Twelve Monkeys (1995)
February 15, 2016 10:33 AM - Subscribe

In a future world devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population on the planet.

NYTimes: This apocalyptic nightmare, a vigorous work of dark, surprise-filled science fiction, is much tougher and less fanciful than the director's films have often been. Mr. Gilliam usually writes his own screenplays, but the contributions of a writer (David Peoples) whose credits include "Unforgiven" and "Blade Runner" may have something to do with a leaner style. In any case, "12 Monkeys" is fierce and disturbing, with a plot that skillfully resists following any familiar course. The film's hero fears that he's half-crazy, and for two hours Mr. Gilliam artfully keeps his audience feeling the same way.

SFChronicle: "12 Monkeys" is a grandiose cinematic invention, cleverly turning the present-day urban American world on its ear. It offers an alarming vision of a near future where animals have reclaimed Earth and humans are imprisoned in subterranean catacombs, struggling for survival and answers about what nearly wiped them out in 1997. The movie is based on a 1962 French New Wave film, the 27-minute "La Jetee" by Chris Marker. David Peoples, who helped write "Blade Runner," co-wrote "12 Monkeys" with Janet Peoples.

Salon: In “12 Monkeys,” the hero can’t go back and “fix” the past any more than Stewart does. But light enters the closed room of predetermination when Cole connects with the woman in his dream.

“12 Monkeys” opens with the dream, which we will see over and over in slightly different form until the end, when we loop back and arrive at its source. A little boy’s blue eyes (the shot that opens and closes the film) watch a man get shot in the back at an airport. He tumbles to the ground; a blond woman races to him and screams “No,” dropping to the floor to embrace him. “12 Monkeys” is quite faithful to its source, the 1962 short “La Jetée” by experimental filmmaker Chris Marker, which is a concise, post-apocalyptic loop that also begins and ends with an airport shooting.

Rolling Stone: 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 suggests Alfred Hitchcock's masterwork Vertigo, in which a mentally unbalanced James Stewart tries to turn Kim Novak into a reincarnation of the woman he loves, who has died. Cole and Kathryn hide in a movie-revival house showing Vertigo. 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 dialogue 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. 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.

Roger Ebert: What is Gilliam doing here? He's not simply providing a movie in-joke. The point, I think, is that Cole's own life is caught between rewind and fast-forward, and he finds himself repeating in the past what he learned in the future, and vice versa.

I've seen "12 Monkeys" described as a comedy. Any laughs that it inspires will be very hollow. It's more of a celebration of madness and doom, with a hero who tries to prevail against the chaos of his condition, and is inadequate. This vision is a cold, dark, damp one, and even the romance between Willis and Stowe feels desperate rather than joyous. All of this is done very well, and the more you know about movies (especially the technical side), the more you're likely to admire it. But a comedy it's not. And as an entertainment, it appeals more to the mind than to the senses.


Full movie, in HD.

Looking back at Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys

How does 12 Monkeys hold up in 2015?

How SyFy's 12 Monkeys differs from the movie

SyFy's 12 Monkeys is nothing like Terry Gilliam's film--and that's why I'm interested
posted by MoonOrb (9 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I had a friend in the 90s who worked on this film. Somewhere I have a bunch of prints of the prison and power plant locations that she took. She also told me that Brad Pitt worked Method on this one and smelled like he didn't shower for the entire shoot.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:52 AM on February 15, 2016

I'm really due for a rewatch of this. I've probably seen it 4 times but the last viewing was probably a decade ago. It still feels fresh in my mind though and I doubt I've forgotten a single scene, as they're all pretty memorable.

The first time I saw it I was, probably, 13 (born in 83, saw it on VHS at my dad's). Toward the end of the movie I must have gone to the bathroom or something and I come back to Bruce Willis and Madeline Stowe in a cab on the way to the airport. The cab driver lady mentions traffic and then matter of factly name drops the Army of the 12 Monkeys as causing the traffic jam before explaining they freed some zoo animals. This was so unexpected to me that I'm pretty sure my heart skipped a few beats.

