Comfortable and Furious

12 Monkeys

Madeleine Stowe. Most, if not all, sci-fi geeks out there will tell you that 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s well-crafted 1995 film is about the fight to figure out who released a virus that killed 5,000,000 human beings and time travel and all this other stuff. Not so at all. 12 Monkeys is about how stunningly beautiful Madeleine Stowe is and how James Cole (Bruce Willis) will shift time backwards and forwards just to spend a few hours with her. Like all great stories, this one is about a girl.

Yes, I’m ripping off Spider-Man; no, I don’t care. Be original; but if you do steal, steal from the best. Dammit, now I’m ripping off Woody Allen. No matter though, because Gilliam and Co. ripped the idea off for 12 Monkeys from Chris Marker’s 1962 short, La Jet’e. It’s all just one big never-ending swindle, man. Sort of like the message of 12 Monkeys. I’ll explain, but before I do let me just return back to the real theme of the film: Madeleine Stowe. Wow. Whew. Why the fuck doesn’t she act more, and in less clothing? OK, ready? Here we go.


The year is the future. Humans now live underground because a deadly virus is present topside. This is the virus that wiped out nearly everybody and forced the survivors underground. James Cole “volunteers” to go backwards in time to try and find out who created the virus and… and… well, I guess they mention that a scientist is going to then go backwards through time and figure out a cure. What to make of a technological civilization that has mastered time travel but can’t figure out retro-body pathogens? Remember, it doesn’t matter because the whole setup is just a ruse.

The actual story here is that of Helen of Troy; a face so beautiful that fuck a thousand ships; our hero will rip through the fabric of time just to smell her. He’ll turn the laws of the universe upside down just for a single kiss. Man, it is quite The Terminator rip-off. So, the five billion get killed in 1996 and the bungling scientists send Cole back to 1990 where he puts two police in the hospital (he’s a total badass in a fight), gets locked up in a loony bin and meets the luscious Madeleine Stowe.

He gets placed in a communal rec room with the quite manic Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Goines is a loon, though, and Pitt’s performance is a bit too forced and frankly loud for my tired brain. Quite similar to a Bond Villain, he reveals everything Cole could want to know–in a quite sane if not hyper manner–but then says one little “crazy” thing to maintain character. Actually, Gilliam used this quite effectively during the big break out scene when Goines pretends to trip the fucking live wire so as to distract the orderlies while Cole tries to escape. Goines is raving around madly eluding capture and mid-rant he stops to shoo an old man out of his chair. Quite nice. Still, Goines grates and I have a feeling this role was just practice for Pitt’s subsequent and much more balanced Tyler Durden.

Cole gets yanked forward through time and the scientists berate him for not accomplishing his mission, even though they are the ones who clearly screwed up. They offer Cole a chance to “redeem” himself and receive his pardon (watch the film), but I know-as all red-blooded viewers know–that Cole goes back for Stowe. You would have to be crazy not to. Oh, Stowe plays Cole’s psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly. There is a sense of familiarity about Cole that she finds odd, even though in 1990 she thinks he’s just another loon. But, in the interim years before Cole reappears in 1996, she slowly started to become a believer and has taken to writing books about the Apocalypse.

Cole kidnaps her and that is when the absolute best scenes in the film take place. Cole hasn’t heard any music in thirty years (or so) and watching him react to Louis Armstrong sing about “skies of gray” is Willis’s best performance save Die Hard. Concurrent with that, Stowe is starting to more and more not only believe Cole’s story, but fall in love with him. The face-work the actors display is deeply moving and impressive. Perhaps it is just me, but quiet little tender moments like these are essential to rounding out what would otherwise be just another loud sci-fi/action fest. These scenes complete the movie; they allow it to transcend its genre and its audience. Which is just bitchin’.

Things go all screwy and Cole gets dragged once again forward to the present. He has successfully fulfilled his mission (so he and the scientists think–turns out the bad guy is David Morse in what is definitely one of his best roles) and given his pardon. However, he has to get back to 1996. Not to save the world–for history is set–but rather for her. I love it. Throughout the film, Gilliam gets to do what he does best; construct hi-tech/low-tech eye candy sets and props that are a delight to behold. Take his earlier movie Brazil, a film I find nearly unwatchable due to the convoluted nature of just about everything taking place (not to mention one of De Niro’s very worst performances).

What saves the film is the stupendous production quality of the sets (and a few good one-liners). The future-sets here in 12 Monkeys are as good, though not as all-encompassing. Sadly, some of the sets in 1996 are bad. Specifically, the inside of the homeless den where Cole beats those two guys to death. We get it; the homeless live in squalor and are all potential criminals just lying in wait for some victims. However, when we see a corps of giraffes scurrying across a bridge in downtown Philly, well, we know that Gilliam is having his fun. Also, the big TV-eye with the dozens of so screens was particularly cool. As was the time travel-apparatus.

The film had a few other weak-points; most glaring being when Cole gets sent to a French trench in WWI. Well, him going to the trench was sort of nifty, but the aftermath was braindamagingly dizzy. Here’s why; a picture of Cole and another future warrior (Jose) is snapped. Fine, no problem there. Dr. Railly writes a book about people with apocalyptic visions that includes research on, and a picture of, Jose.

One of the pictures in her possession that she had researched was of Cole. She only notices him lying there buck naked in the photo after he has disappeared for a second time. Silly, and unfortunately a major device needed for her character to discover “the truth.” Also, and as usual with movies (it is hard to end a film) the ending is just a mess of “what?” Throughout the film and presumably his whole life, Cole has had a recurring dream whereas a little boy he witnesses a man getting shot in an airport and a blond woman falling to her knees upset that the man has been shot.

Well, it turns out (of course) that the victim is him and the woman is her. I ask; what does this leave us with? A never-ending cycle of the same event? A dream? An exercise in nothing? What would the truth of any of those be? What is the movie trying to say? Again, the only way I can watch the movie without total disgust is to delude myself into thinking that as a young boy Cole saw the beautiful Dr. Railly and the whole of the rest of his life is a manifestation of his will in order just to spend a day or so in her presence. Why the hell not?







3 responses to “12 Monkeys”

  1. Don Avatar

    Fine writing and review, as usual…! Jeez time flies…

  2. John Welsh Avatar
    John Welsh

    Good work.

    1. Goat Avatar

      Yes, and what a unique movie. Nothing like it.

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