12 Monkeys

by Glenn Erickson Oct 23, 2018

Terry Gilliam’s second big-star ‘retrench’ movie benefits from his fertile imagination, and his handling of an overly complicated sci-fi script. Did happy audiences respond to the film’s second-hand time travel complexities, or did they just like seeing Brad Pitt in a new mode, playing a weird motormouthed eccentric?

Twelve Monkeys
Arrow Video USA
1995 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 129 min. / Street Date October 30, 2018 / 39.95
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Jon Seda, Frank Gorshin, David Morse, Christopher Plummer.
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Film Editor: Mick Audsley
Original Music: Paul Buckmaster
Written by David Webb Peoples, Janet Peoples from the film La jetée by Chris Marker
Produced by Charles Roven
Directed by
Terry Gilliam


Nowadays nobody seems capable of making a Sci-fi thriller, not even one for children, that doesn’t have a dauntingly complex storyline filled with ironic contradictions. The Fate of the World is always at stake, and our saviors look like fashion models in trendy clothes. They may have a fascinating range of skill sets, but martial arts is always part of the mix. The subgenre is now so predictable, that unless given a strong recommendation I turn away from shows about time travel and plagues that threaten humanity. Lamebrain zombie movies are just as dumb, but one doesn’t have to work so hard to figure out what’s going on in them.

Before this Millennial Movie Plague of Dystopian Disasters came to stay there were quite a few interesting, rewarding films made in this vein. This one was turned into a TV series. I hope Chris Marker, wherever he is, is getting his residual check.


12 Monkeys is a time travel science fiction film from the fertile visual mind of Terry Gilliam, and one of his biggest box office hits. After a string of successes and an undeserved miss or two (most prominently The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) Gilliam scored big by sheer luck. 12 Monkeys producer Charles Roven signed co-star Brad Pitt just before the actor’s career went ballistic with Interview with the Vampire. Having Pitt and the popular Bruce Willis on a marquee in 1995 guaranteed box office gold; it almost didn’t matter what the movie was.

12 Monkeys is inspired by Chris Marker’s fairly obscure 1963 classic La jetée, an incredibly compact, insightful art film / sci-fi / philosophical meditation composed mostly of still images. Future scientists send a man to the past to change an event in the past that led to nuclear war. Janet and David Webb Peoples utilize the basic idea and climactic confrontation from Marker’s original as the framework for a Gilliam- friendly story about madness and commitment in the chaos of the modern world.


The new plotline takes a while to become clear. In the year 2035 a remnant of Earth’s population lives underground, due to a deadly virus that broke back in 1996. Prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) is selected to be time-projected 41 years into the past to locate a group of terrorists believed to be responsible for the plague, and to bring back a sample of the original pure virus to allow scientists to effect a cure. The terrorists call themselves The 12 Monkeys. ‘Landing’ six years too early, Cole is soon institutionalized for raving about the end of civilization. His psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) becomes intrigued because she thinks she’s seen him elsewhere. Cole meets fellow asylum dweller Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a study in nervous, manic tics.

The scientists yank Cole back to 2035 and doubt his claim that he was sent to the wrong year. Another try deposits him in a French battle trench in 1918, where he’s wounded, but a third pitch finally drops him in the correct month in 1996 to intercept the terrorist 12 Monkeys gang. Cole kidnaps Kathryn but slowly gains her confidence as she begins to realize that he really comes from the future. Cole discovers that Jeffrey Goines, now a free man, is the son of Dr. Goines (Christopher Plummer), a bio-lab magnate. Jeffrey also happens to be a member of The 12 Monkeys. Cole and Kathryn, now wanted as fugitive murderers, must find a way to keep 12 Monkeys from wiping out humanity.


It’s a good thing that the characters in 12 Monkeys are interesting because it’s not much of a time travel story. James Cole flits around like The Time Bandits, or a passenger in Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine. The coincidences outlined in the synopsis above are also rather convenient.

But any maker of a time travel movie has his work cut out for him. The Gale-Zemeckis Back to the Future movies effectively used up most of the best time travel ironies and self-contradictions in a comedy context, leaving few ideas for other dramatists to exploit. Chris Marker had already inspired Alain Resnais’ 1968 Je t’aime, je t’aime, a story of a time travel experiment in which Claude Rich goes back several years to attempt to prevent the accidental death of a lost sweetheart. The time warp is achieved in an Altered States– like plastic bubble, where Rich projects himself into the past by merely concentrating his memories. Not surprisingly, the fractured result of his experiment resembles Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. 12 Monkeys benefits from the fact that most American viewers never heard of those previous French films. Gilliam certainly isn’t probing the nature of memory; under his entertaingly creative obfuscation, this is a generic time travel paradox adventure.


