Arrow Video: Twelve Monkeys (1995) - Reviewed

Undeniably the iconoclastic and surrealist writer-director’s greatest critical, commercial and arguable artistic success, Terry Gilliam’s expensive big screen transposition of Chris Marker’s 1962 avant-garde short film La Jetée into a modern day science-fiction thriller classic known as Twelve Monkeys (or 12 Monkeys give or take) remains as envelope pushing, genre-convention defying, confounding, fascinating and nightmarishly possible as it was when it first released in 1995.  Going on to spawn a hit Syfy television series of the same name in 2015 as the film approaches its 23rd anniversary, the good folks at Arrow Video have given the timelessly brilliant (or bonkers?) dystopian time-travel genre classic the 4K special edition treatment and with it remind modern moviegoers just how far inward you can reach with science-fiction.       

Opening in the distant post-apocalyptic future Hell of 2035 after a deadly virus unleashed in 1996 wipes out most of humanity with those left alive foraging deep in the underground, we meet prisoner/scientist(?) James Cole (Bruce Willis) who has been granted a second shot at parole in exchange for being sent back in time in an effort to track down the origin of the viral outbreak.  Inadvertently sent to the wrong year, Cole finds himself incarcerated yet again in 1990 before being institutionalized where he crosses paths with Jeffrey Goines (newcomer Brad Pitt in an Academy Award nominated performance), a mentally ill patient who may or may not have more to do with a rogue animal rights activist group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys than he leads on.  Along the way Cole encounters Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) who doubts the potentially mad ravings of Cole’s futuristic prophecies. 

The fate and survival of all humankind depends on Cole’s findings, or does it?  Cole himself is from a post-apocalyptic future sent back in time to alter the course of history, or is he?  One of the reasons why Gilliam’s film works so well, drawing from a brilliant script by dystopian sci-fi classic Blade Runner screenwriters David and Janet Peoples, is how it flirts and skirts between belief and doubt, suggesting our hero is either really from the year 2035 or he’s simply insane.  We’re as certain of the state of reality and time we’re in as the characters and that is arguably the film’s greatest strength.  It would be very easy to paint Cole’s journey as bona fide objective fact, but Gilliam provides such ample room for skepticism that we’re constantly kept on our toes.  

That Terry Gilliam was able to realize this film under the watchful (and previously combative) eye of Universal Studios is nothing short of miraculous, given the now infamous public spat the director had with then-CEO Sidney Sheinberg over the first entry in the loosely defined dystopian trilogy Brazil.  A common joke among industry insiders given the success of what is really an uncompromising work of art made with Hollywood money and big movie stars is asking Mr. Sheinberg how much he liked it.  Moreover, this was among the few pictures Gilliam himself didn’t write but took on as a director-for-hire, satisfying the demands of the box office while still making it through and through a pure Terry Gilliam picture.

This is part in parcel to the film’s excellent cast and performances, with Bruce Willis’ Cole carrying big, dangerous shoulders while also possessing a tangible vulnerability.  To see the action movie hero Willis taking on such a director driven movie (as well as a massive pay cut) remains a rare thing of beauty that only comes around once or twice in a lifetime.  Brad Pitt’s frenzied, manic and twitchy Oscar nominated performance in and of itself is a wonder to behold with the way he twists and jerks his head around and contorts his madcap face.  Now a big movie star and Hollywood heartthrob, fans and/or detractors of Pitt are inclined to revisit arguably the performance that successfully launched the actor’s career as a major industry player.  Equally strong is Madeleine Stowe as the sole figure in the present 1990s era who has doubts about Cole’s story but not outright denial either.

Visually the film is, in the time-honored tradition of its réalisateur, luminous and oppressive.  Lensed by veteran Gilliam cinematographer Roger Pratt (Brazil, Batman) we’re provided with an apocalypse torn future that in hindsight isn’t all that dissimilar from the present day, furthering Cole’s (and our) confusion about what’s real or imaginary.  As with Brazil, the film sports a brilliant production design by Jeffrey Beecroft which contains an eclectic mixture of set decoration of broken machines, television screens, tarpaulin and a bevy of real derelict and decrepit locations perfectly suited to Gilliam’s bleak and foreboding vision.  We’re also gifted with a slightly madcap score by Paul Buckmaster, with an opening cue inspired by Astor Piazzolla’s Suite Punta del Este which sounds frankly like an insane accordion teetering on the edge of madness.

A still engrossing future noir and case study of how a revered short subject can be transformed into a complex and enriching cinematic experience, Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys set the bar for science-fiction filmmaking so high it remains to be seen if anything remotely like it can be made in today’s studio tentpole driven system.  In 2013, Gilliam would revisit dystopian sci-fi once again with his slippery but still curious The Zero Theorem but never once does it grab with quite the ferocity Twelve Monkeys does with every viewing.  Much like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and of course like the screenwriters’ collaboration with Ridley Scott in 1982, Twelve Monkeys poses far more questions than it intends to answer and suggests the story we’ve witnessed is far from over and in continuum.  

Like any of the all-time great science-fiction films, the aims and interests are less concerned with a standard beginning-middle-end than asking deep philosophical questions about communication in an ever-evolving world increasingly dependent on technological advancement and whether or not society as a whole is necessarily better off for it.  Moreover, we’re left to wonder whether or not our own dreams and premonitory fears are just around the corner of becoming flesh and blood reality.

- Andrew Kotwicki