Review: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Director: Terry Gilliam

****

Some films pay homage, some films get remade and some are like Twelve Monkeys. Chris Marker’s little masterpiece La Jetée gets an expectedly downbeat redux in Terry Gilliam’s film, and proves a good template for remakes/adaptations by being incredibly faithful to the source material. Add in Bruce Willis, and you’re on to a winner.

La Jetée itself is probably one of the biggest proponents of that great cinematic device, the dystopian future. As in Marker’s short, most of mankind has been wiped out by a virus and the survivors that remain have been forced underground to survive. As seen in Brazil, Gilliam is a dab hand at blending the futuristic, the dystopian and the chaotic and, much like that film, the future of Twelve Monkeys is well realized though aesthetically grim. Amongst the futuristic refugees is James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner who can reduce his sentence by signing up for a time travel experiment and bringing back a sample of the virus to synthesize a cure. When the plan goes awry and Cole ends up in 1990, he is certified as insane when he tries to explain himself. Cole ends up in a mental institution under the watch of Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe), and where he befriends fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Pitt excels in a barrage of paranoid ramblings and nervous ticks, while Stowe’s initial cynicism melting into care for Cole makes her lack of a consistent career since all the more strange. Meanwhile, Willis turns in one of his best performances as the wronged and battered protagonist. After a few more failed attempts, Cole eventually ends up in 1996 and, with Railly’s help, discovers the truth about the virus and the group who released it, known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, now led by Goines and bent on destruction.

La Jetée was a downbeat film, but it overcame it with beautifully simple filmmaking technique and a runtime short enough to prevent the audience getting too down. Twelve Monkeys does get a little maudlin, but the movies have been telling us for years that the future is done for, so why worry? The future is grim, but Gilliam cleverly doesn’t make the present look much better. The virus was stolen from the laboratory owned by Goines’ father (Christopher Plummer), and once again our present selves become the architects of our future destruction. It’s not terribly optimistic, and key plot turns sometimes hinge on coincidence or happenstance, but Twelve Monkeys is brilliantly brash and bizarre, honouring Marker’s mini-opus whilst making a mark all of its own. Monkey see, monkey do, do see Monkeys.

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