Bruce Willis’ Cole is saving the world, not an old girl friend, and his problems are more akin to those suffered by The Man Who Fell to Earth. When nobody believes Cole, he’s packed away in a nuthouse and kept high on meds. Cole becomes convinced that he really is insane, until Kathryn’s love puts him back on track. On a less inspiring note, much of the movie deals with the expected thriller situations, evading cops, thugs and creeps in the mean streets of the inner city, etc.

Only after actor Brad Pitt was signed, did his star status rocket upward, making him as big a draw as the bankable Bruce Willis. Gilliam and his acting coaches thought Pitt incapable of performing the hyperactive Jeffrey Goines character, but he came through strongly enough to impress the Motion Picture Academy. Pitt’s Goines serves as amusing comic relief, provided one can get past the feeling that he’s simply imitating Dennis Hopper’s gonzo photographer in Apocalypse Now. Maybe they consulted the same behavioral tutors. Christopher Plummer has a very small part as the suspicious bio-lab millionaire, in a sub-plot that may seem familiar to fans of the Terminator movies. Actor David Morse (Inside Moves) provides a key contribution not likely to be covered in most discussions of the film. Frank Gorshin rolls his eyes beautifully as a cynical asylum doctor.


Terry Gilliam has a fine record for excellent performances, but most of the attention goes to his feverishly creative art direction — he’s particularly fond of contrasting textures. The relatively low budget Time Bandits scores with every new special effect. Wildly over-elaborated pictures like Baron Munchausen and Brazil enrich our imagination because of Gilliam’s taste and judgment: equally design-dense pictures by other directors often induce headaches. 12 Monkeys is actually light on innovations, as its futuristic 2035 is just more of the electronic/mechanical clutter familiar from earlier Gilliam pictures. Although the characters pretty much fall into clear-cut types, the actors mesh well and Gilliam shapes the performances through judicious editing. The sincerity of Madeleine Stowe takes the rough edges off of Bruce Willis’ collection of odd behaviors — his delight at being able to breathe ‘clean’ 1996 air makes a strong impression. And of course Gilliam has fun with the peripheral characters when possible — although stiff scientists and asylum personnel have their limitations.

When it finally comes down to solving the puzzle (no spoilers here), we can see that 12 Monkeys is withholding information. Cole’s fragmented memory-premonitions of the murder in the airport just happen to skip certain details, such as the specific identity of the participants… you’ll understand when you see it. Gilliam assigns a lot of importance to the idea of James Cole also being present as a child, played by Joseph Melito with wide-eyed wonder — when in doubt, go for the wide-eyed Kevin connection. The film aims for a warmer human presence than Terry Gilliam’s pictures pre- The Fisher King and by and large succeeds.


Arrow Video USA’s Blu-ray of Twelve Monkeys has been remastered in 4K by Arrow, and the result is a little more detailed and nuanced than Universal’s HD transfer from 2009. The film’s organic special effects free us from expecting giant spectacle for every scene — but at several points Gilliam does surprise us with an enormous or technically complicated set.

The fun commentary from the older Universal disc is back; director Gilliam and producer Charles Roven enjoy going over the production. Also retained is the essential The Hamster Factor, the insightful docu on the making of the picture. Gilliam explains early on that after his experiences on previous productions, he thought having a film record of what really happened might be a good idea. The Hamster Factor shows the director being charming but also mulling over his own indecisiveness and insecurities: the effects aren’t working, everything’s too expensive, the movie in his mind is not the one he seems to be filming. Gilliam openly admits that he’s the kind of obsessive that pours on too much detail and then wonders why every scene looks like a 3-ring circus. We see the replacement of a key actor and witness the travails of post-production, when the studio seems intent on forcing Gilliam into a cheap finish. Finally, a focus group session comes back with responses that suggest that the film is a total failure. Gilliam and friends are trying out their gallows humor when the show turns out to be a tremendous hit.

Arrow producer Anthony Nield reaches for new extras, but even they accept the fact that 12 Monkeys is an upscale mainstream release and that its success is likely because the actor Brad Pitt had just become hotter than hot. In his appreciation featurette, even the critic Ian Christie approaches the show as a commercial project — for all of Gilliam’s brilliance and adherence to his style, people came to see the stars. If that helped stoke the career furnace of our favored director Gilliam, all the better.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Twelve Monkeys
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements (from Arrow): Audio commentary by Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven; The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, a feature-length making-of documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe; The Film Exchange with Terry Gilliam, a 1996 interview with Gilliam and critic Jonathan Romney, recorded at the London Film Festival; new video appreciation by Gilliam biographer; The Twelve Monkeys Archives, Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 21, 2018

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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