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’12 Monkeys’ Speaks to Our Current Crisis

Terry Gilliam's mind-bending classic offers hope, chills and Bruce Willis at his best

When the Coronavirus initially began to spread, it made many consider how fiction has been warning us of such a phenomenon for decades.

Suddenly, we had to adjust to scenarios we’ve been thoroughly cautioned about in either bleak sci-fi (“The Andromeda Strain”) or scarier non-fiction (“The Hot Zone”).

In the early days of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the question I’d get the most from friends and family (after we’d get past “How are you holding up?” and “Is your family doing okay?”) is “Hey, have you watched ‘Outbreak’ lately?”

A close second? “Have you seen ‘Contagion?’ We just watched it last night!”

Contagion (2011) Official Exclusive 1080p HD Trailer

During this time of adjustment and maintaining patience, I’ve been turning to film art for comfort, reflection, nostalgia and inspiration. It’s why I’ve been avoiding movies like “Outbreak;” it scared me in 1995, I haven’t seen it since and I know I’m not ready now to give it a revisit.

Ditto “Contagion.”

Watching extreme Hollywood versions of humanity dealing with viral outbreaks isn’t high on my to-do list at the moment (maybe later).

On the other hand, I was drawn to Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” which doesn’t offer cheap uplift (or any uplift), or an optimistic resolution. It doesn’t end with Dustin Hoffman tracking down a troublesome monkey or Matt Damon allowing his daughter to socially un-distance herself from her boyfriend while U2 soars on the soundtrack.

Despite how grim, uncompromising and devastating Gilliam’s film is, I found it to be as engrossing as I remember but enlightening, too. The film is about the search for truth, the value of human life, embracing every breath of life we’ve got and striving for the best, even as the outcome seems inevitable, because it is.

“12 Monkeys” was a masterpiece in 1995. Today, it’s a whimsical plea for understanding.

12 Monkeys Official Trailer #1 - (1995) HD

Gilliam’s film is set in 2035. It begins with this dour title card:

“Five billion people will die from a virus in 1997.
The survivors will abandon the surface of the planet.
Once again, animals will rule the Earth.”

The downside is that humankind seems doomed. The underground world housing humankind appears to be made from a scrap heap, as though the remains of every thrift store were combined to assemble a makeshift community. It looks dirty, unsanitary and dinky. The upside is that time travel has been invented and attempts are being made to send someone to the past, obtain vital information and, if all goes well, save the future.

Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a prisoner in this society, randomly selected to travel back to 1996 and retrieve information on the plague’s origin and who are the Army of the 12 Monkeys. This latter detail is key, as Cole’s journey meets a pivotal intersection early.

While locked up in psychiatric ward, Cole encounters Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a crazed but clever inmate who emerges not only connected to the Army of the 12 Monkeys, but their eventual leader. Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe). She’s Cole’s assigned psychiatrist at first, but later she becomes his hostage.

12 Monkeys (1/10) Movie CLIP - The Scientists' Offer (1995) HD

Gilliam, on a rare, post- “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” hit streak (the equally successful and startlingly brilliant “The Fisher King” opened four years earlier), is in his element.

Despite not penning the dizzying, carefully constructed screenplay, his thematic and visual fingerprints are all over this. The former Monty Python member offers another early variation on “Don Quixote,” a lifelong obsession, as Cole is akin to a Quixote-like dreamer and Jeffrey is kind of like his (far battier) Sancho Panza equivalent.

There’s also the portrayal of authority figures as oblivious, unhelpful idiots, with a visual nod to “Brazil” (still Gilliam’s greatest achievement), as a computer screen distorts the face of a bureaucrat.

David Webb Peoples, who co-wrote “Blade Runner” and authored Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” adapted “12 Monkeys” from Chris Marker’s celebrated 1962 short film, “La Jetee.” The “12 Monkeys” screenplay, co-written by Janet Peoples, David’s wife, is every bit as daunting, audacious and impressive a tonal and narrative balancing act as Richard Gravanese’s screenplay is for “The Fisher King.”

