12 Monkeys (VHS, 1997, Widescreen)

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“oozing into the ears of all those poor sane people”

Sep 5, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A fabulous, paradoxical puzzle, with great set design and some funny dialogue.

Cons:Confusing on the first viewing. I think it aims to be deeper than it is.

The Bottom Line: Six billion people can't be wrong. Especially after some nutcase kills them all.

Apocalypses are fun. No, no, not the real Apocalypse; the real end of the world will be pretty much a bummer. But until then, apocalypses offer storytellers the chance to wipe slates clean and settle scores with enemies. For fundamentalist Christians, the best-selling Left Behind novels send the reader straight to Heaven to watch while a redemptive hero fights the Satanic forces of the United Nations back in the hell that is earth. For worried peaceniks, Stephen King’s the Stand wags a finger at the military, warns us about Germs Man Was Not Meant to Know, and lets the human race start over without traffic jams or telemarketers. For Bob Dole when he was challenging Bill Clinton’s re-election as president, Independence Day was the model of a “family values” movie, a logical choice since in it the president, first lady, and 2/3 of Congress die violent deaths. For young wiseacres who want an excuse not to study, Doctor Strangelove proves that you should never trust anyone over 30, especially if there’s three of him (which there probably is, since people in power are all alike). Yet for the authors of superhero tales, the apocalypse is the all-purpose threat that justifies saving people for all their flaws: or, as a Season Five Buffy episode had it,

Giles: “This would mean the end of the world”.
Buffy, Xander, Willow, Anya: “AGAIN!?!?”

Yes, the end of the world can serve all agendas: radical, reactionary, petulant, conservative, desperately bored. In 12 Monkeys, a 1995 movie, director Terry Gilliam and writers Chris Marker and David Webb Peoples vote for “petulant”. We know what’s going to happen: James Cole, played by Bruce Willis, is being sent back to 1996 from thirty years in the future, long after a virus has killed 99% of humanity and driven the survivors underground. It’s already happened, it happened when Cole was a kid: he can’t stop it. He just needs to know how and why a callow bunch of twenty-somethings called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys arranged to release this virus. And when, by mistake, he is sent back to 1990, where he has no allies, he is placed in the same mental institution as the guy whose idea it may have been. Some coincidence, huh?

Maybe it’s not a coincidence; maybe it’s cause and effect. I’ve watched 12 Monkeys twice, and am pleased how little I could spoil things for you. Sure, there’s a source of plot tension where Cole is persuaded that the virus’s release _can_ be prevented, and that he must try; maybe he succeeds, or maybe predestination bites his species in the asss. Watch and find out; it’s your species too, silly. But the original source of tension – “where did a bunch of animal-rights hippies get the idea to wipe out humanity?” – is cleverly ambigious even at the end, just like real life. I see three completely worked-out routes by which the human race of 1996 is doomed, and in two of those three, the timeline works like this: the human race is destroyed entirely because – thirty years after the human race was destroyed – a man was sent back into the past to find out why the human race was destroyed. Screwy? Random? Petty? Yep, but nothing like it will be if he prevents it all.

I could and perhaps should rate 12 Monkeys as a five-star movie, given how brilliantly its premise is executed. James Cole’s underground future is almost as disturbingly rendered as Gilliam’s visual masterpiece Brazil: the massed scientists with creepy faces from the “She Blinded Me with Science” video, the grim dungeons and airlocks, the disturbingly cheap and jury-rigged time tunnels. Cole himself shivers madly, tied up in fetal positions or hosed down in the showers by guards: I understand the principle that showing Bruce Willis’s naked butt twice is worth money, but when he’s that grimy and manhandled, he should worry about whoever gets too turned on. Willis’s acting, though, is as clear an asset as his nudity isn’t: his transitions between hope and sullenness, striving and self-disgust, make perfect sense for a convict sent to do an interesting but useless job among people who, according to his memory, are all dead.

Madeleine Stowe makes a fine love interest in a plot that, unlike so many thrillers, needs its love interest. As Dr. Katharine Railly, she’s the first one sent to calm down a chained James Cole in 1990, after he’s switched from feral rage (injuring five mental-hospital guards, two of them critically) to a silence nearer to catatonia. She’s pretty, and she’s sympathetic, and she calls him “James” rather than Cole, which no one has done in years (by his timeline). She also knows him from somewhere. Later Christopher Meloni, the smarmy self-satisfied bald guy from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, will be accusing her of Stockholm Syndrome: “How is it that, whenever we catch up to a kidnapping victim, she always wants to tell us what a nice, misunderstood guy her kidnapper is?” But then, how many kidnappers relax so sweetly at the radio’s selections: “I love the music of the 20th century”, Cole gushes. And how many have such unshakeable common sense? “Philadephia?”, Dr. Railly objects, when he tells her to drive there. “That’s more than a hundred miles away!” “I know”, Cole replies, “that’s why I can’t walk there”.

