'Twelve Monkeys' was released in 1995 and was directed by ex-Python Terry Gilliam. An obviously talented comedian, Gilliam has also proved himself to be an outstanding director and gifted writer. With previous feature length movies including 'Brazil 'and 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen', he has also shown a fondness for distinctly quirky pieces. With his many years working on surreal sketches with Cleese et. al this is not surprising. Having obviously gained the respect of many with his previous feature releases, two Hollywood heavyweights basically worked for free on this movie, such was their enthusiasm to collaborate with this visionary director. Fresh from a surprising and impressive comeback in 'Pulp Fiction', which catapulted him back to the levels of stardom he enjoyed following the release of 'Die Hard', Bruce Willis plays James Cole. Brad Pitt, bathing in the then recent successes of 'Seven' and 'Interview with the Vampire', plays Jeffrey Goines. Madeline Stowe ('Last of the Mohicans') joins these two fine lead men, playing Kathryn Railly.
The year is 2035. James Cole is a criminal housed in a minimalistic prison in a post-apocalyptic vision of the future. Mankind has been all but eradicated and forced underground by an ever evolving and deadly virus. Plagued by dreams which involve a long haired man being shot as a blonde woman rushes to his aid, Cole seeks a pardon for his crimes by volunteering for experiments which the “underworld” scientists wish carried out. Venturing to the contaminated surface to collect specimens for examination, Cole proves himself competent in carrying out these dangerous expeditions which many refuse to go on. Seeking to engineer a cure for the virus, the scientists have been sending volunteers back in time to trace its origins. Viewing Cole as mentally stable enough to qualify for this advanced programme (and to repay his debt to society), they send him back in time with instruction to locate key members of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. This guerrilla group were the ones responsible for unleashing the doomsday virus which has threatened mankind with extinction.
Arriving in 1990, some six years prior to the planned date, Cole is immediately incarcerated following a run in with local law enforcement. With copious drooling and random mindless outbursts, it's obvious that his mind has been damaged by the time-travel experience. A kind-hearted psychiatrist (Kathryn Railly) is called to the scene and almost immediately develops a connection with the semi-comatose time traveller. Railly is an aficionado of human prophecy, well studied in the field of apocalyptic premonition and thus can identify with his seemingly impossible claims. However, the authorities disregard both Kathryn's defence and Cole's explanation depicting his trip from the future and the fate which mankind faces. Sectioned in a decrepit and ancient mental asylum (which is a text book asylum akin to the one in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'), Cole meets with Jeffrey Goines for the first time. An insane, twitching madman, Goines is a ticking time bomb of hyperactivity. Leaping from bed to bed, causing a disruption which descends the asylum into chaos, he passionately rants to Cole about the evils of modern science and claims that his father is God. Goines plots to escape and after a failed attempt, Cole is locked securely in an isolated cell, punished for his involvement in the half baked bid for freedom. Luckily, the scientists (who have been monitoring Cole from the future to ensure the success of their plan) pluck him from 1990 and plonk him in the latter half of 1996 as originally planned. He locates Railly (the only friendly face he knows), kidnaps her and takes up the trail of the elusive Army of the Twelve Monkeys.
'Monkeys' really is a unique and engrossing movie. The plot is multi-layered and engaging, steeped in intelligent theological concepts (such as the seven golden vials of God's wrath) with scientific grounding (a contradiction but somehow it works). There are also plenty of splashes of black humour throughout. In what I would class as his first fully commercial Hollywood production, Gilliam has once again proved himself to be a stellar director. Aside from 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' (one of my all time favs), I would regard 'Monkeys' as his finest work. He wholly and convincingly creates a post apocalyptic world where mankind has been all but wiped from the face of the planet, a fate which was self-inflicted through tampering with the balance of nature. The imagery in this future Earth is stark and bleak, a tone which also surfaces in the “present day” 1990/1996 scenes (although obviously not as pronounced). Appearing moody and industrial, there are definitely shades of his previous efforts on 'Brazil' with regards to the entire feel of the piece. The attention to detail, especially on some of the future world contraptions (more accurately described as “retro-technology”) is stunning and really exposes Gilliam as a perfectionist. Lighting and unusual camera angles are used to good effect, enhancing the emotions of the primary characters and adding to the chaos of the Cole/Goines scenario. The pace is hectic with Cole leaping back and forth through time with increasing frequency (resulting in loss of brain cells) as the movie progresses. Gilliam has skilfully created a multi-layered microcosm, centered around a single flashback, which gradually comes together to form an intricate and engrossing storyline. Although on occasion the time-jumps can lead to some confusion regarding what's real and what's imagined (which I'm sure was the intention), the overall core of the plot is never that difficult to follow. Not to wander too far into the realms of fantasy, the piece is kept grounded with constant (semi-)plausible explanations as to what has happened to the human race since the release of the deadly virus. This is a critical factor in a mainstream movie such as this one and prevents 'Monkeys' from falling into the “wacky but watchable” category.
Fast paced, intelligent and carrying strong themes of mortality, fate and the respect which mankind must show Mother Nature, 'Monkeys' is thoroughly enjoyable. The performances from Willis and especially Pitt (for which he received an Oscar nomination) add depth to the entire production. Willis proves that he can play more than just a one dimensional tough guy with his almost schizophrenic portrayal of Cole. However, he really is blown off the screen during the mental asylum scenes with Pitt, even if his character is drugged up to the eyeballs and semi-comatose! Pitt on the other hand, during these scenes, is an unpredictable hyper-active maniac. With nervous twitches, violent political outbursts and his right eye askew, his portrayal of the mentally unhinged and socially dangerous Goines is some of his finest work. I feel that this performance, along with his previous efforts in 'Kalifornia', prevented Pitt from falling into the “pretty boy” pigeon hole which threatened to seriously restrict his career. Thankfully with choices such as this and 'Snatch', he has proved himself to be a fine actor and not limited in his capabilities, akin to fellow handsome thespian Johnny Depp. While utilising their acting skills to the fullest potential, neither man is abused or allowed slip into the mundane, auto-pilot type performance which can strike even the finest actor on occasion. Gilliam, in fact, gave Willis a list of “Willis acting clichés”, such as the steely blue-eyed look, which he warned would not be tolerated! All of the extras involved, especially those from the asylum scenes, are always convincing and never get carried away. Christopher Plummer ('Inside Man') also pops up in a support role as Jeffrey's father.
'Monkeys' is one of those movies which only comes around once in a while (or whenever Gilliam decides to make another!) and really exposes other big blockbusters for the one-dimensional, shallow pieces that they are. Normally these so-so releases are given praise that they do not deserve, simply because there is nothing worthwhile to compare against at the time of release. This highly stylised and unique movie, touched with shades of 'Vertigo' (which is referenced throughout), offers sci-fi; romance; action and black comedy all in one handy package. With a carefully crafted, perfectly executed plot (which matches 'Donnie Darko' in the innovative storytelling department) and featuring highly engaging performances from both Willis/Pitt, this movie comes highly recommended.
Our Review Ethos