A man, possibly insane, is experiencing schizophrenic visions or possibly time travel. It’s hard for him to tell or know which version of reality is true as he attempts to track down the perpetrators of a world wide terrorist strike.
A Second Viewing
As I dedicated myself to seeing all of Terry Gilliam’s movies, “12 Monkeys” was one of my most anticipated rewatches. I always had an inkling that I didn't quite get it when I was younger and I sort of thought I didn’t like it. Knowing Gilliam’s films as I now do, I was certain that I would understand if not enjoy “12 Monkeys,” far more as an adult.
The more I explore certain directors, the more I realize that many of them are only really trying to grapple with one or two themes over and over again in different settings. This is definitely how I feel about Terry Gilliam. It won’t come as a shock to any of my readers that “12 Monkeys” deals with themes of sanity/insanity, reality, fantasy, identity, resistance of authority and cultural manipulations, destiny, and legend. You could say the same about “Brazil,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” or “The Fisher King.”
What makes “12 Monkeys” a lesser-Gilliam-film is that it doesn’t do those things as well, with as much dear characterization, or tongue in cheek darkness as his other films. Bruce Willis’ (“The Sixth Sense”) James Cole isn’t an especially interesting character as he is more of a puzzler than an actor. He mostly just thinks about the army of the twelve monkey and how he might stop them from carrying out a dastardly plan that sends humanity to the brink of extinction but at the end of the day I don’t really care about him that much. His journey doesn’t move me. In a film that is about exploring the edges of our protagonists reality and sanity that is a huge problem.
Enough about the things that don’t work. This is Gilliam so the fun is in what does. The production design, as always, is top notch. Even though much of the film takes place in “the normal world” Gilliam is able to draw out the extreme nature of the mind jam that Cole is in by creating the extreme environments he interacts within. The asylum, the 1 2 Twelve Monkeys HQ, and the airport are all hyper realities that blend with the future underground world in tone. This is needed to keep the illusion that either world could be true or both or neither. If one looks and feels remarkably different than the other then it seems to be a clear delineation between reality and falsehood.
Gilliam is the master of this. He makes the insane seem real and the truth seem incredible. He blends them in a way few directors are capable of, using exactly the elements which another film would see as too extreme as the subtle hints to the audience that the entire world is insane.
When I say that this is a lesser-Gilliam film, I don’t mean that I think that or even that it isn’t very popular. It is a highly rated film but I think that is mainly because of his films, “12 Monkeys” is far more accessible and therefore, says less and says it with less deft sleight of hand and nebulous morality than his other films. The very thing that makes it more in the eyes of many is what make it less in the eyes of others.
There are many for whom mystery is an intriguing element of any art and they will maybe find frustrating how cut and dry neat everything in this film fits into an easy explanation. For a film about insanity and its murky edges, it is far too obvious about the state of Cole’s sanity.
This movie won’t necessarily vibe with everyone but if you are a fan of time travel movies, post apocalyptic sci fi, or grunge punk then this movie has plenty of manic energy, over the top 90s earnest acting, and pawns-in-the-hands-of-fate energy to make it worth your while.
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