I have a love/hate relationship with director and Monty Python artist, Terry Gilliam. Sometimes he makes psychotically brilliant films that truly take our sanity and perceptions to bizarre new heights; wowing us with warped wonders we never knew imagined, such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).
Other times I feel his work is insultingly pretentious, nonsensical and so absurdly overly artistic, it becomes obnoxious, with an example being The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). He’s got a unique mind, which goes without saying, and one of the more enjoyable products of that warped mind was the Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt sci-fi time-traveling doomsday film, “Twelve Monkeys.” This movie has a lot going on, a lot of genres and themes blended together in an outlandish mix that only Gilliam’s brain could concoct. Is it bizarre perfection or pretentious nonsense? Let’s find out.
Twelve Monkeys – Plot
In the year 2035, all of humanity (save for 1%) has been wiped out by a devastating virus, forcing all remaining forms of life to live underground. A convict called James Cole (Bruce Willis) is forced to travel back in time to 1996 and gain information about the virus before the mysterious “Army of the 12 monkeys” unleashes it. He’s accidentally sent to 1990 instead, locked up in an insane asylum, and meets a caring doctor (Madeline Stowe) and a lunatic (Brad Pitt) who may very well be the keys to the virus’s origins. This movie is one of the most interesting projects to come out of Gilliam considering that it alternates between his abstract side and a more grounded, reality-based film. I say this because in almost every film he’s ever made, Gilliam has placed his abstract artistic side into every aspect and area of each film’s narrative.
Never once did any of his films truly feel like they had some semblance of reality. However, “Twelve Monkeys” keeps the surrealism separate and actually pins everything on a coherent endgame with the typical but still-enjoyable plot of preventing humanity’s destruction via a virus. Even in a tale about time travel and madmen, the film has a realistic goal and a point that doesn’t get lost in the twisted madness of Gilliam’s unique style. Bruce Willis and Madeline Stowe work well together, but in truth, one cannot talk about this movie without having multiple conversations about the most unforgettable element of the entire film: Brad Pitt.
Pitt earned his first golden globe because of his performance in this film and it’s not hard to see why. Pitt truly delves deep into the madness of his role, performing such unnaturally bizarre and convincingly insane mannerisms that you could almost believe he genuinely belongs there as a permanent resident in that asylum. As I said before there’s a lot going on! There are many elements from lethal viruses, revolutionaries, time traveling, a predestination paradox, estranged romances, and delving into the eternal question of whether or not humanity is worth saving. The visuals are striking and stunning; I’d expect nothing less from the same person who had an unrecognizable Johnny Depp swinging at imaginary bats in the desert with Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
In viewing Terry Gilliam’s work, you either accept his twisted vision so you can marvel at his movie’s celebration of madness and nonsense, or you realize it’s sometimes being weird for the sake of weird. Twelve Monkeys falls into the former category, and in my opinion works as a fine sci-fi thriller, as well as a pure form of entertainment.
I give “Twelve Monkeys” 3 stars out of 4.