Because she is a love interest, Dr. Railly can make Cole want to save humanity, and she can make a hotel check-in clerk jump to slimy conclusions about why the two of them need a room for two hours. But because she is an academic, she knows screwy stuff, and one of the three explanations I see for the deadly plague involves her, not Cole, as the catalyst of doom.

All this isn’t even to mention Brad Pitt. If I’d known that Brad Pitt had made a previous movie with Fight Club director David Fincher, but had zero information about which movie, I’d’ve guessed this one. As Jeffrey Goines, Brad isn’t even an expression of some other dude’s insanity this time: he’s just insane, gleefully hopping mad. Dressed in boyish clothes, he’s so full of facial tics and abrupt gestures and screechy proclamations that it’s hard to remember how many women swoon over him. And yet, sometimes you’d swear his monologues got sent back into the past from Fight Club. “There's the television. It's all right there – all right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. Commercials! We're not productive anymore. We don't make things anymore. It's all automated. What are we _for_ then? We're consumers, Jim. Yeah. Okay, okay. Buy a lot of stuff, you're a good citizen. But if you don't buy a lot of stuff – toilet paper, new cars, computerized yo-yos, electrically-operated sexual devices, servo systems with brain-implanted headphones, screwdrivers with miniature built-in radar devices, voice-activated computers – what are you then, I ask you? What? Mentally ill”. Or his primer on insanity for new admittee Cole: “Look, most of the people here are perfectly sane. I mean, I don’t know you, you might be as crazy as a (hee-hee!) loon. But that’s not why you’re here!”.

Of course, this is the same Jeffrey Goines who hops across the beds and yells to the therapists: “Sorry. Sorry. I got a little agitated. The thought of escape crossed my mind, and then suddenly - suddenly - suddenly I felt like bending the f---ing bars back, ripping the goddamn window frames and eating them - yes, eating them! Leaping, leaping, leaping! Colonics for everyone! All right! You dumbasses. I'm a mental patient. I'm _supposed_ to act out!”

The speeches are entertaining, and by no means dumb. But Jeffrey Goines is also right when he says that his father is a very important man who can get him out. And if Goines turns his attention later to animal rights, well, there are college students who enjoy a bit of hopping and speechmaking. Pretend armies make you feel good.

So you’re free to reject my impulse in giving 12 Monkeys “only” four stars, especially since I still recommend it. My one qualm – and it extends to quite a lot of Terry Gilliam’s work, from the Monty Python movies on – is that he seems to think he’s much deeper than he is. 12 Monkeys takes two watchings to really follow, even for my wife, who’s very sharp about following difficult plots. And yet, all that effort just gets us entertainment: an infinitely better movie than Armageddon, but no more important. It seems to think it’s “about” mental institutions, and animal rights, and activism, and the dangers of unchecked science, just as Brazil seemed to think it was “about” bureaucracy and government oppression. But to do that, it would have to feed us insights that we’d miss if an 11-year-old chopped them into soundbites.

I enjoyed Goines’s rantings, and I enjoyed fellow patient L.J.’s solemn psychobabble explanation of his delusions, and I didn’t mind Cole’s Matrix-y worries about what is reality and what is dream. But don’t tell me the research into mental illness went beyond watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while drunk, and I doubt Brad Pitt was around even for that. If you want us to believe that animal rights activists would end our world, try to see their side of things: for all that PETA’s comparison of the modern meat industry to Auchwitz was offensive and counter-productive, for example, it actually holds up pretty well. We herd millions of conscious beings into torture camps, keeping them in pain and filth until we slaughter them; the people planning to wipe us out for that should at least get their villain’s say on why they’re right to do it. Same goes for the scientists making plague viruses: at least the Stand, or Kate Wilhelm’s Welcome Chaos, had the good grace to understand why they might be asked to do that.

If, of course, that’s even what’s happening. 12 Monkeys is exciting, and tense, and funny. It makes a great puzzle, and I’m not telling you all the clues to its solution. Did it want to be something more? I suspect so. Did it need to be? No.

Recommend this product? Yes

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