12 Monkeys (1996)

12 Monkeys
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples based on Chris Marker’s film La Jetee
(number 466)

I first watched this movie at the movies in 1996/7 (whenever it got released in NZ) with a bunch of my friends. I remember that we saw it at Midcity cinemas and I can’t remember why we went to go see it but it blew our minds. Once the credits started rolling we started arguing about what had actually happened. We eventually left the cinema but had to stop again at the top of the escalators. We realised we were in people’s way and went down the escalator before arguing again at the bottom! It’s one of those films.

This time round I watched it on a sick day when I had to keep going to the bathroom and had a nap halfway through. It was a really good nap.

The opening music and iconography in this film are killer. The weird red monkeys spiralling away, the insistent and mysterious tones of the music. Then it goes into a strange dream sequence and am even stranger reality where Bruce Willis is a captive who is forced to go into a post-apocalyptic frozen Earth to retrieve living specimens.

I very much enjoy this film but I can’t quite get away from the director’s quirks: so much detail in almost every shot, so much evil bureaucracy and weird torture/bondage whenever it can be justified. Once I notice a director’s quirks like this (when I don’t appreciate them) I find them a bit too obvious and therefore distracting.

Madeline Stowe is a psychologist in ‘the present’ where James Cole has been returned to. And she fulfills her role as a very beautiful therapist who makes a connection with James. He sweeps her up in his story later on because he didn’t know what else to do when he had no money. She goes from thinking he’s totally crazy to seeing evidence that he really is a time traveller. In the same moment he becomes convinced that she was right and he is totally crazy, meaning she has to convince him that the stuff he’s said previously was true. It’s a clever narrative switch which is the kind of thing I think is necessary in time travel movies because it’s so easy to have the same ‘avoid the paradox’ kind of plot. The smarter the better when it comes to time travel scripts.

Brad Pitt plays a delightfully nutty dude who James encounters a couple of times and he’s a brilliant kook to assign the guilt of the end of the world plot too.

Creepy voice character who follows James around is a specially terrifying touch. Can he be trusted? Who is he really? Is he on James’ side or does he want to help him? I remember it was the first time surround sound in a cinema really freaked me out, because when the voice is speaking to James for the first time in the cell the voice kept coming from a different single speaker, moving about the space of the theatre.

Does it make me love the people? I guess so. It’s not a deep riveting examination of the human soul but you can see these characters wanting to do what’s right – in their unique flawed definitions of right – and you do feel for them.

Bechdel test: Madeline Stowe’s Kathryn speaks to the woman cabbie and the ticket agent but sadly ‘woman cabbie’ and ‘ticket agent’ is how they’re credited so it doesn’t pass. Jones is the only other woman character with a name and significant lines but they never speak to each other.

Best line:
I really like James Cole: All I see are dead people. – on account of the 5th element pre-reference that happened.

But I think the actual best line is: Oh, wouldn’t it be great if I *was* crazy? Then the world would be okay.

State of Mind: I remember this movie packing a huge punch when I first saw it. I think it’s lost its impact on repeated viewings. That said there’s lots of neat bits and cool lines, and I ultimately think it’s a great film and worth seeing. Just maybe not too often.

… I wonder if I should track down the TV show they’ve made of it?

Watched movie count


4 thoughts on “12 Monkeys (1996)

  1. Have you seen the original short film, La Jetee? It’s pretty remarkable and only about 20 minutes long. I guess the latest version is likely to be the only American SF series based on a French Left Bank film.

  2. Have you started watching the tv series version??? Thoughts? So far I’m liking the actress who is playing the Brad Pitt character, I totally buy her acting πŸ™‚

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