Twelve Monkeys Review

Initial, raw hatred for Twelve Monkeys has subsided over the three years since my last viewing. Somehow, I had failed to realise, all those years ago, that the real charm of Terry Gilliam was his artistry. No, I unfortunately do not remember what affliction to the brain I was suffering from all those years ago, but it must have been something near-fatal to consider Twelve Monkeys as anything less than a great piece from the former Monty Python member. His atmosphere and world-building abilities are dysfunctional and dystopian, as they always are. Inevitably, he borrows from the tones of Orwell and his own work on Brazil a decade before, but therein lies the fun and beauty of Gilliam’s consistency.  

It is with these consistently enjoyable themes that he can express some unique styles. His worldbuilding and set design is extravagant and exceptionally engaging because he knows he has found his footing almost immediately. With its dystopian nature setting the survivors of a global pandemic race underground, they are rabidly trying to figure out what happened. Enter James Cole, played by Bruce Willis. He is the unlucky sap sent off on a time-travelling expedition into the past, to figure out what caused this catastrophic nightmare. It would be a straightforward adventure through time if it weren’t for the unique spin Gilliam provides such a narrative.  

Twelve Monkeys benefits from the Dutch angles and the exceptional mania on display from Brad Pitt. It is the pairing of camera and meaning that produces the best results for Gilliam and his cast. A tour through the asylum allows Pitt to open up into some delightful, fast-paced spitballing. Pairing this with the rambling speech Jeffrey Goines (Pitt) opens up into gives Twelve Monkeys its finest scene. “There’s the television. Look, listen, kneel, pray.” his mania is infectious and engaging, the dialogue witty and biting, but to what end? What is Gilliam getting at? With Brazil, his tonal dominance comes from his acceptance of the failed Orwellian prophecy, and with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, while he ditches the strong, anti-Nixon prose of Hunter S. Thompson, offers a varying series of comedically-inflicted horrors in the heart of Las Vegas. What, then, does Twelve Monkeys set out to do? 

I’m still not sure, but what I do know is that Willis, Pitt and Madeleine Stowe are all tremendous. Perhaps the most convincing is the fear of death instilled in each character. They are shown moments of their demise in flashes of the future. That is enough to put the fear in any man, but again I must question the purpose. It is suitable for the narrative and very well put-together, but Gilliam’s themes of God, Hitchcock and fear of technology are present, but often not as effective as they should be. Still, Twelve Monkeys offers a director and cast at the height of their powers. The post-Pulp Fiction parade Willis would take us on was lightning in a bottle, and Pitt would feature in Fight Club soon after, but it was Twelve Monkeys, the piece Gilliam created between The Fisher King and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that I will always remember Willis and Pitt for.  

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