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Empire List #465: 12 Monkeys

Here’s a pitch for a movie: Bruce Willis is a convict sent back in time to find information about a virus that nearly wiped out all human life on Earth and Brad Pitt is a madman who may or may not have unleashed the virus. Sounds like a cool summer action movie right? But what if the director is Terry Gilliam, the man behind films such as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, “Brazil”, and “The Fisher King” and he is basing his work on a short French film from 1962 called “La jetée”? Now we’re cooking.

I first watched “12 Monkeys” on a rented DVD at my mother’s place in Quebec City, which was fine, but it was a lot more fun watching it a second time at the University of Sherbrooke with members of OMASUS (Obscure Movie Appreciation Society of the University of Sherbrooke). The story is so intricate, filled with so many great performances, and has such a mind-blowing ending that you simply have got to watch it with other people. You will be thrilled, you will laugh at certain parts, and you will be amazed at what Terry Gilliam can do when given final cut privilege.

Released in 1995 and dealing with a deadly virus that would be unleashed in 1996, it’s kind of weird to watch a movie with that timeline in 2007. It gives you the feeling you dodged a bullet, or in this case an apocalypse.

The plot is initially simple and could be summed up in one of those old Don Lafontaine voiceovers: “In a world destroyed by a super virus, one man will be sent back in time to save humanity.” That man is James Cole (Bruce Willis) a convict living underground with what is left of mankind. Every now and then Cole is given a rubber containment suit and sent to the outside world to collect whatever living creature he can find in order for scientists to study the virus and possibly find a cure. The bizarre bunch of scientists who run the place have decided this is not enough. They need information from before the time the virus was unleashed and give Cole the option to be sent to the year 1996, the year the world started dying. In exchange Cole will be a free man. What do you got to lose?

As it turns out, Cole is risking his sanity with this mission. He has been warned that people who travel to a time when they were not forced to live like moles become addicted to that era, sometimes affecting their mental states. To make matters worse, the scientists have not worked out all of the kinks in their time machine and Cole is sent to 1990 instead of 1996. When he tells people about a virus that will be released six years from now by a terrorist group known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys, he is locked up in a mental institution and placed under the care of Dr. Kathryn Reilly (Madeleine Stowe) who has no doubt the cheese fell off Cole’s cracker a long time ago.

Inside the ward Cole meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) a mental patient and animal rights activist. This character is the proof that Brad Pitt is more than just a pretty face. He hops around the ward at a manic pace like a Looney Tune while explaining to Cole the many entertainment options of the ward, including the TV, which appropriately enough is playing old episodes of The Three Stooges. Cole looks at the man with curiosity as though he were a bizarre animal, but there is more to Jeffrey than meets the eyes. His speech about germs should give him a clue.

Eventually the scientists realize they have made a mistake and Cole disappears from a locked room, sowing the first seed of belief in Dr. Reilly’s mind. This woman has used psychiatry and rational thought throughout her career. But what happens when unexplainable events begin occurring around her? How can Cole disappear out of locked room and then kidnap her six years later as though nothing had happened? Why is there a bullet from World War I in his leg? Oh my god, what if the crazy person is not crazy and we really are going to die in 1996?

Things get even more profound when Cole begins to believe Dr. Reilly's first diagnosis and starts to question his own sanity.

This covers the plot and the performances, which are excellent. Then there are the visuals, which are all striking, despite a relatively small budget for a science-fiction movie. Terry Gilliam is great at creating memorable images, most of the time without the help of computer images. Some of the images in “12 Monkeys” include the time machine, which looks like a giant condom that shoots Cole into a wall, a derelict hotel filled with society’s dredges, and an elephant walking down an empty street.

The first time I saw this movie it blew my mind. The second time I enjoyed it even more because I got to see the reaction of other people watching it for the first time.

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