Paul Brian McCoy: In 1991, director Terry Gilliam released the first film he’d ever directed that he hadn’t written himself – The Fisher King – and while it did okay at the box office (making back around twice its budget), it was a critical smash, nominated for five Oscars and bringing home one for Mercedes Ruehl‘s performance (she also brought home an Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films Award, an American Comedy Award, the Boston Society of Film Critics Award, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award). Robin Williams won a Golden Globe and Jeff Bridges was nominated alongside him; plus there were a variety of other nominations and wins. All of this mainstream critical success led to Gilliam taking on his second Hollywood project, 12 Monkeys, which began pre-production in 1994 and was shot on location in Philadelphia and Baltimore between February and May 1995 on a budget of only $29.5 million. The script this time was written by Blade Runner co-writer David Peoples and his wife Janet, inspired by the 1962 French short film La Jetée. The casting was a combination of inspiration and luck, with Madeline Stowe having just earned massive critical praise in both Last of the Mohicans and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Bruce Willis making his first science fiction film and attempting to branch out from the wise-cracking action hero cage, and a virtually-unknown-at-the-time-of-casting Brad Pitt, who would break out to become a world-wide superstar when Interview with the Vampire, Legends of the Fall, and Se7en all hit theaters while 12 Monkeys was still filming and in post-production (Pitt would go on to receive an Academy Award nomination and win the Golden Globe for his performance as whack-job eco-terrorist Jeffrey Goines). Although there were problems during the shoot (it’s a Terry Gilliam film, so that’s expected), Gilliam brought the film in under-budget and only a week late, and despite taking a savage beating in the test-screenings, Gilliam had retained final cut, so the film hit theaters with only slight edits. The pre-release anxiety was intense, but 12 Monkeys went on to become a critical and box-office success, holding the #1 spot for two weeks in January 1996 before bringing in a worldwide gross of nearly $169 million, making it Gilliam’s most financially successful film (paving the way for his 1998 Hunter S. Thompson adaptation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). As a certified Terry Gilliam fanboy even then, I was in the theaters opening weekend to see one of my favorite directors return to dystopian sci-fi after the disappointing (to me) The Fisher King. I was not let down. 12 Monkeys is one of those films that I can watch over and over, just reveling in the craftsmanship of the design and the intricacies of the plot. It’s one of those films I’ve owned on VHS, DVD, and now Blu-ray, and is a cornerstone of my obsession with tightly constructed time travel films. But how does this nearly twenty-year-old film hold up to a first-time viewing, Jamil? Jamil Scalese: As a devoted fan of time-travel fiction I’ll admit a great shame in having waited so long to see 12 Monkeys. It’s just one of those pieces of art I had somehow passed over and over. By the time I became aware of it as a something worth watching I was probably in my preteens and in the years after I somehow avoided many opportunities to view it. It was a mainstay of many of my movie-savvy friend’s collections and has consistently played on cable for quite a while. Hell, there’s even a TV show now, and it’s tough to explain to those who recommend it to me exactly why I’ve never watched the source material. Well, I now know why, and his name is Baron Munchausen. I’ve seen The Adventures of Baron Munchausen twice. The first was over twenty years ago, at my grandparents’ house, alone in a basement game room. It was one of the more visceral moments of my childhood. The set pieces, the outlandish acting, the magnificent, strangely aggressive feats. I just couldn’t figure it out. None of my friends had ever heard of the movie with fancy pirates and the guy who throws a ship by its anchor. For years I wasn’t sure it even existed until a beer-infused conversation with a friend broached the subject of Terry Gilliam. The movie I had thought I imagined gained a name, and a bit of my sanity was restored. The second time I saw The Adventure of Baron Munchhausen was shortly after emailing you that I had finally watched 12 Monkeys, after months of promising to do so. Serendipitously, I came across it on cable and it seemed appropriate to re-watch it after taking in 12 Monkeys. I have to say, it really informed my experience. From Monty Python to Fear and Loathing, Imaginarium and even Brothers Grimm, Gilliam’s approach has always rattled an uneasiness out of me, something akin to a hellish and playful mescaline trip filtered through a camera lens. That trademark oneiric style continuously fucks with me, a fever dream that is on the verge of threatening but ultimately non-imposing. To me, Jeffry Goines is an apt metaphor for the director’s affect, completely bananas, yet somehow innocuous. The prepubescent me couldn’t handle what