An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Bruce Willis on the trail of The Twelve Monkeys in the film of the same name. Photo PolyGram

Bruce Willis on the trail of The Twelve Monkeys in the film of the same name. Photo PolyGram - Credit: Archant

Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different

Bruce Willis with Madeline Stowe in the science fiction classic Twelve Monkeys. Photo PolyGram

Bruce Willis with Madeline Stowe in the science fiction classic Twelve Monkeys. Photo PolyGram - Credit: Archant

Twelve Monkeys; dir: Terry Gilliam; starring: Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeline Stowe, Christopher Plummer, David Morse, Carol Florence. Cert: 15 (1995)

As soon as you are aware of the lineage of this classic film you can imagine the trailer without any great difficulty. Cue the deep, gravely-voiced American narrator: “From the director of Time Bandits and The Life of Brian and the writers of Blade Runner, comes a film that turns time in on itself….See Bruce Willis as you have never seen him before as a man on the run across the centuries battling a virus which could destroy the Earth….”

All of which is true but rather reduces a complex and nuanced film into a series of stock clichés.

Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt with director Terry Gilliam on the set of Twelve Monkeys. Photo PolyGram

Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt with director Terry Gilliam on the set of Twelve Monkeys. Photo PolyGram - Credit: Archant

Twelve Monkeys is probably Terry Gilliam’s most complex film and it is certainly his masterpiece. He effortlessly combines a dystopian drama with a quirky, at times humorous, off-the-wall, delivery that only Terry Gilliam can visualise.

This is a complex film which demands that you pay attention but that engagement is well rewarded with a view of the future that is chillingly plausible. It also gives Bruce Willis a rare chance to cast aside his wise-cracking, devil-may-care action persona and gets to play it straight – or as straight as you get in a Terry Gilliam film.

Bruce plays James Cole, a convict from the future, 2015 to be precise, a future where humanity has been laid waste by a virulent plague. In the opening of the film we see Cole living with a handful of other human survivors in an underground shelter put together out of scrap and junk found in the wreckage of buildings.

Bruce Willis with Madeline Stowe in the science fiction classic Twelve Monkeys. Photo PolyGram

Bruce Willis with Madeline Stowe in the science fiction classic Twelve Monkeys. Photo PolyGram - Credit: Archant

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It’s less surreal than Brazil, less crowded than Blade Runner, but it shares a similar bleak vision of the future with both of those films.

In 2035, the few surviving humans scratch out a make do and mend living in the subterranean tunnels and cellars of New York City. It’s not safe outside on the streets. Most of the population may be dead (we learn that 5 billion people have died) has allowed the wildlife to reclaim the streets including some of the more ferocious inhabitants of Central Park Zoo.

It becomes clear that this is not a natural plague, it has been released by a terrorist group and Cole has been selected to journey back into the past, find who developed the virus and prevent it from being deployed in the future.

Bruce Willis on the trail of The Twelve Monkeys in the film of the same name. Photo PolyGram

Bruce Willis on the trail of The Twelve Monkeys in the film of the same name. Photo PolyGram - Credit: Archant

Unsurprisingly time travel is not an exact science and they have a couple of attempts to get it right before landing him in 1990, the year it is believed that work first started on the virus.

This is science fiction without space ships and flashing lights. This is a film about ideas but Terry Gilliam gives the film an almost operatic feel with its grand urban landscapes, vast areas of desolation and huge skyrise tower blocks.

Although the visuals are impressive, this is a film about character and it is the characters and the narrative which propel this film forward. At 130 minutes it’s a long film but it never feels as though it is dragging. Everything is tight and sharp and we are engrossed throughout the running time.

Bruce Willis’s James Cole arrives in 1990 battered and bruised and is immediately sectioned and put in a secure unit because he is babbling about being from the future. Here he meets two important people – Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), his psychiatrist, and fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). It turns out that young Goines father, played with suave callousness by Christopher Plummer, may be the man developing the virus in his laboratories.

Cole needs to gain access to the virus before it mutates which it did in 1996 when it jumped from animals to humans. He stages a daring escape and reappears in 1996 and pleads with the shocked and confused Dr Railly to help him track down 12 monkeys carrying the original virus so an antidote can be found.

It goes without saying that Willis’ James Cole is a charmer, so she agrees to help him but it quickly becomes clear that these scientists are not engaged in pure research as various bad guys are intent on deleting them from history.

Brad Pitt plays a smaller but pivotal role as the strange mental patient and provides some wonderful off the wall moments that make Gilliam’s films so interesting. It become more interesting when we discover that he an animal rights activist.

The movie is not a straightforward action thriller. Nor is it a run-of-the-mill science fiction romp. Instead it is a thoughtful look at what happens when the achievements of science outstrip our abilities to control what we have created and what happens when our ethics and morals get lost in the confusion.

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