“We Did It.” – the Army of the Twelve Monkeys
Pessimism is all-encompassing, but it is richly essential. 12 Monkeys (1995) is a riveting time travel thriller which features Bruce Willis as a somber, likely schizophrenic hero. It first starts in a subterranean future where people hide from the plague that took out billions on the surface of the Earth, then a loony bin circa 1990, then with an urgent relationship with Madeleine Stowe as a psychiatrist whom he kidnaps. “You won’t think I’m crazy when people start dying next month,” he forewarns. Brad Pitt is the mental patient turned animal rights activist with delusions of grandeur, assuming the role of cult founder – possibly the carrier of germ chemical warfare.
In his first trip back in time, Willis’ character James Cole has a mission to track down the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. But they’re not active yet in 1990, he acknowledges, explaining to a psychiatric board that they will unleash a killer virus in 1996. He was transported to the wrong year, he explains. If only he could explain himself better – Cole has the mind of a person encaged since adolescence. With an inevitable violent temper he is locked up in solitary confinement, only to disappear into thin air. Reemerging in 1996, he forces Dr. Railly (Stowe) allegedly at gunpoint to drive him from Baltimore to Philadelphia.
When we see the post-apocalypse future the sets, machines and particles are as convincing as any you would find in a film like this. Terry Gilliam is the director, famous for “Brazil” (1985) and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998) – and he is a perfect match for a story enmeshed with bizarre Armageddon portents. Stowe, as the doctor, is the rational voice of reason whose primary fear is not mankind but of Cole and his mental instability. While on route, however, Cole possibly convinces Dr. Railly of predictions that serve as omens. They began in fear of each other, and strangely, with an end of the world scenario looming Cole and Dr. Railly generate a pitiful kind of love.
Gilliam’s film is based on the 1962 French film “La Jetée” which is mostly made up of still freeze frames and one surprising moving image – the 28-minute short film was a landmark in experimental filmmaking. The ingenious screenplay of “12 Monkeys” by David and Janet Peoples (“Blade Runner”) fills in as a dramatized prelude of the 1962 Chris Marker film (not so much a remake as it often is mistaken as). It’s a neat companion piece, but the longer, fleshier, flashier “12 Monkeys” is better. Trickier, thought-provoking… the first time I saw it I had a couple of whopping “Aha” moments while I walked back to the car and reflected back on what I saw.
The current “Looper” is probably the best time travel thriller since “12 Monkeys.” They both say damn to the past for sake of some mastermind’s idea for a perfect future. But really, “12 Monkeys” is tops for the time-warp genre, followed next perhaps by 1979’s “Time After Time.”
129 Minutes. Rated R.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / TIME TRAVEL / MASTERPIECE VIEWING FOR ANYTIME OF YEAR
Film Cousins: “Vertigo” (1958); “La Jetée” (1962, France); “Time After Time” (1979); “Primer” (2004).