An unknown and lethal virus has wiped out five billion people in 1996. Only 1% of the population has survived by the year 2035, and is forced to live underground. Convict James Cole reluctantly volunteers to be sent back in time to 1996 to gather information about the origin of the epidemic (who he's told was spread by a mysterious "Army of the Twelve Monkeys") and locate the virus before it mutates so that scientists can study it. Unfortunately Cole is mistakenly sent to 1990, six years earlier than expected, and is arrested and locked up in a mental institution, where he meets Dr. Kathryn Railly, a psychiatrist, and Jeffrey Goines, the insane son of a famous scientist and virus expert.
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
. Starring: Joseph Melito
, Bruce Willis
, Jon Seda
, Michael Chance
, Vernon Campbell
, H. Michael Walls
, Bob Adrian
, Simon Jones
, Carol Florence
, Bill Raymond
, Ernest Abuba
, Irma St. Paule
, Madeleine Stowe
. Music by: Paul Buckmaster
Based on Chris Marker's (1962 French) short film "La Jetée," a story told through still photos and voice-over narration, "12 Monkeys" is a very stylish movie with many artisticly-linked attributes (this not solely referring to the movie itself - which is very artistic in its own modern way, but rather, to objects within the movie). One example of what I mean would have to be the influence of Lebbeus Woods' 1987 drawing "Neomechanical Tower (Upper) Chamber," which obviously inspired the look of the chair in the year 2035.
Now before I actually get to the movie review itself, let me just give credit where credit is due. First, to Terry Gilliam, director of this semi-sci-fi flick. I mean, after directing such let downs (to me, anyways) as "Brazil" and "Monty Python," this venture definitely brought you back into a good status quo with me. Secondly, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Willis, usually a hideous actor (with the exception of two films: "The Sixth Sense," and well, this one), gave a very unexpected, riveting performance. Pitt, on the other hand, is a great actor, in my opinion (with such movie titles as "Se7en," "Fight Club," and a movie in which he played himself in, "Being John Malkovich," to his credit). However, this movie, for which he earned a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination, by far, outdid any of those other ones. So to both of you, congratulations! And last but not least, credit is also due to screenwriters David Peoples, and his wife, Janet, who took Chris Marker's evocative film and enriched it with their own stirring vision of a future haunted by the past.
Now, as for the movie itself, it's interesting to say the least. The year is 2035. Nearly 40 years earlier, a killer virus spared only 1% of the planet's population.
James Cole (Bruce Willis) plays a prison convicttime traveler from this dystopian future who "volunteers" to be sent back to 1996 in order to allow his virus-ravaged world to move back to the surface. He cannot change the events of his past. But rather, all he has to do is bring back a pure sample of the virus so his people can overcome it and become the rulers of the planet.
However, time travel in the year 2035 isn't perfect yet (probably because they have "ex-insurance agents" in charge of it). The first time he is sent back, he ends up in the year 1990, where he is promptly put in an asylum. He then meets two of the people who play key roles in the destruction of the human life on this planet: his psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe) and co-asylum inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt).
The plot is set up so it looks as though Cole is responsible for Doomsday. His ramblings about the virus influences Goines' plans, once his father (the Nobel Prize-winning virologist whose lab coincidentally keeps an ample stock of the deadly virus at hand) gets him out of the asylum. Goines then goes on to become the leader of the "Army of the 12 Monkeys," who the people in 2035 believe are the ones responsible for unleashing the virus.
Meanwhile, the scientists in Cole's future bring him back and have another go at putting him in the right year. This time, after a couple of bumps (most notably one in WWI where Cole is shot in the leg), he ends up in the right year where he once again ends up with Railly and manages to convince her of his story. However, Railly's psychiatry and the continuous time travel appears to have taken its toll on Cole, and when he is brought back to 2035 and sent back to 1996 again, he is convinced that he is just a mental patient with delusions about the future. This time, however, Railly convinces him otherwise and together they try to stop the "Army of the 12 Monkeys.
