Movie Review

12 Monkeys

The future is history
12 Monkeys Movie Poster

US Release Date: 12-29-1995

Directed by: Terry Gilliam


  • Bruce Willis
  • James Cole
  • Madeleine Stowe
  • Kathryn Railly
  • Brad Pitt
  • Jeffrey Goines
  • Christopher Plummer
  • Dr. Goines
  • Frank Gorshin
  • Dr. Fletcher
  • David Morse
  • Dr. Peters
  • Jon Seda
  • Jose
  • Joseph Melito
  • Young Cole
  • Simon Jones
  • Zoologist
  • Lisa Gay Hamilton
  • Teddy
  • Felix Pire
  • Fale
  • Matt Ross
  • Bee
  • Christopher Meloni
  • Lt. Halperin
  • Annie Golden
  • Woman Cabbie
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: March 4th, 2011
Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys.

Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys.

I've always been more forgiving towards Terry Gilliam's films than I probably should be, because of my love for Monty Python. I'll see pretty much any movie he makes, even though time and time again I've been disappointed by his work. He always makes visually interesting films filled with grandiose ideas and themes that somehow never quite fully translate from his thoughts to the screen. Occasionally though, he has managed to convey his vision completely in a finished project, such as with this movie. While I'm sure that Brazil will always be considered his masterpiece, after rewatching 12 Monkeys for the first time since it was released, I'm going to argue that while Brazil might be his signature film, this is actually the greatest all around movie that he has directed so far.

Perhaps the secret to this movie's success is that Gilliam didn't write it and writing doesn't seem to be his strong suit. Instead it was written by David Peoples, who also wrote Bladerunner, Ladyhawke and Unforgiven. Peoples delivers another dark look at the future with an interesting and satisfying time travel story that is kept relatable by its central characters.

Another marked departure from a typical Gilliam film is the strong performances from its leads. Not that there haven't been other great performances in Gilliam's films. Mercedes Reuhl won the Oscar for her part in The Fisher King, after all, but too often in his work, the acting comes second to the visuals. As has been documented, especially in regards to his early directorial work, with Monty Python and shortly afterwards, he too often treated the actors as if they were the little bits of paper he pushed around by hand for his early animation.

Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a prisoner in the future. In 1997, the world's population was decimated by a virus that spread quickly across the world. What's left of humanity is living underground in a grim society. Cole is "volunteered" to take part in a time travel experiment where he will be sent into the past to investigate a mysterious group known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys whom are believed to be the eco-terrorists who started the plague. His mission is to bring back a pure sample of the virus so that a cure and a vaccine can be found that would allow mankind to return to the surface.

The plan, like so many movie plot plans, quickly goes wrong when Cole is sent to 1990, instead of 1996 as planned, where he is locked up in an insane asylum. It is here that meets Dr. Kathryn Railly (played by Madeline Stowe, who has never looked lovelier) and a twitchy and quite insane fellow inmate named Jeffrey Goines (Pitt).

Cole is eventually pulled back to the future where he convinces the scientists to let him try again. After a brief detour to World War I, they finally manage to send him to the correct time.  Part of the reason for his willingness to return is because of his desire to be reunited with Dr Railly, whom he has fallen for and for whom he senses that he has a connection with somehow.

In the proper place and time, Cole is reunited with Kathryn and soon discovers that the Army of the 12 Monkeys does exist and it is lead by his old "friend" Jeffrey.  But are their aims to destroy the world?  And can Cole learn the truth in time to do anything about it? Is it even possible for him to do anything about it, or has it already happened?

Bruce Willis does a great job as James Cole. He's never been known for his range, but he delivers a solid performance here. You never really learn that much about the details of Cole's Past, but because of Willis, you feel that you know him.

It is Pitt though who is the revelation. He's become such a celebrity these days that I'd forgotten he was once an actor. He buries himself in this part, using minor prosthetics to detract from his good looks and employing hand gestures, manic energy and vocal tics to play the crazy Jeffrey. He won the Golden Globe for Supporting Actor and was deservedly nominated for the Oscar.

On top of a strong script and great performances, Gilliam adds his visual style, but not as the star of the film, as they too often are. His vision of the future is typically Gilliamesque and his view of the present is surreal and interesting. I love his choice of filming locations. He maintains a restrained but steady hand throughout the movie. You're never in doubt that this is his film, but he uses his talents to support the story and not take it over.

As is evident from the beginning, this is a dark film and an unhappy ending seems inevitable for Cole and Kathryn. You hope that somehow they will find a way out of the loop they are in, but it doesn't truly ever seem possible. When the ending does come though, at least it feels satisfying and true to all that came before it, even if it does leave some room for debate.

If this movie proves anything, it's that Gilliam should make more movies that he didn't write. He's got the visual talent and a great eye for setting up a scene. He even proved with this movie and with The Fisher King, that he can get great performances from his actors. He just needs someone else to write the words. With the right script, as here, he can truly create a great movie.

Reviewed on: March 9th, 2012
The future of technology in 12 Monkeys.

The future of technology in 12 Monkeys.

