Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I've been a fan of Terry Gilliam since his Monty Python days, and have seen all of his feature films. I like 12 Monkeys quite a bit, but it's not my favorite. I think the story deserved a more serious tone as he used with The Fisher King rather than the bizarre and surreal approach he brought to Brazil or Time Bandits. It opens on a dream sequence with a young boy witnessing the death of a man at an airport. The dreamer, James Cole (Willis), wakes in his prison cell, hearing his name on the P.A. system informing him that he has been "volunteered" for a particular project. This is in the future, although I am pretty sure no specific date is given. Years before, sometime in 1996, over 5 billion people died from an unknown plague. Cole's assignment is to go back in time to gather information about the specifics of the pathogen and bring that information back so that scientists can perfect a vaccine to prevent further death. He is not to try to change events, since it is believed that it is not possible to do so. Throughout the film, the viewer has to wonder if that is true, or if Cole might be able to alter the future by changing the past.
The best performance is by Madeleine Stowe, who plays Kathryn Railly, a psychiatrist assigned to examine Cole when he is arrested upon his arrival in 1990, five years earlier than planned. She is sympathetic, empathetic, and genuinely concerned for her patients, while all her colleagues seem content to view them as only controllable by drugging them into a stupor. Cole is put into a mental institution, and there he meets Jeffrey Goines (Pitt). Jeffrey helps Cole plan an escape, but that is unsuccessful and he is put into a solitary cell and strapped down securely. Mysteriously, Cole disappears from that cell without a trace, the scientists retrieving him back to his future time. When he informs them he was sent back too far they prepare him for another mission, but they screw that one up even more, and he ends up in Europe during World War I trench warfare. They try once more and he makes it to early 1996, with very little time to spare before the outbreak of the plague. Cole is able to find Kathryn again, abducting her for help in completing his mission.
Jeffrey's father (Plummer) is a famous scientist whose experiments involve animal trials. Jeffrey rebels by creating an activist group called the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Cole believes that they are the ones responsible for the release of the plague pathogen, although at a later time he starts to think it might be the elder Goines who is responsible. Along with Stowe's performance, the strength of this film is the way the narrative is multi-layered, with the perception of the viewer manipulated into seeing things from a different perspective at various times, the same way as it is happening for Cole. He continues to experience that recurring dream, yet details change throughout the course of the movie, with him seeing Kathryn as one of the people at the airport, and another time Jeffrey as the man who is killed.
As I said in the beginning, the visual style is chaotic, which is typical of Gilliam, but this time it's over done in several places. While that might be appropriate for the scenes in the mental institution, reflecting the confusion of the inmates, it shouldn't have applied to the future scenario. A lot of the props and costumes there were too similar to the weird stuff we saw in Brazil, and they are also similar to things used in Gilliam's latest, The Zero Theorem. I do think he's a brilliant filmmaker, but at the same time he is also repetitive. In spite of these negatives, it's a film I know I will continue to watch through the years. It is a good examination of the concept of pre-destination vs free will, of individual sacrifice, as well as the power of an empathetic soul in bringing solace to another even if their eventual fate is tragic.
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