to Cole’s tale of being sent back from the future to gather information.

In the hospital’s day room, Cole meets Jeffrey Goines, a smart, energetic, fast-talking fellow patient. Goines, who has trouble controlling his temper, is intrigued by Cole’s hazy drug-induced ramblings about the coming holocaust — conversations that the time traveler can barely regulate or remember.

Goines, a natural improviser, he helps Cole escape from the day room. After a few minutes, Cole is captured, shackled, sedated and left in a solitary cell. And then he vanishes into thin air.

Or so it seems. In fact, the scientists from the future have retrieved Cole. (The movie never establishes the precise time in which the adult Cole lives, but the script and promotional materials identify the year as 2035.) They learn that they inadvertently sent him to the wrong time — 1990, instead of 1996, when the deadly virus was on the brink of emerging. Still, Cole tells the scientists that one of the pictures they show him features Goines. The group decides to send Cole back to the past, this time to learn about Goines and the Army of the 12 Monkeys, an animal-rights activist group that may be linked to the plague.

But Cole initially finds himself in a French trench that appears to be under attack by gas and artillery during World War I. He’s shot in this brief but crucial episode, which ends up playing a big role in the plot, before the scientists transfer Cole to the desired place and time: the city of Baltimore as 1996 is drawing to an end.

Railly, who has recently published a book about apocalyptic visions, is giving a talk on the topic. When it ends, an injured Cole abducts her and forces her to drive him to Philadelphia in pursuit of clues about the Army of the 12 Monkeys.

During a terrifying day and a half stretch in captivity, Railly attempts to persuade Cole that he is mentally ill and that he must turn himself into the police. But she starts to doubt her own sanity once Cole seems to vanish into thin air after she turns her back on him for a short moment.

A ballistics report stating that the bullet Railly extracted from Cole’s leg was fired more than seven decades ago increases the psychiatrist’s distress: Is she really going insane? Even worse, might Cole be telling the truth about surviving an apocalyptic plague that is about to wipe out most of humanity?

But as Railly’s willingness to embrace what she once dismissed as Cole’s delusional scheme increases, his faith in what is real and what might be imagined wavers. The film climaxes with a visit to an airport as several of the characters converge in an incident that, literally and figuratively, is completely nightmarish.

The portrayals by Willis and Stowe are excellent — each character is by turn confident and vulnerable. Pitt, who signed onto the film as an unknown actor, gives a dynamic but somewhat over-the-top performance; on the plus side, he genuinely seems like a charismatic prodigal son who has enough intelligence and malice to cause immense harm. Christopher Plummer, however, strikes the wrong note with a hammy turn as Leland Goines, the Southern-accented virologist and Nobel laureate who is Jeffrey’s father.

Writers David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, who were inspired by a 28-minute 1962 French film called La Jetée, have devised a script that comes together brilliantly. Virtually every moment contains a significant nugget, even if its importance isn’t immediately obvious in the course of a first (or even a repeat) viewing. The third-act reversal, where Cole dismisses his own ideas as mental illness even as Railly increasingly finds objective evidence that suggest he’s telling the truth about time travel, is wonderfully frustrating in the way that real life (and tragedy) frequently is.

There’s also something grimly beautiful about Cole’s lackadaisical attitude about the coming disaster. The sole purpose of time travel, scientists tell our antihero, is for observation and information-gathering — not for altering history. Once, when Railly becomes upset about a gun-wielding man whom Cole has hurt, he casually, and chillingly, answers by saying, “All I see are dead people.” Ultimately, however, it turns out that Cole’s visits to the past may have played in role in sowing chaos — both scarring his own psyche and changing the course of civilization.

It’s fitting that David Peoples has written a number of screenplays that toy with viewer expectations, among them Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 science fiction movie, Blade Runner, and Clint Eastwood’s 1992 genre-upending Western, Unforgiven. (The latter film won the Oscars for best film and best director and was nominated for best screenplay.) David’s co-writer and spouse, Janet Peoples, has only two other screenwriting credits, both of which are for documentaries.

Gilliam, the American who came to prominence as an animator for the legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python, has directed a dozen feature films, of which I’ve only seen a handful. 12 Monkeys has some of the DNA of both the comedic Arthurian romp Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and the dystopian science-fiction movie Brazil (1985) — two movies that twist common tropes about heroism. This outing, however, is much darker than any of the other Gilliam movies that I’ve viewed, a list that includes The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King (1988 and 1991, respectively — both movies that I found very lacking).

Brazil plays up its escapist aspects far more prominently than Gilliam’s 1995 outing. Both Brazil and 12 Monkeys feature romances between its male and female leads, but Cole’s romantic fantasies are downplayed by the filmmakers and subverted by the morbid realities we see portrayed on the screen.

In retrospect, this movie’s grimness is only enhanced by some of the hellish 1990s urban scenes that 12 Monkeys shows. The crumbling Baltimore asylum resembles a vision from Dante, and the abandoned Philadelphia theater that Cole and Railly find inhabited by vicious squatters plays as if Escape from New York has sprung to life. The shots of heavily graffitied, trash-strewn Philadelphia streets — sights that once seemed common but now come off as anachronistic relics — suggest that crime and urban life in America have, generally speaking, improved significantly in the past 20 years.

12 Monkeys is certainly not for every viewer. It shows a few very frightening acts of violence, many of which are committed by Cole. And of course, the prospect of doom overshadows the entire movie. But those who enjoy ominous tales of science fiction should make sure to screen this cinematic opus.

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