- Year: 1995
- Director: Terry Gilliam
- Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe, Brad Pitt
Unlike every other entry in this Match-Up, there is a possibility that 12 Monkeys is not a time travel movie at all. Plenty of viewers have interpreted that the whole film is seen through the madness of a mental patient. While this is not the theory I hold to, there are scenes in the movie that suggest this could be possible. Regardless, 12 Monkeys is the most psychological film on this list.
In an unspecified year in the future (although the script reveals it as 2035), the remnant of humanity lives underground after a mysterious virus wiped out 99%. Prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent above ground to investigate, where he finds animals running wild and a recurring logo graffiti-ed onto buildings.
With the promise of a pardon if he finds something useful, Cole is sent back into time to find out the origins of the virus. We already have a different kind of time travel movie here, as the scientists are not trying to change mankind’s past—they don’t believe that to be possible. They are only trying to find a cure so they can bring the 1% that survive back above ground. When Cole is mistakenly sent back to 1990, instead of the intended 1996, he almost immediately gets locked up in a mental institution. It’s nice to see a realistic turn like this, as obviously someone in the real world who talked of being from the future and an upcoming apocalypse would be deemed mentally unstable.
While very medicated, Cole meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the son of a famous virologist. 1995 was a great time for Brad Pitt, with Se7en also coming out, and Legends of the Fall and Interview with the Vampire coming out the year before. Pitt completely buries himself in this role, ranting and raving about consumerism, the system, and his famous father Dr. Jeffrey Goines Sr. (Christopher Plummer). Pitt plays the younger Goines as a complete lunatic, and it’s exactly what the character needs.
Pitt’s Goines is exactly the kind of character we’re expecting to be the mastermind behind the virus that destroys humanity. He’s very clearly mad, is responsive to Cole when he brings up the virus, and of course his father is a virologist. When Cole is finally sent to 1996 and sees the markings of the Army of the 12 Monkeys all over Philadelphia, the future scientists have all the information they need.
The twist that Goines and the Army of the 12 Monkeys having absolutely nothing to do with the virus is one of those that absolutely floors you the first time, but when you go back and watch, it makes perfect sense. It works so well, because it’s not really a movie where we the audience are expecting one, at least not of that caliber. It’s not really built up as a whodunit, and Goines has so many tropes associated with a typical evil scientist that we don’t even consider that his motives could be something else entirely.
Why would he name an apocalyptic army the Army of the 12 Monkeys? It doesn’t really make sense, but it’s the name of the film, so we don’t think about it. It makes so much more sense that the Army of the 12 Monkeys is just a small group of environmentalists taking it too far, letting all the animals out of the Philadelphia Zoo and locking Dr. Goines in one of the cages. The younger Goines is clearly too unstable to create a virus that could wipe out most of humanity.
There’s also the recurring image of Cole’s dream, which he eventually realizes was an event he witnessed as a child. He saw a man get shot down while chasing after a long haired man, and saw a blonde woman mourning over him. Of course, this is revealed to be Cole’s older self, but that’s not really a big twist. When it’s shown that 1996 Jeffrey Goines has very long hair, Cole immediately assumes that he is the man being chased after. It turns out to actually be Dr. Peters (David Morse), Dr. Goines’ closest assistant. David Morse has only a handful of scenes, and in all of them until the end, his long hair is obscured and blocked from view. He’s one of those characters that on a re-watch you see that his motives were right in front of you, but you were so caught up in everything the first time that you didn’t notice.
Every performance is wonderful, but the one that still manages to be the stand-out is Madeline Stowe as Dr. Kathryn Railly. Dr. Railly is one of Cole’s doctors in 1990, and he kidnaps her in 1996 so he can get to Philadelphia and do something about the outbreak. Even though he is her kidnapper and they do sort of fall in love, it’s not uncomfortable. This is nearly impossible to pull off, but Gilliam seems to enjoy these kind of challenges. First, it works because Dr. Railly knows Cole is not going to be violent, but simply that he needs to get to Philadelphia. Second, she was his doctor and she cares about his well-being. She is sympathetic to what she believes are delusions, and she doesn’t even begin to have feelings for him until she realizes that they are not delusions at all. By this point, she is not a captive, and he does not have a mental condition after all.
In most every time travel movie, there are the scenes where the time traveler has to convince the people in the future or past that he is a time traveler. There are often tired and at worse annoying, but 12 Monkeys handles them very well. During the events of 1996, there are radio and TV reports discussing a boy trapped in a well. Cole tells Dr. Railly that when he first heard about this, his father told him “never cry wolf” and that the boy is actually hiding in a barn. Plus, Cole has a World War I-era bullet stuck in his leg from a brief overlay before he got to 1996. Both of these convince her that Cole is actually healthy. This is clever enough, but by this point Cole has started to believe he is insane. Now, Dr. Railly has to convince Cole that he’s not insane after all. The role reversal here is brilliant, and it’s one of the best parts of the movie.
Due to these scenes, 12 Monkeys could easily have been anti-psychiatry, but it’s not. Dr. Railly is still incredibly intelligent, and there are clearly plenty of people who still could use her help. She doesn’t look stupid by finally believing Cole, because she gets there by logic and reasoning. Instead, she simply learns that there are exceptions to what is classified as madness.
