Despite this easily being one of my all-time favourite sci-fi films, I’d neglected to rewatch it for the past few years, so this recent viewing was something of a resdiscovery for me.
Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt, 12 Monkeys is a time-travelling sci-fi thriller about a convict from the future travelling back in time to try to develop a cure for the deadly virus that has all but wiped humanity from the face of the earth.
Directed by the excellent Terry Gilliam, 12 Monkeys was inspired by 1962 French short film La Jetée, in which a man travels back in time from the end of the world.
Bruce Willis delivers what is possibly his best performance as James Cole, a prisoner from the year 2035 who is sent back in time by a team of scientists hoping that he can help cure the world-ending virus. In spite of Willis’ action star status, he delivers a measured, layered performance – filled with childlike wonderment and confusion, but with a dangerous, violent streak – and he makes for a fascinating protagonist.
However, in spite of Willis’ commendable performance, it’s Brad Pitt that steals the show. He might be one of Hollywood’s biggest pretty boys, but Pitt isn’t afraid to get weird with his roles, and his portrayal of the unhinged activist Jeffrey Goines is absolutely electrifying. There’s an energy to his performance that brings him right out of the screen, making Goines both intensely creepy and still somehow charismatic.
It doesn’t all hang on the acting, though. 12 Monkeys has a noir feel to it, mixed with a brand of mid-’90s existentialism that bears a stark contrast to the bleak future it promises. Through the eyes of Cole, the film manages to paint our modern world as the real dystopia – his resulting struggle with reality even as the plot develops around him only furthers the idea that our world is a mad, unsettling place.
There are a few issues with the film’s plot, though. There’s one or two unnecessarily winding elements that take just a little too long to play out, and a few aspects to the story that just feel a little too hollow.
Mostly, 12 Monkeys is a brilliantly self-contained world of time travel, madness and impending doom, but there’s also a vague hope buried in amongst it all. Overall, it’s well written, well conceptualized and brought to life with Gilliam’s signature madness, but most of all, it just works.
Summary: 12 Monkeys is dystopian sci-fi done right, with pitch perfect performances from two of Hollywood’s biggest leading men. It’s mind-bending and it’s absolutely unforgettable, even if it does stumble occasionally in its narrative.