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Twelve Monkeys (1995)

November 1, 2010

7/10 Crazy Dentists

Probably could have been trimmed down a bit, but still one of the better time travel movies out there.

Twelve Monkeys follows a convict in the year 2035 who’s been volunteered by a group of scientists to be sent back to the year 1997 in order to trace the origins of a virus that wiped out 5 billion people and forced the remaining survivors to head underground for the next 38 years. Since time travel is apparently an imperfect science, our guy ends up stuck in a mental institution in 1990, makes friends with the supposed ringleader of the group that will eventually bring on the apocalypse, and struggles to convince himself and everyone else that he’s not crazy, he’s just trying to prevent worldwide genocide from the future.

Yeah, I probably wouldn’t buy it either.

So, it’s a movie by Terry Gilliam, and since Terry Gilliam’s the man, this is a good place to start. One of the few directors out there who makes movies that look absolutely nothing like anyone else can. You watch this or Brazil or Time Bandits or even Fear and Loathing, and it should take all of five minutes to get the sensation that you have just walked into a nightmare funhouse that you probably wouldn’t want to be a part of first-hand but can’t look away from as a passive observer. And as wild and comprehensive as this script is, Gilliam movies are usually worth watching because Terry-effing-Gilliam is behind the camera.

There are a lot of things he does well, but I guess it all boils down to the attention to detail for me. Because, man, if this is what jails in the year 2035 are gonna be like, I am on the straight-and-narrow for here on out and I sure as hell ain’t gonna question Bruce Willis when he comes asking me for help with bar codes tattooed on his neck. From the prisoners locked up in mass chain link cages, to the excessive amount of plastic and tubing that has become an integral part of every invention, to the present-day crack dens that look like one of the lower levels of Dante’s Inferno, to the endless amount of rusty cogs, wheels and quadfocals that all make the future look something along the lines of Satan’s cuckoo clock, it’s basically like sitting through a steampunk nightmare. And it’s as astounding as it is frightening.

Folks, it is just something to see. It’s this amazing, haunting dystopia, the likes of which would make Tim Burton sit back and think “Fuck, that’s weird,” and it totally complements the all-encompassing madness and paranoia that goes hand-in-hand with traveling through time while spending every last waking minute convincing the universe you’re not nuts. It’s not quite the fully realized world that Brazil was, but whatever, this is unforgettable stuff from one of the most vivid imaginations in Hollywood.

But alright, enough about Gilliam.

I don’t know where the hell screenwriter David Peoples has been holing up since penning Soldier back in ’98 (on second thought, I don’t blame him), but considering that this also the dude who wrote Blade Runner and Unforgiven, you’d think the answer would be a lot easier to Google these days. Nevertheless, his script is fine when it comes to dialogue, his script is fine when it comes to characters, but it is pretty freakin’ boss when it comes throwing five hundred things into the mix and bringing them all back to the point where nothing can be overlooked. When it comes to some of the plot’s more memorable turns, most of that credit can probably go back to La jetée – the short film that inspired this whole thing – but they are pretty effing memorable all the same.

But it’s time travel, and even when time travel doesn’t work, it typically tends to be pretty engrossing subject material. Just the whole idea of how anyone in their right mind would actually react to a “man from the future” scenario from a present-day standpoint, let alone from the said man’s point of view, is more than enough to fuel a script in itself. But then you throw in this Vonnegut-like plot line of impending doom and whether or not one can actually pull a Marty McFly and change the future by altering the past, and you’ve got a lot of cool stuff on your plate. And it is very impressive how Peoples brings the smallest of details that are shown in passing back to the forefront in a “How did it miss that?” kind of way, but there’s also one too many dragging small talk scenes with BW in a mental ward or BW jonesing to 20th Century radio stations that noticeably slow things down and take away from the insanity of it all.

