Thursday, October 13, 2011

12 Monkeys: Classic Science Fiction Psych Out!

The Good: Amazing acting, Good story, Interesting character work, Great DVD extras.
The Bad: Not as mind-bending as I would like (sort of).
The Basics: With 12 Monkeys, director Terry Gilliam presents a science fiction masterpiece or a psychological drama that knocks Bruce Willis through time on an unlikely quest to save humanity.

As I prepare to watch the latest cinematic endeavor from genius filmmaker Terry Gilliam, I found myself disconcerted to find I could not find my review of 12 Monkeys. So, I went to Google, typed in my name and 12 Monkeys and a list of my reviews came up . . . where I had referenced the film. As it turns out, I've not gotten around to reviewing one of my favorite films until now!

12 Monkeys is a science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam that I recall enthusiastically going to the theater to see. The thing about it, though, was that the woman I saw the film with and I disagreed so strenuously about the end that after a month of fighting back and forth about it, we simply vowed to never speak of the film again. As a result, she is one of my oldest friends and we almost never take in movies together, lest another film come between us in a similar fashion. The thing is, after holding out for years to wait until a DVD version of 12 Monkeys came out that had a commentary track and decent bonus features, watching those featurettes and hearing what the cast thought would be controversial about the move versus what my friend and I argued about fascinates me.

Decades after the vast majority of the worlds' population is wiped out by a biological plague, scientists who rule over the survivors offer a prisoner an opportunity to help change the world. Having developed the ability to send individuals back and forth in time, the scientists offer Cole - a condemned criminal - a chance to find the source of the virus that nearly wiped out mankind so they may study it and reclaim the surface of the Earth by developing a cure. Cole, then, is sent back in time where he arrives, naked, in the early 1990s. His attempts to prove he is who he claims to be wind him in an insane asylum where he meets Jeffrey Goines.

Escaping back to the future with only minimal clues, Cole begins to feel like a failure and is derided by the scientists who trusted him to carry out the mission. Sent back to the proper time - the mid-1990s - in the days before the viral outbreak, Cole begins to hunt down clues that might reveal where the virus originated. With the help of his psychiatrist, whom he has taken hostage, Cole sets out to save the world, make sense of his recurring dream, and differentiate between what is real and what is a delusion in his disoriented mind.

The wonderful thing about 12 Monkeys is that the entire film contains elements that simply do not work and that level of realism is something too frequently lacking from the Star Trek school of science fiction. Cole is sent back to the wrong time not just once, but twice, ending up in the middle of a battle during World War I where he and one of his cell mates reunite and Cole is actually shot! That the mechanics of time travel do not work precisely and malfunction, throwing Cole about works brilliantly and it keeps the viewer attuned because the process is not smooth for him.

Similarly, the hunt for the group that set off the plague is based on only the most vague clues, a symbol Cole found on the surface in Philadelphia in the future. He traces it back to the headquarters of the Army Of The Twelve Monkeys and as he desperately tries to investigate them, he discovers that he may be responsible for unleashing the plague based on comments he made to Jeffrey Goines while hospitalized with him!

Either way, despite the convoluted plot, Cole makes for a compelling antihero. Having been called crazy on his first trip back through time, he finds himself hunting down his psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly when he is sent to the proper time. Far from heroic, he abducts her, menacing her at almost every opportunity as he begins to legitimately unravel. Confused about what is real and what is not, Cole finds himself troubled because he knows events native to the time he is visiting as an adult because he recalls them from when he was a child. So, for example, the news is ablaze with the story of a child who has fallen down a well, but Cole knows - and tells Railly - that the boy will be found safe in days hiding in a nearby barn. As Cole begins to become disoriented from the time traveling and becomes susceptible to the idea that he is merely imagining the future he thinks he experienced, he becomes more violent.