We believe in their relationship, because these are two people who in a short period of time have really thought through things. Cole knows he could stay in his own time and accept the full pardon, but he’d rather be in 1996, spending probably his last days with Dr. Railly. Like in The Terminator, their love is accelerated by extreme circumstances, but we get the feeling that if these two had a whole life time to live together, they would be good years. I just never felt that way about Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor.
12 Monkeys also takes some cues from literature, movies, and TV. The whole story is inspired by the 1962 French short film La Jetée, in which a boy witnesses his future death in an airport shooting. In her lecture, Dr. Railly brings up the Greek myth of Cassandra, a woman who could see the future but no one believed her. Of course, this applies to both Cole and later Dr. Railly. Televisions throughout the film are often showing time-travel or monkey-related programming, which is partially what leads some viewers to believe Cole is delusional. Dr. Strangelove is also called to mind a few times. It is mentioned in passing in a speech given by Dr. Goines, there is the whole theme of a small portion of humanity escaping underground, and a few of the scientists in the future wear dark glasses that resemble Strangelove’s.
When Cole and Dr. Railly are on the run, they hide out in a 24-hour Hitchcock theater (which just like all Hitchcock marathons somehow isn’t showing Rope) and watch Vertigo. This is followed by a scene where Cole wakes up and sees Dr. Railly in a blonde wig, a direct shout-out to the scene in Vertigo where James Stewart has finally gotten Kim Novak to dress like the dead woman he fell in love with. There’s an interesting inversion in that (spoilers for Vertigo I suppose) Cole at this point has accepted the fact that he is perfectly sane, while the scene in Vertigo verifies that Stewart’s character is clearly not mentally healthy.
The scene in the cab where an undercover Cole and Railly find out the truth about the Army of the 12 Monkeys is great, because for a split second we believe things might turn out well for our heroes after all. Their cab driver tells them about the animals being freed from the zoo, we got some swelling music and a gorgeous shot of birds flying away, and suddenly Cole and Railly start laughing, believing everything will be fine. For such a brief moment of euphoria, we believe there could be a happy ending. Then it hits—the virus still will be released. Five billion people still die, even if the Army of the 12 Monkeys has nothing to do with it. I believe it hits Cole when he enters the airport and realizes it is the airport from his dream. Railly realizes it not long after, when she’s waiting in line behind Dr. Peters.
The ending does seem to indicate that the past is not going to change, as Cole is still shot and the virus is still released. The goal ultimately was merely to change the future and not the past, and this is probably done successfully, as one of the future scientists is shown on the plane next to Dr. Peters. However, I’m not so sure that the past is unaffected. I’m possibly reading too much into this, but after the adult Cole is shot, Dr. Railly gets up and looks directly at the boy.
Of the various times we saw James Cole’s memory, this was never shown. Even when he realized that Dr. Railly was the woman in the vision, we never see her looking directly at him. Now, of course no one remembers the face of that random stranger who stared at them in the airport years ago, but if this had happened the first time, wouldn’t he place her face at this point in the memory? I don’t know, it could be nothing, but for me it suggests that the past has changed just a little bit. I always viewed the final scene of the young James Cole leaving the airport with his parents as slightly hopefully, because he still has a life to live and maybe, just maybe, things will be a little different. If something can change even the slightest thing in the past, maybe with a lot of effort the scientists can change the virus from breaking out in the first place.
12 Monkeys is the best kind of thriller. It’s exciting, cerebral, emotional, and gains a lot from re-watches. I’ve watched it probably ten times and there are still little things here-and-there that I’ll catch. Let’s take a look at the final score.
Story (30/30 Points)
There is a lot going on, but it is brought together perfectly. The ambiguities are clearly intentional, and they only add to the psychological themes. It’s a rush, but nothing is skipped over.
Cast (30/30 Points)
Personally, I think this is one of the best acted movies of all time. Everyone is in top form, from Brad Pitt’s maniacal ranting to Bruce Willis’ boyish love of the 20th century. Christopher Plummer redeems himself from that bizarre performance in Somewhere in Time, and David Morse is chilling and calculated as the man who brings down humanity. Still, Madeline Stowe is the stand-out as a psychiatrist coming to terms with the fact that her crazy patient isn’t so crazy.
Experience (25/25 Points)
The main theme is great, sounding both like a theme of insanity and something an organ grinder would play (and organ grinders often have monkeys, hmm). Gilliam’s direction is obviously great, and the way certain things are hidden and obscured really adds to the tension.
Originality (13/15 Points)
It’s clearly inspired by another film, but it mentions that in the credits, making it kind of an adaptation. It’s similar to The Terminator a bit, but it tackles the themes so much better.
FINAL SCORE: 98%
It will probably take at least two viewings to understand the whole thing, but it is definitely worth your time. 12 Monkeys is one of the best thrillers ever made, and it’s my personal favorite Terry Gilliam film. It is definitely a unique voice in the time travel catalog.
Next week, it’s the remake of The Time Machine from 2002.