I'm in complete agreement with my brother on this one. 12 Monkeys holds up quite well nearly 20 years after its initial theatrical run. The story remains compelling and I agree the acting is good. Visually it's intriguing, like virtually all of Gilliam's work. The one aspect in which it now appears dated is in the look of the television monitors used in the future scenes (see photo). Like all movies made in the 20th Century that were set in the future, they weren't able to predict the invention of high definition and wide screen sets. But this is a very minor quibble, especially when you consider the fact that in this movie humanity was forced underground by a deadly virus, so it's quite believable these advances in technology wouldn't have taken place.

Brad Pitt is very good as the mad as a hatter Jeffrey Goines with the crazy eyes. His nervous hand gestures and lunatic ravings reminded me a bit of Dennis Hopper's photographer in Apocalypse Now. Bruce Willis gives one of his more subtle performances as James Cole. In place of his usual smirking cockiness is a sense of fragile confusion. Madeleine Stowe is effective as the psychiatrist that slowly begins to accept the incredulous fact that this man is from the future. The three of them hold the sometimes confusing storyline together.

Terry Gilliam pays tribute to several different sources in 12 Monkeys. He was inspired by the 1962 French time travel film La Jetée. That movie included an homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo and Gilliam follows suit, even showing a clip from the same scene that was used in La Jetée; where Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart look at the growth rings marked with dates on a giant redwood tree. Also, like Novak's transition from the brunette Judy to the blonde Madeleine in Vertigo, the brown haired Katheryn disguises herself with a blonde wig.

The title of the movie comes from the L. Frank Baum children's book "The Magic of Oz", first published in 1919. In one scene the Wizard asks for a dozen monkey volunteers to take to the Emerald City. The Wizard then performs a bit of magic with some powder and a dish. “It made a thick smoke that quite enveloped the twelve monkeys, as well as the form of the Wizard, but when the smoke cleared away the dish had been changed to a golden cage with silver bars, and the twelve monkeys had become about three inches high and were all seated comfortably inside the cage.”

One scene, that in hindsight, stands out now is when Bruce Willis utters the line, “All I see are dead people.” Of course he would famously play a ghost in the movie The Sixth Sense in 1999, in which the line “I see dead people” would become a famous catchphrase. Several familiar faces show up in small roles. Lisa Gay Hamilton plays one of the young eco-terrorists. She was recently featured on the television show Men of a Certain Age. Law & Order's Christopher Meloni is a detective here as well, and Annie Golden, of Hair fame, plays a cabbie.

David Peoples' script keeps the audience guessing as to just where the story is going next. The suspense and sense of impending doom builds right up to the final scene at the airport. As Scott wrote, the denouement is satisfying if slightly ambiguous. Gilliam begins and ends the movie with the same shot, a close-up focusing on the eyes of James Cole as a boy.  Even after all these years, 12 Monkeys remains a riveting movie.

Reviewed on: October 31st, 2012
Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys

Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys

I am not so enamored with Gilliam's direction as Scott. Note the scene in which Willis is being questioned by the scientists. He is seated in a chair some 30 feet in the air, looking down on the scientist, while a globe with many screens on it is directly in front of him. See the picture in Patrick's review. The scene is filled with needless detail that adds nothing to the proceedings other than to stamp this as a Terry Gilliam film. Had Willis simply been seated in a chair on the floor while the scientist sat behind a table showing him photos, would the scene had been any less?

Details really mean very little in the telling of a story unless they give depth to the characters or plot. The technology on display in the questioning scene is moot.  It acts only as a distraction for the audience. Had it some relation to the proceedings, I would understand, but it does not. Take a scene that comes shortly thereafter. Stowe is giving a lecture that contains pictures and details that will later foreshadow and come very much into play.

As Scott wrote, Gilliam seems to relish in the scenes taking place in the future, allowing his artistic talents to run rampant. The scientists singing "Blueberry Hill" in front of the landscape painting, is unnecessarily odd. The look of the setting in the future is very reminiscent of the world depicted in Brazil. It is futuristic, by way of retro, technology. 

The better parts of the film are the scenes that take place in "modern" times. It is a tense, exciting adventure as Willis plays a frustrated man on a mission with more obstacles than you can list. As Patrick noted, the script keeps the audience guessing as the sense of impending doom keeps elevating. In fact, this movie could have been better served had the entire thing taken place only in "modern" times, leaving the audience to guess if James Cole is actually a time traveler or crazy as a loon. Then, of course, Gilliam would not have had the chance to employ his artistic vision.

I will chime in with my brothers opinion on Brad Pitt's performance. He is a bright spot in a very depressing setting, playing it big and over-the-top to great comic affect. Pitt's career began very much like Johnny Depp. Both actors started as pretty boys, getting roles simply based on their looks. That is until Depp played Captain Jack Sparrow and became one of the biggest stars in the world, milking his comic ability for all it is worth. Pitt however, seemed determined to prove his dramatic talents by following up this film with a series of sleep inducing serious roles. His occasional forays into comedies, such as in Inglorious Bastards and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, have been his most entertaining.

Then again, this is just one man's review. As Brad Pitt says during one of his many crazy rants, "There's no right, there's no wrong, there's only popular opinion."

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