And BW’s generally solid as our future man, James Cole, but I can’t be the only one who feels like the guy’s somewhat of a one-trick pony. Nothing against BW, I like BW, but he doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of range going for him. Although Christopher Plummer makes a nice little appearance with a pretty convincing Southern accent and Madeleine Stowe ain’t bad as Cole’s psychiatrist/main squeeze, Kathryn Railly. But the scene-stealer here is Brad Pitt as mental patient/definite anarchist, Jeffrey Goines. He’s like Tyler Durden if Tyler Durden had a metal plate in his head and took ritalin like it was a multi-vitamin, and while all the hand-flinging and weak middle fingers seem to run their course by the end, Pitt sure does crazy it up and keeps you glued.

I wasn’t crazy about it on the first go-through, but after a recent refresher course, Twelve Monkeys is actually pretty awesome. Utterly devastating, but awesome. Has a whole lot of Gilliam in it – which is more than enough reason to watch anything ever – and for a time travel joint that has so much going on, it does a great job of tip-toeing around the loopholes and throwing in a fresh new twist while bringing it all full-circle. There’s a part of me that really wants to give this an 8, because time travel + Terry Gilliam is a major win-win, but I don’t know, I just can’t ignore the part of me that got bored for a good twenty minutes or so. Will report back on the next viewing though, have a strong hunch it’ll get there.

Nutso stuff.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2010 5:15 am

    Visually stunning, I agree with you on Bruce Willis… he does seem like a one-trick pony with his “serious” acting roles. Still, I think the film is strong enough around him to afford a little misstep with the casting… I so wish Terry Gilliam could make more films!!!

    • November 1, 2010 1:40 pm

      You said it, man. He’s so damn good, just too bad there seems to be such a large gap of time between one movie and the next. Big fan all the same.

  2. November 1, 2010 5:24 am

    Good review. I’ve never been as big a fan of Twelve Monkeys as I have of Gilliam’s other work – my favourites been Brazil and Time Bandits. But it’s still a good movie – original and brilliantly realised.

    • November 1, 2010 1:44 pm

      Brazil, man. That’s a 10 right there, need to see that again. I agree thought, this isn’t my favorite of his, but it’s still something else.

  3. November 1, 2010 10:34 am

    One of my favorite movies to stumble upon on a cold saturday afternoon. I LOVE Brad Pitt in this, a role that is definitely overlooked. It’s a totally intense and unique movie that everytime I happen to watch it I find it very difficult to change the channel. Keep up the good work!!!!!!

    • November 1, 2010 1:46 pm

      Sully! Thought you might chime in on this one. I remember you trying to get me to re-watch this back at PC, but it’s definitely an easy one to get caught up in. Thanks, homey. Enjoyin’ that scotch.

  4. November 1, 2010 1:36 pm

    I remember seeing this as a kid and it probably went way over my head because I thought it was the most boring movie I had ever seen. I need to give this another chance now that I’m a little bit older ahah

    • November 1, 2010 1:47 pm

      hahaha. i wasn’t crazy about it the first time either, and it is kinda boring here and there, but definitely worth a re-watch. let me know what you think, homey.

  5. HermioneO permalink
    November 1, 2010 6:40 pm

    Me and my friends loved this film for all kinds of reasons – Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt who was actiually the thirteenth monkey, and in almost a cameo my favorite psycho mass murderer David Morse. Beautiful.

    • November 1, 2010 6:53 pm

      Oh, man. David Morse was such a fucking creep here with that bleached ponytail/eyebrows combo. Can definitely see why you and your friends dig it so much. Can see myself getting there in due time.

  6. November 2, 2010 1:39 pm

    Yea, this was an interesting film with a lot of great elements but they never all melded for me. The world was compelling, the plot was compelling but I think I just never got into the characters or had any investment in what was happening on any level. It’s a film I can appreciate, but not one that blew me away, even thought it had the potential to do so.

    Also, if you want to talk about strong twist endings, this has to be one of the better ones. Leagues better than the usual cheap trickery that ends up topping best twist endings lists.

    • November 2, 2010 2:20 pm

      Yeah, I don’t know what it was either. Didn’t quite feel the connection with the characters either, but shit is there a lot to appreciate, especially those last five minutes.

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