12 Monkeys (1995): Terry Gilliam’s Dark Sci-Fi Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Christopher Plummer, Brad Pitt

A dark, somber sci-fi in the mold of Blade Runner, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys is a spectacular mess, an excessively complicated film that attempts to be timely by blending the genres of a “virus” thriller and a post-apocalyptic (anti-science) drama.

12 Monkeys
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Theatrical release poster

Gilliam’s seventh feature is neither as visually compelling as Brazil, his success du scandal, nor as emotionally gripping as The Fisher King, his latest and one of his few commercial outings.

A cast boasting two of Hollywood’s hottest stars, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, should elevate the movie’s visibility in the crowded holiday season, and help it make its mark on the box-office.

A visionary filmmaker, Gilliam has few competitors when it concerns sheer inventiveness and visual imagination. In each of his films, he has constructed a universe that overwhelms the senses with a bravura art design, but in the process, he neglects dramatic logic and narrative coherence, basic principles that would make his stories more involving and more meaningful. Gilliam’s work is long on sensibility, short on sense.

Source of inspiration for 12 Monkeys is Chris Marker’s La Jetee (aka The Runway), a landmark New Wave film of l962, whose running time is a mere 27 minutes. Nonetheless, its impressive black-and-white imagery, grim voice-over narration, and dense texture perfectly convey the gloomy post-apocalyptic tale of a young man obsessed with an eerie image from the past, though he’s never sure if the image is a dream or reality.

Similarly, the new movie begins with a wonderfully executed airport scene, where a boy (Joseph Melito) with magnificent blue eyes watches in sheer terror the killing of an innocent man. This scene, which becomes the film’s dominant motif, serves as visual clue and point of departure to the mystery that unravels onscreen.

The story is set in a desolate netherworld in 2035 (a mythic year in American sci-fi), following the eradication of 99 percent of the Earth’s population. To reverse their fate, i.e. unravel the menace that threatens to erase all humanity, the survivors turn to time travel as their only hope. A group of scientists living beneath Philadelphia enlist Cole (Bruce Willis), a man who’s in prison, to embark on a dangerous trip back to l996. Obsessed with a haunting image from his childhood which he’s desperately trying to understand, Cole is a reluctant “volunteer”; a successful completion of the mission will buy his ticket to freedom.

Back in time, Cole lands in a mental institution under the supervision of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a distinguished psychiatrist and author whose areas of expertise are madness and prophecy. Central interaction in the asylum is with Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the unstable son of the renowned scientist Dr. Goines (Christopher Plummer). Jeffrey runs around, proclaiming the End of Civilization with statements about capitalism, consumerism, and the evils of modern science, specifically the lab experiments conducted by his father.

At first, it’s easy for Dr. Railly to diagnose Cole as delusional for he himself questions his sanity. Nonetheless, two bizarre clues continue to torment him: the airport memory and some puzzling symbols from a group called “The Army of Twelve Monkeys.” In the course of an overly long (131 minutes) and convoluted plot, Dr. Railly falls for the tortured man. As their relationship deepens, after she’s kidnapped and held hostage by Cole, she, too, begins to believe in his prophetic warnings of doom.

12 Monkeys was co-written by Oscar-winner David Peoples (Unforgiven) and his wife Janet, in their first collaboration. David’s pen explains the similarities between this film and the far superior l982 classic, Blade Runner that he had scripted for director Ridley Scott. Though Gilliam didn’t write the scenario for 12 Monkeys, in many respects it’s a summation work, underlying recurrent themes that run through all of his oeuvre: the fine line between sanity and madness, the ambiguous gap between past and present, the tenuous distinction between fantasy and reality, the failure of modern science, the tyranny of reason, the mythic value of time travel.

However, unlike the satirically Orwellian Brazil, the new picture lacks humor and sharp commentary. Moreover, its look and tone are incoherent, changing from sequence to sequence. Gilliam displays his extraordinary fantasy and penchant for multiple time frames to little dramatic or emotional effect. As always with Gilliam’s films, the first reel is suspenseful and engaging, but gradually, the loose-knit script loses its grip and meanders from one context to another; there are escapes and chases to pump up the proceedings.

The helmer’s strategy is to frenzily pile up elements of mystery, mythology, romance, and even whimsy. But by the end, when the conundrum of the “Twelve Monkeys” is revealed, there is a sense of deja vu and genuine dissatisfaction.

The illustrious cast can’t overcome entirely the cartoonish nature of their characters and the fact that the function as minor elements in the director’s grand composition. Willis is well cast as the reluctant, silent hero, though playing a victim manipulated by “the system” may not be what audiences expect of an action hero.

Stowe is as ethereally beautiful as ever, but she can’t find interesting dimensions in a role that might offend psychiatrists in general and female practitioners in particular. Cast against type, and appearing in a deliberately deglamorized look, Pitt renders an over-the-top performance of a “mad,” rebellious son engaged in a Freudian conflict with his dad. It’s the kind of showy turn that tends to receive Oscar nominations.

Under these constraints, the film’s main joy resides in observing the majestic peculiarities of Gilliam’s ever-fanciful universe–the real star of the movie–the collective product of Roger Pratt’s ace lensing, Jeffrey Beecroft’s awesome production design, WM Ladd Skinner’s imposing art direction, and Vincent Montefusco’s grand special effects.


Bruce Willis as James Cole
Joseph Melito as young James Cole
Madeleine Stowe as Dr. Kathryn Railly
Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines
Christopher Plummer as Dr. Leland Goines
David Morse as Dr. Peters
Jon Seda as Jose
Christopher Meloni as Lt. Halperin
Frank Gorshin as Dr. Fletcher
Vernon Campbell as Tiny
Lisa Gay Hamilton as Teddy
Bob Adrian as Geologist
Simon Jones as Zoologist
Carol Florence as Astrophysicist/Jones
Bill Raymond as Microbiologist
Annie Golden as Woman Cabbie
Thomas Roy as a street preacher


Directed by Terry Gilliam
Screenplay by David Peoples and Janet Peoples, based on La Jetée by Chris Marker
Produced by Charles Roven
Cinematography Roger Pratt
Edited by Mick Audsley
Music by Paul Buckmaster

Production companies: Atlas Entertainment Classico

Distributed by Universal Pictures

Release date: December 29, 1995 (US)

Running time: 129 minutes
Budget $29.5 million
Box office $168.8 million