Technically Terry Gilliam’s only hit movie (not cult hit, mind you), 12 Monkeys is a superb showcase of everything Gilliam is known for. There are bizzare characters, brilliant mind trips, hilarious comical moments, and stunning visuals. Still, 12 Monkeys does not go to extremes. Nowhere near as funny as Monty Python, no where near as trippy as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, no where near as visually stunning as Brazil, and no where near as many screwball characters as The Time Bandits…you get the idea. For this reason, 12 Monkeys is like a sample platter of Gilliam. A little of this and a little of that, but its all satisfying.
Synopsis: James Cole is a prisoner in a future where a killer virus has decimated much of the human population. Because he has special skills, he is selected by the leaders of his society to go on a special mission. He is sent back in time to gather information on the virus in the hopes that it can be traced back to a source and a cure can be found. Unfortunately, time travel is apparently not an exact science, so he is sent too far into the past. Of course, this is unknown to him and eventually he winds up in an asylum where he meets Jeffery Goines, the crazy son of a rich scientist, and Kathryn Railey, a psychologist. Recognizing their error, the people that sent Cole back in time end up sending him to the right time, but not before Cole has a chance to impact the lives of those he met, setting off a chain reaction of cause and effect that will eventually lead him to find out the truth behind the virus, but everything is not always as it seems…
Acting: Bruce Willis (Die Hard) plays his best Steve McQueen as James Cole. He is very convincing throughout, never sounding forced in his character’s enthusiasm or innocence. The real story though is the acting of Brad Pitt (Ocean’s Eleven) as the crazy Jeffery Goines. While many people who view this film might accuse Pitt of overacting I think that the wackiness he shows in this film is a glimpse at his real personality, mind you this film came out before he was considered “cool”. Furthermore, Pitt’s energetic acting adds credibility to the plot as well as helps the audience understand some of the confusion that James Cole is feeling throughout much of the movie. This bewildering experience is exactly what Gilliam is famous for (him and maybe Tim Burton). Madeline Stowe (The Last of the Mohicans) plays Railey, and overall does a great job. Her character goes from one extreme, hating Cole, to the other, loving him, through the course of the movie and although it is predictable it is believable. Finally, supporting chracters include Jon Seda (Bad Boys 2) as Cole’s prison buddy, and Christopher Plummer (Up) as Goines’ father. Both of them are not in the movie too much so their acting doesn’t really shine through, but they do play important roles. (22/25)
Script/Plot: Although the basic story is predictable (many people might be able to guess what happens to the main characters from the beginning), that really doesn’t matter. The interesting part of this movie is what happens to the characters along the way and the reasoning behind the various situations they find themselves in. Indeed, there are plenty of twists along the way, so even if the end is already given to the audience the entertainment comes from filling in the details. It is almost like a detective story, filling in clues and trying to peace together a puzzle before its too late; similar to the basic idea of the Terminator movies or Titanic. You know that John Connor has to live or that the boat is going to sink, but that isn’t why you watch the movie in the first place! Gilliam adds enough twists and turns to make you think twice about everything and the end is so thought provoking that if it doesn’t bring everything that came before it into perspective then you must be brain dead. (22/25)
Direction: Although Gilliam doesn’t have too many fantastic locales and bizarre visuals (besides the films few future scenes) to display in this film as he does in his others, he still manages to make normal exciting. The scenes with Goines for instance, are shot with rapid action or skewed view points, adding to the character’s insanity and mimicking his skewed views of reality. Gilliam also uses the camera to depict Cole’s one-man-against-the -world situation. There are lots of close facial shots showing his expressions, often confused or angry, mixed with distance shots when Cole is alone or not in control of his situation, such as when he is put in confinement in the asylum or when he is called before the prison authorities. (25/25)
Special Effects/Music/X-Factor: The few special effects in this movie are indeed pretty impressive. Sure there are a few computer generated animal shots that do look dated, but the future scenes will be familiar to anyone who has seen Gilliam’s other work, because they are unique, interesting, brilliant, and seem functional. A musical theme from the credits helps to connect a few different scenes in the movie, and is memorable. The X-Factor has to be the way in which this movie really does make you think. On a basic level its not breaking any new ground (no mind-blowing fx, no spine-tingling dialog, no overbearing life message), but if you look beyond that and really think about what you are watching and what it means, then you have something very creative and very original in its execution. (23/25)
What Kept Me Watching: Good direction and acting backed up with a refreshingly cerebral story that draws you in.
What Kills It: Perhaps it is a little predictable, and taking it at face value there is nothing here you haven’t seen before.
Summary: A well executed and entertaining adventure for your mind.
Final Rating: (92/100) = A