History can lie. Cole discovers this (in 1996) and passes this on to the "future" (2035) and becomes a hero. At this point, there are numerous options to end the story after tying up the lose ends. But the story is left very open-ended and the issue of whether there are more loops in the "future" and the question whether the "past" can really be changed is left unexplained and unanswered.
Viewers of this movie may recall a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode where the Enterprise is caught in a time loop of destruction, and each time the crew travels back through time, they experience a deja vu sensation that finally allows them to break out of the destructive loop. The memory Kathryn Railly experiences, that she has seen James Cole before, could be one such instance. Thus, viewers who like happy endings may wish to imagine another loop where Railly and Cole actually manage to save the world. Viewers who like complete endings may wish to imagine that the people in 2035 were eventually able to go back to the surface with Cole's help. Cynical viewers may opt for an ending where nothing changes and everything the people in 2035 do, ends up being futile.
Finally, for those of you who are familiar with the Everett multiverse interpretation of quantum theory, each of the contradictory events in the movie could be happening in a different universe. For example, there may be a universe where Cole survives and lives happily everafter with Railly, one where Cole survives but is too late to stop the virus, and one where Cole is never sent back into time.
Moving on... if you pay close attention throughout the entire film, you will notice similarities between the "past" and "future" that can't all be explained as mere coincidences. Examples of this, include: (1) James is a prisoner in the past and in the future. (2) Five scientists sitting behind a long table send Cole off from the "future" to find the virus, while five psychiatrists sitting behind a long table in the "present" evaluate Cole's condition. And finally, (3) the guards from the past (one Negro and one Caucasian) bathe Cole in an eerily similar way to that of the way that the guards bathed him in the future (also one Negro and one Caucasian).
What-may-or-may-not-be COLE'S VISION of the "future" looks flawed and twisted. The technology looks absurd and counter-productive (a metal ball of viewing screens?). The dialog of the scientists is... odd, to say the least. Also, exotic animals are still alive and they've been roaming the streets of 2035 Philadelphia for the last 38 years. Pay attention at the beginning and end of the movie and you'll see what I mean.
As for James' "only" dream, during the movie we are repeatedly reverted back to it. This dream is the soul of the film. Gilliam returns to it three times, adding more details until the dream links all the pieces in the puzzle, which includes the remarkable David Morse as a researcher with more than a passing interest in Kathryn. Cole's confusing of illusion and reality screams Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece "Vertigo," in which a mentally unbalanced James Stewart tries to turn Kim Novak into a reincarnation of the woman he loves, who he believes has died. In the spirit of irony, however, in one scene from "12 Monkeys," Cole and Kathryn hide in a movie-revival house showing this very film. The 1958 film, now yellowed with age, shows Novak in the Muir Woods using her finger to trace the small space on the rings of a cut redwood that encompasses the years of her life. Bernard Herrmann's haunting "Vertigo" score plays over the dialog between Cole and Kathryn as they leave the theater in an attempt to carve out their own small space in life. Rarely has one film referenced another with such poetic grace.
Much like "Vertigo," "12 Monkeys" rewards multiple viewings. You might say it even demands them. For all the fun, fright, and hypnotic romance that Gilliam delivers, he digs deepest into fatalistic themes that usually scare away the crowds at the box office. Go with Gilliam anyway. Solving the riddle of "12 Monkeys" is an exhilarating challenge.
And if after watching it numerous times, you still long for some uniqueness in your life... then check out its soundtrack. The theme song for the movie is composed solely through the use of an accordion, something not often heard on movie soundtracks.
All in all, I would give the movie 5 stars, 2 thumbs up, and a 10 out of 10... thus, equalling a perfect rating. Great stars + a relatively good director + a compelling story (with depth) + a multi-dimensional ending that can obviously be interpreted in many ways = ONE HELL OF A BLOCKBUSTER NIGHT!
Review by Chemical Switchboard from the Internet Movie Database.