A sequence taking place at an airport is shown, in part or whole, six times in different ways. I won’t describe why our vantage point alters with each glimpse, but I admire how the Peoples have created an internalized Rashomon Effect for the audience to dissect.

Willis’ raw, surprisingly vulnerable performance is his best. While the actor will forever be cited as “the star of ‘Die Hard,’” the range and inventiveness of his work here isn’t just merely good, its startling.

Cole is akin to Cassandra, as Dr. Railly defines her: “the agony of foreknowledge and the impotence to do anything about it.” That angst and desperation is exuded in Willis’ total embodiment of the role. Note the moment where he hears “Blueberry Hill” on the radio -- the camera lingers on Willis (whose character has been “underground since he was 8-years old”), who reacts like he’s hearing the most gorgeous music ever composed.

Willis is up to the considerable level of difficulty in the role.

12 Monkeys (3/10) Movie CLIP - Plague of Madness (1995) HD

Pitt, in the performance that made him a character actor and exonerated him from playing dour, long-haired dreamboats, is spectacular. Pitt’s hilarious turn, powered by an unsteady energy, feels like a dry run for Tyler Durden.

Stowe’s enormously under-appreciated performance is a major key to the film’s success; her role isn’t the showiest but her character’s rational thinking (at least, for a while) helpfully puts us in her shoes.

David Morse has played some unstable characters before but his brief, vivid turn in this really scares me. “Batman” veteran Frank Gorshin has a field day in Gilliam Land and Christopher Plummer is a good sport in an unflattering role.

The unusual, dynamic score is by Paul Buckmaster, whose main theme sounds like a limping accordion (not a bad thing), is interspersed with somber strings and other playful touches. Few scores sound so perfectly like the inner soundtrack of its filmmaker.

Cinematographer Roger Pratt maintains Gilliam’s cockeyed vision of the world, as some shots, with their robust art direction, resemble no less than a circus gone amok.

RELATED: Willis (Barely) Goes Through the Motions in ‘Extraction’

A fascinating complication the screenplay doesn’t really need but sees through to the end is how Cole, on top of sudden hallucinations (or are they?), is hearing a voice. Character actor Harry O’Toole gives a vocal and occasional physical performance as “Raspy Voice” (as the end credits deem him) and his contribution is unnerving.

It also ups the stakes for Cole. We’re always wondering just how dangerous he is, and, like any great, unreliable protagonist, we question whether we trust him.

If Dr. Railly is standing in for the audience, then Cole is the wild card, a visibly unstable brute whose glimpses of humanity and long neglected tenderness are his sole redeeming factors. Otherwise, Cole is quick to maim, even murder.

It’s to the credit of Willis and the filmmakers that Cole is never painted as a “hero.” If anything, Dr. Railly fills that need but even her grip on “reality,” like Cole and Jeffrey, shifts considerably by the third act.

12 Monkeys (7/10) Movie CLIP - The Great Escape (1995) HD

“12 Monkeys” is now 25 years old. For a movie with incredible imagery and memorable comic excursions, its dramatic power has lost none of its potency. Gilliam’s fiendish sense of humor helps as much as Pitt’s wildly funny performance, but the film is truly somber, a distinction visible in its take on time travel.

A focal point of “12 Monkeys” is its premise that time travel is a doomed undertaking which no human being should ever attempt. I won’t go into spoiler territory, but here, for example, is why the film is better than that other beloved sci-fi time-hopper celebrating an anniversary, “Back to the Future.”

Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 comedy/fantasy is based on the premise that its protagonist, Marty McFly, can’t go back to his present time (1985) without playing cupid to his parents in 1955. Apparently, nobody involved in that film has read any Ray Bradbury.

Marty, at one point, outwits Biff, a timeless butthead, by dispatching him with a truck full of manure (you know the scene).

