Turn Back the Clock

Science Fiction

12 Monkeys

Distributed by Universal Studios

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            When I first saw 12 Monkeys, I didnít like it.  The movie wasnít what I was expecting and I found myself a tad disappointed.  But I was a different age then.  When I watched the movie a few years later, I realized that the first time I had seen it, I had missed a great many intricacies that made the movie more interesting and I realized that my initial assessment of the film was rushed - I hadnít paid close enough attention.  After viewing this film a number of times since then, I have come to the conclusion that this is a thinking manís film, one that requires a decent amount of thought to define the film and one that is also thought-provoking.

            12 Monkeys begins in post-apocalyptic Earth.  The world was not destroyed by nuclear weaponry or war, but by one single virus, set loose into the population in the year 1996, that mutated and destroyed the Earthís human population.   Only an extremely small percent of the population survived, hiding underground, far away from the toxic air.  But the leftover population is not dormant.  Indeed, they have come up with a plan that can make their future a bit more certain.

            Prison convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) is chosenÖor rather volunteeredÖto go on a mission.  Noting that Cole is extremely observant and of hardy stock, the scientists of this underground world want to send Cole back to 1996 in an effort to discover who exposed the world to the virus.  Their plan is to send their scientists after this individual or individuals and gain access to a pure strain which they will use to create a cure. 

            Unfortunately, the first time they send Cole back, they make a mistake and he ends up ďlandingĒ in the year 1990.  His confusion and violent behavior land him in jail.  His ramblings while there persuades Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) to admit him to a county-run psychiatric center.  Despite all of the ways he tries to explain his dilemma, no one believes Cole.  A fellow patient in the ward, Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), takes a liking to Cole and, after hearing Coleís tale of an Earthís population ravaged by a man-made virus, decides to aid him in an escape.  Cole is captured, medicated and placed in restraints, but by now the scientists in his world have realized their error and pull him back.

            He is sent out again and makes a stop in World War I, pausing long enough to get shot in the leg before landing in 1996.  Upon arrival, he searches for Dr. Railly, the only person in this world who seemed willing to help him.  He drags her along as he hunts down former psychiatric patient Jeffrey Goines, the leader of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, an organization believed to have released the virus into the world.  At first, Dr. Railly is reluctant to believe anything that Cole says, believing they are delusions his mind has created to deal with a reality he wants to escape, but as things Cole talks about begin to come true, Dr. Railly is convinced that there may be some truth to Coleís apocalyptic vision of the future.  So, of course, he disappears again, pulled back by the scientists.

            By the time he sees Railly again, the wheels have been set in motion - the virus will soon be deployed - but Cole is no longer certain of his own reality.  He wants to believe what Dr. Railly has repeatedly told him - that all of these stories he has told about the future are delusions.  Cole wants to live here, in a world where sunlight, beauty and freedom still exists.  Can Dr. Railly convince Cole that he is not insane quickly enough to stop the Army of the 12 Monkeys from completing their mission?  Or is the worldís history doomed to repeat itself?

            On the surface, 12 Monkeys is a science fiction tale of a post apocalyptic world and one manís attempt to save it through time travel, but if you really pay attention to the film, youíll find that it is so much more.  Despite the fact that the movie opens with this world of the future and we see Cole being chosen for a mission to the past, one still finds themselves questioning Coleís sanity.  After all, itís not like Terminator, where we actually see the results of Kyle Reese being sent back into time.  One minute Cole is in 2035, and the next he is in 1990 and later 1996.  Could it be that the man is really insane and we have been sucked into his delusion?

            If you listen to the ramblings of Jeffrey Goines, he does sound completely insane, but when you really pay attention to what he is actually saying, he makes a great deal of sense.  And when Dr. Railly begins to research some of the things Cole has been telling her and attempts to put a stop to the wheels that are already in motion, she begins to exhibit irrational behavior.  Again, we find ourselves wondering who is sane and who is insane in this film until we reach the climactic scenes at the end.

            There is also a tale of good vs. evil in this movie.  Who are really the bad guys in this film?  We know that the virus was released by the ultimate in bad, but are there really any truly good guys in the film.  Think about it.  Cole is serving a twenty-five year prison sentence when he is selected to go on his mission.  He is subject to fits of rage and violence.  Thus, although he means well on his mission, he is not perfect.  In fact, none of the characters are.  Dr. Railly starts off with good intentions, but in the end falls out of the morally ethical path.  Goines seems evil, but doesnít he really try to do good, despite his methods?  And the scientists who set this all in motion.  Their reasons may be good, but their execution is morally flawed, forcing prisoners to do their dirty work and promising them pardons if they succeed, all the while knowing that these prisoners may never come back alive.

            Then, there is the whole idea that the future is set and not always in motion as some believe.  It brings to mind the thought that some events may actually be fated to take place.  If that is the case, any attempt to change that history will still end in the same result in the future. 

            The acting in 12 Monkeys is phenomenal, and each of the actors does an excellent job in making the film and its characters believable.  Not being a big Bruce Willis fan, I still found myself rooting for his character and hoping that he achieved some sort of happiness in the end.  Madeleine Stowe has always been a terrific actress and she had no problem carrying this role.  But it was Brad Pitt that really stole the show in his supporting role, making us truly believe that he was utterly paranoid and antisocial.  As I discovered when watching a documentary on the making of the film, Pitt did a great deal of studying up on the mentally ill and their behaviors and the work shows.

            The DVD version of the film that I recently purchased contains some of the usual extras, like director and producer commentaries, the theatrical trailer and production notes, but the most interesting extra was a documentary of the making of the film, The Hamster Factor & Other Tales of 12 Monkeys.  The documentary is long and can be a bit tedious at times, but you can learn a great deal about the film and its creation from inception to its premiere.  For one thing, I hadnít known that test audience hadnít liked the original film, scoring it rather low.  Many other production teams would have taken that to mean that major changes had to be made with the film, but Director Terry Gilliam and his crew chose not to do so.  They had watched the audienceís reaction to 12 Monkeys while it was playing and gauged the film by that and by they way the director and his film felt about the final product rather by going with the scoring.  Fortunately, they didnít change a thing and box office numbers would soon prove them right.  Of course, box office numbers mean nothing to me - I believe that they did the right thing because the movie turned out so well.

            In summary, I may not have liked it the first time I saw it, but now I find that 12 Monkeys was a well-thought out film that is a must have for any movie fanís collection.  This is a thinking manís film, so some maturity is required to thoroughly enjoy the film and all of its subtleties.  Iím not saying you have to be up there in age to understand the film, but kids and teenagers will probably not enjoy 12 Monkeys until they see it again a bit later in life.  Take my word for it, 12 Monkeys is one of those films that grows on you with age.


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