Favourite Films: Twelve Monkeys

Above: “I am the man who kills Bruce Willis” – the actor with the dubious and singular honour of killing Bruce on-screen is coached by Terry Gilliam”

Most of you will know about my mild obsession with Terry Gilliam and his amazing films. Gilliam’s movies are some of the most regularly re-watched in my extensive collection, along with those of the Coen Brothers and Christopher Nolan. All of them delight in visually stunning extravaganzas combined with off-beat yet engaging characters, and Twelve Monkeys is no exception.

Twelve Monkeys is Gilliam’s 1996 sci-fi time-travel confuso-thriller starring Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Madeline Stowe amongst others. The basic story is based around the surreal French short film La Jetee, centering around a man from the future who has seen his own death as a child. In this re-telling our soon to come dystopian future has the remnants of he human race living underground, holding on after a devastating virus has killed most people. Willis plays James Cole, a prison inmate chosen to go back into the past to try and investigate what happened and ultimately retrieve a pure source of the original virus so the future/present scientists can create a cure. With me so far? Well there be spoilers ahead, so be warned.

Once back in the past Cole is captured and put in a psychiatric ward as no-one believes his stories of a destroyed future, and it is here that we first meet Brad Pitt as the crazed son of a Nobel prize winning virologist (played by Christopher Plummer). This was a stand out transformative role for Brad Pitt, previously type cast as a dull pretty boy – remember this was before Fight Club. Many people did not believe Pitt could do the role, but Gilliam pushed through and rightly so – never doubt Terry’s eye for casting. Great stuff.

From here things get even more confusing, with Cole moving back and forth in time and falling in love with his psychiatrist, played by Madeline Stowe. Eventually she starts to believe his apocalyptic ‘visions’ and goes from being kidnap victim to willing participant in an extreme example of Stockholm syndrome. At the end they agree to escape together to sunny Florida and end up at an airport where Cole is shot right in front of his young/past self while attempting to kill the real person behind the contagion. Cole has failed, the contagion will be released and his attempt to escape into the past has come to naught. Of course it’s a reflection of how dense Gilliam’s movie is, that it was only on this re-watching that I realised that when the real bad guy gets on the plane he sits next to one of the scientists from the future who introduces herself as working ‘in insurance’ – genius.

This really is a must watch movie, second only to Gilliam’s Brazil for a dark future vision, with stand out roles from a trio of top notch actors. You may find it a bit confusing at first, as time travel plots are never the easiest to understand, but the effort is well worth it. Plus on the DVD there is ‘The Hamster Factor’, a fascinating behind the scenes documentary named after Terry’s obsession with the detail that drips off every image. What do hamsters have to do with it? Well in a scene where Bruce Willis is sitting naked in a lab drawing his own blood for scientific tests there is a hamster in a wheel in the foreground. This small element of the overall scene is of particular importance to Terry as part of the symbolism of the movie, and getting the correct ‘performance’ out of the hamster (as well as his human co-star) is what makes a Terry Gilliam film a Terry Gilliam film – much to the general chagrin of most of his financiers. However we, his viewers, love him for this dense, obsessive approach to the visual art of film making.

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