Back to the Future (7/10) Movie CLIP - Skateboard Chase (1985) HD

No one ever stops to think of the manure truck driver, who likely lost his job or was, at the very least, severely late for having to clean up stacks of manure spread around the town square of Hill Valley. That manure driver may have been able to retire, had that one last manure drop gone well, had it not been interrupted by a car that was distracted by a kid on a skateboard.

It’s also likely that the manure driver, out of severe depression from the wreck of his car (with Biff unlikely having auto insurance), losing his fiancée (she was always embarrassed to be engaged to “The Manure Guy”) and his livelihood, hung himself that night. His suicide note, written in pencil, nevertheless carried the smell of manure days later.

You see where I’m going with this?

Marty McFly is as cautious about altering the space time continuum as I was at “not touching anything” while I’d race down each aisle of Toys R’ Us in my childhood. Perhaps even more troubling is that McFly’s mission is so self-serving and single-minded, he doesn’t even consider that, for the sake of the universe, perhaps he should just make ’55 a suicide mission and trust fate to carve out whatever world evolves after he, and his badly dressed siblings, erase in that dopey photograph.

RELATED: Why ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ Was Worth the Wait

“Back to the Future” exists in a world where time travel is something you can keep doing, going back and forth, and constantly, and neatly, altering time as you see it fit. It’s a troubling notion. The ending of “Back to the Future,” which co-star Crispin Glover still objects to, finds Marty’s efforts rewarded by a heavy dose of 80’s materialism.

Here’s why that sequence is so much worse than you remember: post-Big Climax, Marty returns to ’85 and finds a glossy, slick (and let it be said, soulless) home, inhabited by his now-insufferably slick parents and his now-creepy, suit and tie siblings.

The new McFlys are not only strangers but seemingly among the aliens-in-disguise from John Carpenter’s “They Live.”

“Back to the Future” works like time is an erase board, where you can figure out the how to constantly add and subtract elements from existence (this, in fact, is literally a scene in “Back to the Future, Part II”). In that movie, time is circular, a merry-go-round that starts and stops and you can change it each time you take the trip and it can come together exactly as intended.

In “12 Monkeys,” time isn’t divided by alternate lines and alternate versions of reality. As Cole discovers and those loopy scientists never quite figure out, time is all one line, with everything happening right now, as past and present intersect in ways that were always going to happen.

The past can be visited but not altered, as our human behavior, our sense of what is “right” and worth fixing and our own errors that we make along the way have no audience for the space/time continuum. Like Shane Caruth’s micro-budgeted, 2004 “Primer” (my other favorite sci-film on the subject), time travel is destined to fail because of the people who undertake such a mission are capable of human error.

Seeing “12 Monkeys” through contemporary eyes, as our world is currently at the mercy of a deadly virus and humanity is in a state of instability, the film resonates in a meaningful way. Willis has a line that chilled me for how familiar it sounded: “You won’t think I’m crazy when people start dying next month. They’ll say it’s just a fever…”

FAST FACT: Gilliam credits a number of factors, from a friendly Dec. 27 release date to a suddenly bankable Brad Pitt, for “12 Monkey’s” box office success. The film earned $57 million at the U.S. box office.

In the world of 2035, the human race has lost, animals are in control of the surface and any chance for a return to order is at the hands of scientists who come across is incapable and short-sighted. Nevertheless, in addition to somehow discovering time travel (the film wisely never over-explains exactly how it works), humans are still pushing to make things right.

Despite how bleak things are at the beginning of the film, we’re seeing the final remnants of humanity, making a desperate but dedicated attempt to pull off the impossible. It’s downright inspiring, though it comes with a dark twist -- Cole would find the greatest relief if he wasn’t a time traveler, if the whole thing was in his head.

It would be a comfort to mankind’s last hope if his role in saving the world were only a fantasy. You won’t find a more Gilliam-esque concept than that.

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