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Twelve Monkeys (1995) Blu-ray Review


Time travel is a theme that has woven its way through cinema for many years and goes beyond the scope of H.G. Wells’s ‘The Time Machine’. Science-fiction has especially, for obvious reasons explored this theme, but so have romantic dramas (Somewhere in Time, 1980, The Time Traveler’s Wife, 2009 and About Time, 2013) and drama (A Thousand Kisses Deep, 2011). But it is of course science-fiction that has run with ideas of time travel and has explored through notions of being able to change the present (future) by fixing the past. The development of special-effects in cinema has led to some interesting explorations by filmmakers. Examples include Jumper (2008), Source Code, Looper (both 2011), Predestination, Interstellar (both 2014) and Project Almanac (2015) among many others. But of course it is the franchises of both the Back to the Future and Terminator films that continually played with these ideas of what happens when we interfere with the past that re-writes the future.

Although science-fiction fantasy, it is also worth remembering that Twelve Monkeys (1995) is a Terry Gilliam film. As critic and writer Ian Christie relates on an appreciation of the film on the disc, Gilliam, although a maverick filmmaker had made some of the key fantasy films since his Monty Python origins and The Time Bandits (1981) (there you go, time again) through to such over budget hits as Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). He then went on to make The Fisher King (1991) and while this film might have similar elaborate ambitions the symbiosis of stars and Gilliam’s ambitions worked well.

Twelve Monkeys (1995), his next project does not look like a typical Gilliam film. Only in the opening future scenes does it feel like a Gilliam film with Willis’s character hooked up to tubes. What helps Gilliam, as well as a fantastic story, is, like with The Fisher King it had three big stars from large budget mainstream movies: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt. While Stowe might not be so well remembered today, but in the 1990s had starred in The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Bad Girls (1994).

Credited as being based off Chris Marker’s excellent short film La Jetée (1962) made using still photographs, despite Gilliam saying he refused to see the film while he was making Twelve Monkeys, the story opens in 2035 following a virus that had wiped out millions of people. The people of Philadelphia, where the virus is believed to have broken out live in a subterranean world while the city is deserted. A prisoner, James Cole (Willis) is offered a pardon to go back in time to 1996 to stop the virus. Cole suffers from nightmares from the past, including a shooting he witnessed at an airport as a child. He is sent back in time and ends up in 1990 and not 1996, the time he was supposed to be sent. He is seeking the Army of Twelve Monkeys that supposedly started the virus and because of this he is placed in a mental asylum where he is treated by Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe) where he gets to know one of the other patients, the crazed Jeffrey Goines (Pitt). Cole escapes and is then transported to 1996 (but not before he finds himself on a First World War battlefield and sustains a bullet in his leg). He is given a second chance with the authorities in 2035 and goes after the Twelve Monkeys and Goines, having kidnapped Dr. Railly who starts to believe his story when weird things happen, coincidences and revelations show Railly that Cole might not be insane after all. Together, they are wanted, go on the run and try to stop the virus.

All the actors are in many ways playing against type. Gilliam had enjoyed Willis’s portrayal of McClean in the Die Hard films, but wanted to make him a more vulnerable anti-hero here who feels pain and mental erosion, despite his macho appearance. Gilliam was always a director who pushed himself and others in order that they see his vision, in that this film is no different. It is of course, even more than his previous film very adult in theme and has some wonderful surreal imagery such as the zoo animals in the abandoned Philadelphia (some of the imagery, while filmed in the city itself, the wintry scene, ice and animals were later computer generated).

As well as Willis, Pitt too was playing a different character to the one he had up to this point had been the cool kid, the stoner or the rookie. Here he plays a mentally unbalanced individual with a crooked eye and ticks, once again demonstrating his abilities as an actor.

Released on Arrow Video, this is a good package with the right amount of extras. There is a fascinating commentary track with producer Charles Roven and Gilliam; there is also a feature length making of documentary and an archived London Film Festival interview between Gilliam and Jonathan Romney made in 1996. There is also a critical appreciation with Ian Christie, a writer who has interviewed Gilliam and knows the filmmaker well. A solid package of a film that has dated well.

Chris Hick


Chris Hick