It's not a comedy, but there's definitely some darkly funny parts (the guy who attacked them for 'prostituting' on his turf telling the cops 'I'm an innocent victim in here! I was attacked by a coked up whore and a - a fuckin' crazy dentist!').

And my family were all pretty darn interested in some of the line readings that made it in. "An ad VERtizment" as opposed to "ad verTIZEment". Did the 'scientist' say she was "in insurance" or "an insurance"? And either way was she also a time traveler or actually present in the original timeline?
posted by Green With You at 1:58 PM on February 15, 2016

'in insurance'. As in, she works in the insurance industry.

This is a great film, but Brad Pitt was super annoying in it.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:33 PM on February 15, 2016

"An ad VERtizment" as opposed to "ad verTIZEment"

Who says this? Because I think it's the normal British pronunciation, so it would be normal for some characters (i.e. the European scientist, or Brad Pitt, who is American but has travelled a lot and likes to be quirky) to say it.

And yes, she said she was "in Insurance", implying that she's there to provide for the safety of the future. And she's presumably travelled through time.

I love this film... I also liked SyFy's TV version despite its changes to the story.
posted by mmoncur at 1:29 AM on February 16, 2016

It's not a comedy, but there's definitely some darkly funny parts

I would say that all of Gilliam's films are mixtures of dark serious ideas and surreal humour, and whichever is perceived to be dominant by the viewers determines how the film gets classified. But for any person that has as deep a sense of humour and eye for the ridiculous as he does, there is no way to disentangle the two. This is one of the things that really draws me to his films, and what makes them feel real, despite being so often wildly imaginative.

I love this movie, I notice something new about it with each watch.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:08 AM on February 16, 2016

This is the rare time travel movie that (as far as I can tell) follows its own rules close to 100% of the time. (Not that I require my time travel stories to do that all the time -- I enjoyed Looper a lot, even though, if you stop to think about how time travel is supposed to work in that movie, there are some major things in the plot that don't make any sense.) I like this movie a lot.

I remember Gilliam saying that he hadn't actually seen La Jetée when he made Twelve Monkeys.
posted by jwgh at 6:55 AM on February 16, 2016

By the way, while it's rather audacious to try and follow up this movie with a TV spinoff (kind of like the movie "2010" was a ballsy thing to do) the SyFy series is really quite good in its own television-y way. The first season at least, had some really excellent character arcs built in. As a big admirer of the movie, I was pleasantly surprised.
posted by Naberius at 11:41 AM on February 16, 2016

I remember Gilliam saying that he hadn't actually seen La Jetée when he made Twelve Monkeys.

He admitted that he'd actually seen Neomechanical Tower (upper) chamber, though.
posted by effbot at 9:26 PM on February 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I love this film. The love so many people have for the Fifth Element and make sure to tune into it when it airs, and put it up any time someone asks for great sci-fi, that's how I love this film.

It enthralled me throughout, but somehow what really hit me was the scene where he is successful, then comes back to the present. They're singing to him as they have the fake painting over his 'hospital' bed. They're so happy with what he's done, but he's just disoriented and confused, but in a way that makes it clear he is struggling not to be. He's trying to find firm mental ground, even though they're obviously praising him.

So when he starts laughing like hey, I'm laughing too, this just can't work this way, and then they stick the needle in him and he laughs into tears, I felt that. I tear up each time I watch that part, because I don't know about others, but that is the worst feeling. It sucks trying to find a reality where the truth actually matters. Watching politicians say one thing and contradict it in the next second and not get called on it. Watching people get upset over some poor person stealing a candy bar, then looking the other way when some rich person steals millions. Waking up each morning laughing like this can't be true, right?

And they stick him while he's laughing. How terrible is it to inject someone while they're laughing? You're doing something that your body does naturally, and it makes you feel so good, and here they are and it's not enough that they have him imprisoned underground. It's not enough that he's under restraints in the bed, they have to go physically past the barriers of his body to inject something that makes him stop laughing and turns that into tears. And at that moment in the film, I just really identified with that. Being in the middle of the story and just feeling beaten down each time you wake up and realize you're still in this disconcerting dystopia of a future far too much of the time.
posted by cashman at 8:51 PM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

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