Gilliam was dealing in his 1988 folklore hero film but the nearly 30-year old me has come to enjoy the funky charm of his directorial efforts. Oh wait, you asked me a question right? How does the movie hold up? Well, very well. Time travel is a trodden path for many a fiction vehicle these days (and I wonder if you could shed some light on the novelty of this movie in 1995) so it’s strength does not reside there, I think. Instead, I feel like it’s the teetering Gilliam aesthetic , the use of light, the claustrophobic, ravenous cinematography, that makes this a really good flick. Paul: Time travel movies were pretty much a dime-a-dozen in the nineties, but 12 Monkeys was probably the only one that really felt viscerally real. Usually there was a Back to the Future / Time Cop cleanness to it. Gilliam really went to lengths to make it seem dirty and handmade, playing around with how it would affect your mind as well as the timestream. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m so familiar with the story, but apparently at the time of its release, 12 Monkeys was considered almost too confusing for a mainstream audience, and I just don’t get it. Checking out the making-of featurette on the Blu-ray reveals that those disastrous test screenings really put fear into the hearts of everyone involved with making the film. But it seems like a very straight-forward film to me; especially for a time travel film. I can only imagine what a nineties audience would have done with Timecrimes, Primer, or Looper! Their simple pre-millennium minds would have just melted. But you’re right. It’s not really the plot that makes this film great, despite being a solid plot with very little by way of plotholes; it’s Gilliam’s fingerprints all over the film that really elevates it, making it something more substantial than a run-of-the-mill plague/apocalypse film. I doubt that another director – especially one in 1995 – would have pushed Pitt into the manic, wild-eyed performance he gives. And Willis is maybe at his most vulnerable as Cole. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen another performance like this from him. There are at least a couple of moments on the making-of documentary where Willis is pushing back against what Gilliam wanted, but Gilliam’s vision is what made it on-screen. That sense of potential violence married to an increasingly fragile grip on reality is simply heartbreaking at times. And when he finally realizes the source of his lifelong nightmare, there’s a resigned fatalism in his performance that really should have won him awards and maybe, just maybe, could have pushed him into more roles that relied on acting rather than bravado. Even his turn in The Fifth Element is more John McClane than Cole. Jamil: You’re correctamundo on Willis, he brought the ruckus on this one, spittle and all. That ornery fellow you mention in the documentary eventually blooms into the prototypical Hollywood monster, hijacking movies and acting as head party pooper on set. I recently read Kevin Smith’s Tough Shit and I was horrified/chuckled by the stories he relates making Cop Out. That’s not to say Willis still doesn’t deliver a fine performance from time to time, I liked him in Surrogates (which employs another brand of fatalism) and he even parodied himself (I think) in I’m Still Here. However, seeing his performance in this movie for the first time it appears he had his biggest successes as an actor when he was willing to submit to a strong directorial force. The only thing that really detracts from the glow of James Cole is Brad Pitt who zips through the scenes with so much vigor you want to shake him and go: “It’s OK! You’re going to be the smoothest, sexiest dude in Hollywood for decades. Calm down!” His role, tone, vernacular had some samples of Tyler Durden; a true portend for what would come. Madeleine Stowe executed the shift from pillar of sanity to a pit of craziness extremely well, though this falls into the timeless, horribly idiotic trope of a female supporting character falling madly for a complete madman. Just as I was adjusting to David Morse, a superb cop/crook character actor, in Season 2 of True Detective as a creepy hippy I see him in this as an end-times-obsessed creepy scientist. Stop playing weirdos so well! That twist ending, the nightmarish sequence in the airport, barely registers in 2015. As you state, the intellectual treadmill on the time-travel branch of sci-fi is rolling at a steady hitch. I look at the first season of The Flash as prime example of how much of a given time-travel is in the zeitgeist. I mean even the term “multiverse” is a household concept. The 2009 Star Trek just went “Oh, hey we’re a different universe, now let’s go fuck up Eric Bana” on-screen and the audience paid it little mind. What I did like a lot about the in-house rules of 12 Monkeys was the firm, not-even-worth-testing concept of an immutable timeline. It of course sets up many of the core plot threads and bigger ideas, but I still appreciated it in and of itself, especially for a film of its age. Even though I knew this movie was popular (though I’ll admit your box office stats surprised me, i thought it was more a cult classic), I kind of wondered