Twelve Monkeys (1995) – Film Review

★★★★✰ Bruce Willis travels back in time to uncover information about a man-made virus that wipes out most of humanity in Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys.

Bruce Willis travels back in time to uncover information about a man-made virus that wipes out most of humanity in Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys.

[Due to the nature of time travel movies this review may contain spoilers]

Terry Gilliam is known for his weird and wonderful output. Bringing us 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Time Bandits in 1981, he infuses a fantastical flair into his work. Twelve Monkeys is no different. Loosely resembling La Jetée, the film explores small subjects such as time travel and the end of the human race.

Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a crook imprisoned in a bleak future world. Tasked with the job of finding out more about the mysterious ‘Twelve Monkey’ movement and the man-made virus that eventually causes mass devastation he is sent back in time. Due to the difficulties posed by time travel there’s mishaps aplenty; instead of being transported back to 1996 he first finds himself in 1990 whilst later in the film he wakes to the sounds of world war.

It is in his initial trip that he first encounters Jeffrey (a manic Brad Pitt), a man suffering from severe mental problems. Sent to a mental institution for his proclamations about the future, James has more of an impact on the seemingly inconsequential year than he could ever imagine.

Throughout the film James is plagued by a vision of an airport. Seemingly benign, this vision, as one might expect, begins to hold more and more weight as the story progresses. Amidst the headache-inducing journeys backward and forward in time James grows attached to Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a woman who becomes unwittingly embroiled in the destruction of humanity.

Twelve Monkeys explores some rather interesting time travel problems, namely the problems associated with consequence, focusing on the impact one man can have on those around him. Paranoia is rife throughout the film, with many of its characters growing acutely aware of the world around them.

Whilst the film suffers occasionally from being a child of its time, with Gilliam favouring the Dutch tilt for many of the film’s shots, many of the production decisions help ground the film in a paranoid framework. The picture of the dystopian future painted here is uncomfortably realistic and is still as heavy-hitting today as it was upon its initial release in 1995.

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