When 12 Monkeys was first released in theaters, I remember reading an article about how deplorable the film was because of the violence against women in it. I am very sensitive to violence against women in films and in reality and I don't see that in this movie. Cole is hardly a misogynist; he is blindly violent to virtually everyone as his mental state degrades. Indeed, the most violent on-screen images all include Cole bloodying up men.

So, Cole is no saint. Not by a long shot. He makes for a wonderful antihero as he struggles to understand what is happening to him and what is real. Bruce Willis portrays Cole and he is a natural as a protagonist who is an everyman. Indeed, it is hard to believe that Willis' portrayal of Cole did not influence M. Night Shyamalan when he cast Willis in Unbreakable (reviewed here!). Willis's acting genius is illustrated in the way that he plays two characters where extraordinary circumstances thrust them into roles well outside what a normal person could be expected to cope with and he makes both of them distinct, different and wonderful. With Cole, Willis has the opportunity to explore a character who may be mentally ill and he makes Cole empathetic in small moments when it is clear Cole is tormented by the uncertainty. Willis screws up his face and emotes - or simply stares and drools when appropriate - beautifully making Cole distinctive and different.

12 Monkeys has a mature cast and it managed to attract actors like Frank Gorshin and Christopher Plummer to roles that are essentially cameos or minor supporting roles. Yet, both Gorshin - as Railly's supervisor - and Plummer as Dr. Goines, Jeffrey's father, make the most out of their bit roles. Madeleine Stowe plays Railly and she has the tough task of playing yet another strong woman who is also a damsel in distress, much like she did in The Last Of The Mohicans. Stowe pulls it off well by playing Railly as angry and a victim who refuses to be victimized. She makes Railly a woman of reason and passion and the slow transformation from skeptical doctor to sympathetic co-conspirator is made realistic under Stowe's acting guidance.

But this film is the work Brad Pitt was made for. Those who say his role in Fight Club (reviewed here!) made him need to rewatch this and consider that it preceded Pitt's bloody opus. Pitt plays Goines and he is flat-out crazy. As part of the DVD bonus features, viewers are treated to behind-the-scenes footage of Pitt being coached by a psychologist on how to act after Pitt had observed some genuine institutionalized schizophrenics. The result is that Pitt turns in a performance that is energetic, enthusiastic, disturbing and . . . well, crazy. And he maintains it every single frame of the film that he is in. So unlike anything else he's played, this becomes the marker for Pitt's range that he has, arguably, never surpassed.

On DVD, 12 Monkeys looks great and the one-disc special edition is loaded with as many bonus features as a single disc may handle. In addition to full-length commentary by Gilliam and his producer, the disc contains the original short French film that 12 Monkeys was based upon (La Jette) and "based" is used very loosely. There is a whole documentary on the making of 12 Monkeys and all that Gilliam went through. He wanted to document everything given that the last time he worked for Universal, a decade prior with Brazil, (reviewed here!) he ended up in the epic fight between artist and industry. As well, there is the theatrical trailer and a collection of still images of production notes. In all, this makes excellent use of the DVD medium and will enhance the experience for anyone who loves 12 Monkeys!

And if you haven't seen it, who would enjoy it? Certainly anyone who likes the works of Terry Gilliam. This is classic Terry Gilliam, even though he had no hand in the writing of it. In terms of directoral style, vision and even prop selection - Gilliam's movies tend to have a rather "assembled" look to the props, things are not neatly mass produced in his futures - this is very much a Terry Gilliam film. Anyone who likes science fiction will enjoy 12 Monkeys. As well, anyone who likes a good psychological thriller will find merit in this film. The conflict between reality and dementia is well-related in this film, making it accessible to those who are more drama-oriented as opposed to science fiction oriented.

But it requires a stomach and patience. And it pays off when it reaches its resolution. It pays off in a way that will make viewers want to rewatch it again and again, making it pretty much a must-own DVD!

For other works featuring Bruce Willis, please be sure to check out:
Friends - Season 6
The Story Of Us
The Verdict


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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