how they could spin a TV show from it. It just seemed like a one-off. Now I see some of the threads that one could use to string together a quality TV “universe.” Paul: The TV show is a very different beast, playing with the film version much like the film played with La Jetée. The bones are the same, but they open up the world and start exploring elements that there just isn’t time to tinker with in a feature. In fact, one of the closing scenes of the film serves as a subtle implication that the future scientists aren’t quite so sure that time is immutable after all. The entire film is built around that idea that everyone is already dead, nobody can be saved, but when the old woman scientist settles in next to David Morse on the plane, I got the feeling that maybe they were going to try and flip the script and see what happens. This idea really makes up the heart of the TV adaptation, where the main goal is to stop the outbreak, sacrificing themselves and destroying the timeline. Of course, it can be read both ways. When she says, “I’m in insurance,” it could just mean she’s still trying to nab a sample to make a cure, but I like the idea that Gilliam wanted to provide an opening there for a happy ending. Or a bittersweet ending, anyway. Those are his favorites, after all. But as for Cole, despite Gilliam not writing the script, he becomes a classic Gilliam lead, teetering on the brink of madness, obsessed with something just out of reach, and ultimately failing to achieve his intended goals, but finding a benign satisfaction in his failure. Gilliam has since denied, reaffirmed and denied all over again that 12 Monkeys was the middle chapter of a satirical dystopian trilogy of films beginning with Brazil and ending with last year’s Zero Theorem, but whether he intended to make a set of films that covered similar themes or if he just (as his wife says) makes the same film over and over, there’s a definite sense of philosophical growth over the three films. With Brazil representing a childlike fascination with fantasy and romantic notions of heroism and victory in oppression, and Zero Theorem obsessively pondering the meaning of life (or the lack thereof) before spiraling into the abyss of death and the unknown, 12 Monkeys stands in the center as the pragmatic acceptance of the inevitability of death and decay, with brief moments of sanity and comfort scattered here and there in-between. It’s the only film of the three that ends with a sense of hope – however doomed it may be – by returning to the parking lot with Young Cole getting in the family car with his whole life ahead of him. Interestingly enough, that wasn’t how Gilliam wanted to end it. His original ending was to move in closely on Young Cole’s eyes as he watches his future-self die at the airport – which would have been much more in line with how the other two films close – but he was convinced to shoot one more scene, which, when combined with the slight potential for humanity’s rescue makes 12 Monkeys one of Gilliam’s more hopeful films. Jamil: Jeez, I kind of glossed right over that scene with the scientist on the plane. I just chalked it up to general hodgepodge weirdness of Gilliam. Still, I agree that feeling of soft hope seeps through, even in closing moments as kid Cole watches the ascent of the plane transporting the carrion that will end the world. I have to say, I like this movie. 12 Monkeys didn’t blast my mind and body through a time warp, but it’s a sound piece of storytelling with some great performances and fun ideas. The thread I enjoyed most was the commentary on insanity, one of the bigger motifs that runs through nearly all the character arcs. I thought Stowe’s turn was fantastic, and I loved how Cole attempted to manufacture insanity by scorning the future and longing for the past. Pitt’s character monologues on about how an idea considered insane in one moment can be completely rational, even normative, in another. He uses the example of microbes, once myth, now fact, and it’s kind of funny (in a sad, troubling way) how in this movie that is demonstrated by the laissez-faire security at the airport. I mean, for sure David Morse was carrying more than 3.4oz of fluid, right? And there was a shooting at the airport and planes are taking off in the aftermath. We consider that crazy now, but if people of 1995 saw the way TSA fondles thousands of people daily, we present day folk would be the loony ones. See larger image 12 Monkeys [Blu-ray] Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to save the human race from a deadly virus that has forced mankind into dank underground communities in the future. Along his travels, he encounters a psychiatrist (Madeleine Stowe) and a mental patient, brilliantly portrayed by Brad Pitt, who may hold the key to the mysterious rogue group, the Army of the 12 Monkeys, thought to be responsible for unleashing the killer disease. Believing he can obtain a pure virus sample in order to find a cure in the future, he is met with one riddle after another that puts him in a race with time. This sci-fi masterpiece from the genius mind of Terry Gilliam is a modern-day classic. New From: $7.52 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.