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12 Monkeys (1995)


James Cole is almost sure he isn’t crazy. He might not be able to reconcile his memories and visions with his current surroundings, but he is almost sure he’s not crazy. The trouble is, if he is crazy, everything will be fine. If he’s not, 5 billion people are going to die, very soon.

12 Monkeys is a sci fi film directed by Terry Gilliam, inspired by the short film La jetée by Chris Marker. It stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Jon Seda, David Morse, and Christopher Plummer.

James Cole is a convict living in a future where humanity has been ravaged and forced underground by a deadly virus, believed to have been released by an extremist group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. In order to earn a pardon, Cole is sent on a number of missions back through time in order to gather information of the virus and the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and if possible, to gather a pure sample of the virus so a cure may be engineered. However, his explanations about the virus and the grim future it causes are dismissed as the deranged ramblings of a schizophrenic, and he is sent to a mental institution. It soon appears that other “crazy” people might also be temporally displaced individuals like Cole himself on similar missions, and Cole desperately recruits his own psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly, for help in saving a future he is starting to believe might not exist…

Ah, Terry Gilliam. One of the founding members of the Monty Python troupe, Gilliam has gone on to direct some of the trippier movies in the spec fiction genre. Like Tim Burton, Gilliam’s movies tend to have a dark fairytale vibe to them, and 12 Monkeys is no exception. Messing with the viewer through the eyes of its protagonist, this movie explores themes like insane prophet vs. harbinger from the future, and whether the viewer can fully trust the POV character’s own observations, or if, as many of the 1996 characters believe, they are just delusions. The post-virus future is disorienting and trippy itself, to the point that it is logical for Cole to start believing it is only the product of an insane mind.

Of course, the film would fall flat without the superb acting of its principal cast. Bruce Willis (who worked for free just to get the chance to work with Gilliam) switches genres again, from action to drama, in effect playing an anti-badass here. Yes, he kicks ass when pressed, but most of the time he doubts himself, doubts his perceived mission, doubts his own perceptions of reality. Madeleine Stowe as Dr. Railly acts as his grounding force, trying to link him with the present even as she finds evidence that he might not be delusional, first fearing him but then wanting to help him find some sort of closure, either in fulfilling his mission or simply finding a place to be. Blurring the line between sanity and insanity is the inclusion of Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines (whose twitchy mannerisms were induced by simply taking away his cigarettes during filming), a genuinely(?) crazy character liked to the Army of the Twelve Monkeys whose own ramblings mirror Cole’s desperate attempts to warn the people about their impending near-extinction.

If you’re looking for a movie that messes with your head, you want to see Bruce Willis playing against type, or you’re just a fan of Terry Gilliam, check out this movie. It’s a delightful little Inception-lite puzzle that will hold your interest as you watch everything come full-circle.

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