A world-ending-virus can only be cured through the power of time-travel in Gilliam’s twisty, paradox time loop
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Bruce Willis (James Cole), Madeleine Stowe (Dr Kathryn Railly), Brad Pitt (Jeffrey Goines), Christopher Plummer (Dr Leland Goines), David Morse (Dr Peters), Jon Seda (Jose), Christopher Meloni (Lt Halperin), Frank Gorshin (Dr Fletcher), Bob Adrian (Geologist), Simon Jones (Zoologist), Carol Florence (Astrophysicist), Bill Raymon (Microbiologist)
2035 and the world is a plastic-coated hell, where what remains of mankind huddle below the Earth in rudimentary, environmentally controlled, airtight refuges. The surface is a dream, now home to a deadly virus that wiped out 99% of the population. That virus was unleashed in Philadelphia in 1996: nothing can stop that. But time travel can help the scientists of 2035 gain a sample of the original pre-mutation virus. They believe it was unleashed by an organisation called “The 12 Monkeys”. Track the organisation in the past and find an original sample of the virus. Easy right?
Wrong. Time travel messes with your mind, making it hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. The travellers are penal “volunteers”. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is selected as he has a photographic memory and a strong memory from 1996 of witnessing a Philadelphia airport shooting, that will help send him back. However, he’s flung back to 1990 and thrown into an asylum, treated by Dr Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and sharing a room with environmentalist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Rescued and correctly sent to 1996, can Cole convince Railly he’s telling the truth and track Goines who has become the leader of the 12 Monkeys?
12 Monkeys is one of the most intriguing time-travel films ever made – and its future, ripped apart with plague, seems chillingly closer today. It puts a vulnerable, scared person at its centre – and makes him a dangerous, inarticulate Cassandra who reacts with violence when no-one listens him (which they never do). It repeatedly tells us things cannot end well, but still gets us hoping they might anyway. It presents puzzles that provoke debate and stretch the imagination.
Gilliam’s most main-stream film is an eccentric, unsettling, tricksy film that juggles time travel and paradoxes, as well as mental health and the nature of reality. Shot with a Dutch-angle infused oddness – reflecting its hero’s mental unbalance – and scored with a French-inflected whirly-gig musical theme that is reminiscent of the demented street people that pepper the film (and may, or may not, be other unbalanced time travellers), it constantly puts you on edge and unsettles.
This extends to its casting, which takes two Hollywood superstars – Willis and Pitt – and deglamorises them to a shocking degree. As Cole, Willis is shambling, vulnerable, scared and struggling to distinguish between reality and fantasy. An 8-year-old boy when the virus destroyed the world, in a way he’s never grown up. He looks around the world of the past with a wide-eyed wonder (he adores the sun and the feel of the soil beneath his feet) but has the stroppy impulsiveness of a maladjusted teenager. He’s so twitchy and insecure, you start wondering if he is the mentally disturbed man who imagines he’s from the future, that his doctors think he is. It’s Willis’ least-Willis performance ever and one of his finest.
Similarly, Pitt pushes himself as the disturbed, aggressive Goines. Prone to obsessive rambling, that stretches Pitt’s languorous vocal register (he trained for months to improve his vocal range), Pitt’s performance is wide-eyed, unpredictable and unsettlingly dangerous. With a single eye swollen and askew, it’s a performance that plays with being OTT but manages to work because he mostly avoids actorly showing off. Madeline Stowe, by contrast, has the most difficult role as the ‘normal person’, a sceptical psychiatrist becoming more and more convinced Cole is telling the truth.
Of course, despite the film’s efforts to play with reality, the audience are always pretty certain he isn’t wrong about the future. But, with the sight of fellow deranged time travellers, not to mention Willis’ vulnerable performance, that Cole could still be crazy. Even if you are right, doesn’t mean you are sane.
Gilliam’s surrealist future helps with this. Every time Cole is pulled back to 2035, the world becomes ever more deranged. Is his grip on reality eroding, as he is feared it is. Design wise the future is a triumph – but it also seems eerily similar to the 1990 asylum Cole is in. Has the building, and the things in it, been repurposed in 2035? Or, as the scientists of 2035 become ever more surreal (including serenading Cole at one point in a Dennis-Potteresque fantasy), questioning Cole via a circular floating series of TV screens while he sits in a suspended chair, is Cole’s grip on reality gone?
It keeps the tension up in the ‘past’ plotline, even as the things Cole has seen in the future – strange messages on walls, photos, voicemail messages – accumulate. 12 Monkeys is a fascinating time-travel movie, that establishes from the very first moment it is impossible to change the past (something the audience, like the characters, get sucked into forgetting). After all, if the plague was stopped, then time travel would never be invented in the first place. All Cole, and the other travellers, can do is collect information.
But that doesn’t stop the future influencing the past. Goines decides to form the 12 Monkeys based on a conversation with Cole in 1990. Dr Railly becomes fascinated with apocalyptic predictions – writing a book that will influence the man planning viral annihilation in 1996 – only because she meets Cole. And, above all, 2035 Cole’s presence in 1996 leads to that strong childhood memory happening in the first placce. The final reveal of the meaning behind Cole’s recurring memory-dream is the perfect example of a time-loop closing (so much so the scientists in the future bend over backwards, giving Cole a doomed mission, to ensure it happens).
It also explains why he is drawn towards Stowe’s Railly, who resembles (with the exception of her lack of Hitchcock Blonde hair) the woman in his dream. The relationship between Cole and Railly develops into a slightly forced romance (it feels like a script requirement, for all Gilliam’s taking the characters to watch Vertigo to hammer home the obvious contrasts). But when it focuses on two people drawn together for reasons they can’t quite understand (and there are hints of predestination) it just about works. That and the commitment of both actors to the roles.
12 Monkeys is about 15 minutes too long (it’s 1990 section outstays its welcome), especially as the audience is never in doubt that the plague is real (after all this is a movie). But Gilliam keeps us on our toes with how confident we feel in Cole: we’re repeatedly shown he’s violent, inarticulate and impulsive. The final half of the film, where the origins behind events we have been shown or heard in the first half, is fascinating. The tragic turns of the film’s paradoxical temporal loop is brilliantly executed and haunting. Gilliam’s film is quirky, unsettling and a design triumph: but it also tells a fascinating story. It’s his most accessible and crowd-pleasing film.