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Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: 12 Monkeys (1995)

* * * 1/2

Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt

If film and literature are anything to go by, the future is the last place you want to be. It's always bleak and horrifying. 12 Monkeys is no different - in fact, if the bleak and horrifying scale runs to 10, it's about a 9. It is also, however, very good and very entertaining.

The film begins in the future, long after a virus has ravaged humankind and contaminated the earth's surface, forcing the survivors underground until a cure can be developed. Criminals are routinely "volunteered" to venture up to the surface to collect specimens and to observe and one such convict, James Cole (Bruce Willis), proves so useful at this task that he's given the opportunity to travel back to the past. His reward upon his return will be a pardon and his mission is obtain a pure sample of the virus - there is no hope that he can do anything to stop the virus; all he can do is bring the scientists of the future something they can work with so that humanity can be restored to the earth's surface.

The virus spreads across the earth in 1997 and so Cole is sent back to 1996. The only problem is that time travel technology hasn't been perfected yet so he's actually sent back to 1990, where he promptly ends up first in police custody and then in a mental institution. There he meets two key people: his psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), and fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). He's eventually transported back to the future and given another opportunity to travel to 1996, though once again he goes too far back, this time ending up in the middle of a trench during WWI. When he finally does get to 1996, he kidnaps Kathryn and takes her in search of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, a terrorist organization with Goines at its head. Kathryn believes he's delusional but as they proceed further on their journey, she begins to realize that he really is from the future and that she has to find a way to help him.

Directed by Terry Gilliam (aka The Director with the Worst Luck Ever), 12 Monkeys has a very distinct and deeply unsettling look and feel. The future is grim and dark (as it must be since it's subterranean), but the past really isn't depicted much differently. Society already seems to be in the midst of decay before the virus even hits - there's a grittiness to this film that I quite liked compared to the sleekness of most science fiction films. The choices that Gilliam makes throughout, particularly the decision to film some scenes at an angle, go a long way towards creating the off-kilter feel that permeates the story. This is a director's movie through and through and Gilliam is a real vissionary.

The screenplay, written by David and Janet Peoples and inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 short film Le Jette, is strong enough, though I think that it tips its hand too early and starts telegraphing the ending pretty much from the beginning. Gilliam's direction and the acting - particularly from Pitt - make up for any shortcomings however. Pitt is always at his best when playing weirdoes and psychos and though he comes incredibly close to over-acting here, his complete commitment to the character makes it work. His twitchy, hyper-active performance also plays well against the more subdued performances by Willis and Stowe. All in all 12 Monkeys holds up very well and is eminently enjoyable.

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