TWELVE MONKEYS, 1995
Cast: Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer
A prison convict from a bleak and devastated future is sent back in time to collect data about a man-made virus that will decimate the human race in 1996.
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Time-travel, madness, and monkeys. There are so many elements to explore in Terry Gilliam’s eighth directorial feature; it is incredibly difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start at the future.
The year is 2035. Mankind is forced to dwell underground due to the outbreak of a poisonous virus that destroyed the human population in 1996 and enabled the animal kingdom to once again inherit the world. Embracing the vision of a dystopian futuristic society (not as bureaucratic as in “Brazil”, but dangerous all the same), Gilliam presents this brutal world from the perspective of James Cole (Bruce Willis), a caged prisoner chosen for a scientific experiment that could return the humans to the planet surface.
Because of his excellence in observation, Cole is sent back in time to the year 1996 to discover clues about the apocalyptic disease that will wipe out the human race. However, he mistakenly arrives in 1990 and is jailed in a high-security psychiatric institution.
Understandably classified as a dangerous lunatic, Cole is psychoanalyzed by Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), who questions her own beliefs in mental psychiatry while sympathizing for her patient. While the devastated future is seen from Cole’s eyes, Gilliam forces the audience to experience the core storyline of “Twelve Monkeys” from Railly’s perspective. As the story unfolds into even darker realms, you can’t help but wonder if Cole is actually insane and his reality of the future is just a figment of his own overworked imagination.
Once locked inside the psychotic ward with the general population, Cole is introduced to fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (a superb, lazy-eyed Brad Pitt), the privileged yet still insane son of a world-renowned virologist (played by Christopher Plummer, doing his best Foghorn Leghorn). Though Jeffrey entertains the audience with his Dennis Hopper-like disturbia, he may indeed hold the key to locating the virus that destroys human civilization.
In order to effectively play Jeffrey, Pitt studied psychotic behavior in the psychiatric ward at Temple University’s Hospital. Even though the weight of his character’s dementia results from this methodic research, Gilliam got Pitt to achieve his hysteria by confiscating the actor’s cigarettes.
Although it was Pitt who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, it is Bruce Willis who deserves the loudest accolades. This is truly the best work of Mr. Willis’ career. Through his performance of the tortured and conflicted James Cole, Willis achieves anguish, despair, vulnerability, menace, and sorrow. I would not be surprised if Mr. Willis champions “Twelve Monkeys” above “The Sixth Sense”, “Pulp Fiction”, or any of the “Die Hard” movies.
Thanks to top-notch performances from the three stars and Mr. Gilliam’s expert handling of the material, this is truly an exhilarating and spellbinding motion picture. I have watched this movie several times over the years, and every time I see it, something new catches my attention.
At one point in 1996, Cole encounters the possibility that he himself introduced the idea to create a man-made illness to Jeffrey when they were incarcerated together six years earlier. However, and this is a spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the movie, consider the following: It is actually Dr. Railly who creates the mad scientist, since Dr. Peters (a truly creepy David Morse) is seen attending her seminar, building his hatred for the human race and realizing his destiny as its Grand Destructor.
“We’re telling a story that does demand a certain intelligence and patience,” says Mr. Gilliam. “And that’s why in the end, I’m curious to see how many people will put up with it.”The genesis of “Twelve Monkeys” began with a 1962 short by French filmmaker Chris Marker called “La Jetee”. Far less complicated than Mr. Gilliam’s feature, “La Jetee” focuses on a futuristic time traveler who is haunted by dreams of his own death.
“We used the situation of ‘La Jetee’ and the dream and so on,” says David Peoples, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Janet. “By the same token, ‘Twelve Monkeys’ is not based on it in the sense that somebody’s trying to copy this masterpiece in that way. It’s not a simple remake, and yet it has an enormous debt to ‘La Jetee’ that should be and must be acknowledged.”
Once the screenplay was greenlit by Universal Studios, producer Charles Roven maintained that the film, “because of its time-travel aspect and its different-worlds aspect, needed somebody who could give it a fantastic visual sense. And the perfect director for it was Terry Gilliam.”
Still smarting from his public confrontations with studio executives regarding the releases of “Brazil” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”, Gilliam had inadvertently become a sought-after Hollywood director in 1991 after the success of “The Fisher King.” Though preferring to direct his own screenplays, Gilliam was intrigued with the circulating storylines of time, individual perceptions, and madness.
“I don’t think this film is ‘La Jetee’,” Gilliam says. “Everything we’ve done is very complicated, possibly a lumbering, hunky, crash bang version of that. There’s such an ephemeral connection to it. At least, it was the springboard, but the diving board is not the dive. This is the dive and we are in the triple gainer with a double flip, and we’re about to hit the water . . . If there is water in the pool.”
Even though the film tested poorly at sneak previews in Washington, D.C., Gilliam, who was granted final cut privileges, decided not to alter the movie drastically.
Filmed in Baltimore and Philadelphia, Gilliam’s production crew built their stages upon dilapidated cathedrals and wasted industrial plants in order to portray the desolate world of a dying planet. Set decorator Crispian Sallis said, “Basically, we decided to create our own visual language based on any 1920s and ‘30s architecture we could find.”
In addition to salvaging these pieces for set design, the crew also centered on Philadelphia’s convention center, the Eastern State Penitentiary, Met Theater, and Regal Opera House. Once the crew wrapped in Philadelphia, production began in Baltimore where scenes were shot at the Westport Power Plant and BWI Airport, where the final scene of the movie was shot.