Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Monkey See, Monkey Do: "12 Monkeys" (1995)

Never having been a huge Gilliam fan, I avoided this film like the plague (sorry) when it first came out. Maybe only now I was meant to enjoy one of the best science fiction films of all time.

James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a convict in the future. Mankind has been driven underground in 1997 by a virus released by the Army of the 12 Monkeys, and Cole is "volunteered" to go back in time and find out just what happened. The problem is, time travel is not perfect, and Cole finds himself in 1990 instead.

He is institutionalized and meets Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist he has seen before in a recurring dream. He also meets Jeffrey (Brad Pitt), a tic filled man who is crazy enough to believe Cole's stories about the future. Kathryn wants to help Cole, but he vanishes into the future again. The future scientists interrogate him, then accidentally send him to World War I before getting it right and having him come back to 1996. Things have changed drastically from 1990. Jeffrey is out of the mental ward, he was telling the truth when he said his dad was an important man, a bacterial scientist (Christopher Plummer). Cole finds Kathryn and kidnaps her, still looking for the 12 Monkeys clues that will lead him to the deadly virus' origin. He will not like the answers.

It seems Jeffrey was listening too intently to Cole in the asylum, and is carrying out his plan to destroy the world with a virus. Kathryn does not believe Cole, just as Cole decides he likes the pre-viral world and begins to convince himself he is insane so he can stay. He disappears again, then reappears in a nice juxtaposition where Kathryn believes the virus story, but Cole convinces himself he made it up. The two then try to stop Jeffrey, and the murder of five billion people.

Bruce Willis plays James Cole so well, I wish he had received more praise. He has many great scenes, but my favorite is when Cole is riding in the back seat of Kathryn's car, breathing the fresh air and listening to the music on the radio. The joy on Willis' face is so sincere, I smiled. Madeleine Stowe also gets to cut loose here, totally believable as a psychiatrist. She is horrified at Cole's behavior, but her attraction to him works too. Brad Pitt is very un-pretty boy, his Jeffrey seems like all nervousness on the surface, but there is an edge underneath that is a bit unsettling.

David and Janet Peoples wrote the script from the film "La Jetee," and the screenplay ought to be studied in universities around the country as a model for superior construction. The movie never dulled, using Cole's recurring dreams and his interrogations in the future to fill in blanks. It is great, and the script is the one thing I usually find wrong with a film. Gilliam's direction is not aloof, irresponsible, or as boring as I have found it in other films. He finds a great balance, letting his actors perform without showing off with his camera. "Restrained" might be a word to describe his direction, although it is so full of imagery, that may be all wrong. The art direction and set decoration are astounding.

"12 Monkeys" is not "Outbreak," it is wonderful. I came to care for these characters, and no one involved takes a wrong step anywhere. In the age of George Lucas' new empty "Star Wars" special effects extravaganzas, here is science fiction with a brain, and sci-fi/horror/fantasy geeks like me have reason to rejoice. (* * * * *) out of five stars.