(Terry Gilliam, US, 1995)
Before the end of 1996, most of the world's human population will be dead, wiped out by a deadly virus that leaves animals unharmed. The few survivors will be forced to live out their lives in subterranean bunkers. Using apocalyptic newspaper headlines as wallpaper, they will trace the decline and death of mankind. They will find that the evidence points to the plague being the work of an extremist animal liberation group: The Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Developing time travel, a man will be sent to our present, to collect information. Meanwhile, in the future, the animals will reclaim the earth. Twelve Monkeys is nothing short of a revelation and succeeds by virtue of a wonderfully rich and intelligent script, and by cleverly making the future scenes the key to the rest of the film, rather than a mere addendum to it. Co-written by David Peoples, (Bladerunner, Unforgiven) with his wife Janet, Twelve Monkeys' script is a work of consummate professionalism, and should be required reading for all aspiring scriptwriters. While the central idea of a man sent from the future to change the past is by no means original, it is used here with an impressive control and skill. It is a superbly crafted piece, with themes of memory and loss, and animal and human imprisonment, woven into the main narrative, commenting on, and adding to it.
The incredible visual style that Gilliam developed for Brazil is the basis for the nightmarish future scenes, with their mixture of clanking retro machinery and flickering, grimy television screens. While these scenes appear only occasionally, they find echoes in the sequences set in the present. This allows the writers to play with the notion that the story is simply a delusion (as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), but it also lets them sneak in a lightly handled critique of contemporary America. After presenting the brutal, uncaring totalitarian regime that is to come, the film then shows us that it is already here. The film opens with James Cole (Bruce Willis), incarcerated in a future prison. He is caged in a tiny box, its walls made of wire mesh. Stacked all around him are hundreds of other such boxes, each containing a single occupant. After returning to 1990, Cole is again caged, in a police jail, then in a mental institution. The cages here are of a different design, but the function is the same. In both future and past, Cole is brutally stripped and scrubbed down, to prevent communication of any infection he may be harbouring. He's manhandled by identical guards, before being finally sat down before a panel of officials. In both times, they bark questions, but don't listen to the answers. On returning to the future, Cole's jailers are shocked that to hear he was imprisoned. Perhaps they regard their own actions as justified by the terrible circumstances they find themselves in. No doubt the doctors of 1990 would claim the same. Cleverly, Gilliam uses the most squalid, decaying locations, underlining the point that the present day is equal to the most hellish future imaginable. The film's most chilling scene is set in the '90's, and shows an abandoned cinema transformed into a scene from Dante's Inferno, where demonic figures wreak violence on any intruder.
The acting in Twelve Monkeys is excellent. Bruce Willis is very impressive as Cole, equally adept at the action scenes, while also playing the pathos with an understated brilliance. Gilliam adds to Willis' performance with subjective shots, that show characters looming menacingly, making us share the time traveller's fear. Cole is supposed to be sent back to 1996, but whether by incompetence or machine failure, he arrives in 1990. Raving about the future, he is thrown into a mental institution, his drugged mind evoked by Gilliam's tilted camera angles. In the Institution, Cole meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a fellow patient, who befriends him, and teaches him about the world as he sees it. Pitt is in incredible form as the twitchy, nervy Goines, whose pronouncements seem equally likely to be genius as insanity. Dr. Railly (Madeline Stowe), also becomes interested in Cole, although she believes he is trapped inside an intricate fantasy. Stowe's character is the slightest of the three major roles, but she does well, making Railly a believable, likable character, whom the audience can readily identify with. Although the script occasionally manoeuvres her around to suit its structure, the Peoples' always take care to allow her to voice her opinion. After a second attempt at being sent to 1996 leaves Cole in a world war one trench, he finally arrives at his intended time, and meets Dr. Railly and Goines once again. The intervening years have changed them both, and the changes are tellingly highlighted. For example, Dr. Railly is now giving the lectures, rather than listening to them.
Nominally inspired by Chris Marker's classic La Jetee, Twelve Monkeys shares ideas with a number of cinematic and literary sources, but the film is most similar to the Brian De Palma crime film Carlito's Way, which starred Al Pacino. Like Carlito's Way, it makes use of inexplicable memories, which are finally explained in the film's ending. Twelve Monkeys uses its evocation of the future as a way to examine the present, and ultimately discards any ambiguity as to the truth of Cole's time travel. Unlike many contemporary American films, Twelve Monkeys acknowledges the presence of a powerless underclass, and refuses to fall victim to the Hollywood preference for upbeat, 'feel good' endings. Twelve Monkeys is Gilliam at his best, a truly fantastic film, and an instant classic however you look at it.