Andy's Anachronisms
Time Travel Film Reviews

12 Monkeys (1995)
"The Future is History"

Directed by Terry Gilliam


James Cole (Bruce Willis) is living in a post-apocalyptic world where the population has been decimated by a deadly virus. As a virtual prisoner in an underground complex, Cole is selected by scientists to "volunteer" for a time travel experiment. The scientists want to send Cole back to 1996, the year before the virus wiped out 90% of the earth's population and try to locate its outbreak. Cole's mission is not to prevent the outbreak, but rather to try to obtain a pure sample of the virus so that scientists from Cole's time can better understand the virus and how to survive it.

During Cole's first mission to the past, the experimenters overshoot 1996 landing Cole in 1990. Assumed to be a raving homeless person, Cole is quickly arrested. After being locked-up in a mental institution for evaluation, Cole meets Jeffery Goines (Brad Pitt). Among Goines' beliefs is that there is a corporate conspiracy afoot to keep the citizenry placated and hungry for more goods to consume.

During Cole's second mission to the past he eventually lands in 1996 Baltimore after a brief detour to World War I France. Cole begins to suspect Goines may be behind the outbreak. Cole discovers Goines is involved with the army of the 12 Monkeys and that his father is renowned virologist working on deadly viruses. Enlisting the aid of the psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) assigned to assess him, Cole sets out to uncover the truth about the Twelve Monkeys and the end of the world before it is too late.


Written by husband and wife duo David and Janet Peoples (Unforgiven, Blade Runner), the couple acknowledge that the inspiration for their script came from Chris Marker's 1962 short French film La Jetée. Terry Gilliam claims not to have seen Marker's film prior to making Twelve Monkeys to avoid being influenced by it.

While the two movies share a number of elements in common, most notably the climatic ending at the airport, Gilliam chooses instead to focus on very different themes. Whereas La Jetée tends to convey a message concerning the horrors of atomic war and environmental destruction, Twelve Monkeys focuses instead on Cole's personal struggle and the question of whether Cole is truly travelling in time or just delusional. Several times during the film the Greek legend of Cassandra and the mental complex associated with her is mentioned. Mythology tell us that Cassandra was given the ability to fortell the future, but was cursed by the Gods so that no one would believe her. Gilliam has also said that man's isolation, not only from the environment, but from other human contact is also a central theme in the movie.

As with Terry Gilliam's other time travel movie, Time Bandits, Gilliam once again takes an ambiguous stance as to whether the time travel in Twelve Monkeys is real or imagined. On the one hand, a time traveller would sound insane if he came from the future and tried to convince people that the world was about to end. Then again on the other hand, a person could be delusional and just tell a good story. Gilliam heightens this ambiguity through out the movie with a number of subtle scenes that parallel each other. One example of this occurs after Cole returns from the surface in his own time at which point he is forced to go through a very thorough decontamination processed of being hosed down. This scene very closely parallels a scene where he is first brought into the mental hospital in the 1990s where he is hosed down as well.

As with all of Terry Gilliam's work (Brazil, Baron Munchausen, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Time Bandits) his visual style is very unique and 12 Monkeys is no exception. Shooting the post-apocalyptic scenes of the underground society in an abandoned power plant, Gilliam incorporated large portions of the machinery and plant into the set. Also the amount effort he spent designing and perfecting the large video ball that is used to interrogate Cole is astounding.

Contained on the DVD version of 12 Monkey's is a very interesting documentary called "The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys" which gives a unique behind the scenes look at the making of a film from concept to release and every stage in between. What emerges from the documentary is a frequently frightening portrait of a director who becomes obsessed with details and tends to loose focus on the project. The hamster of the title of the documentary refers to a scene in which James Cole (Bruce Willis) is seen taking a blood sample from himself after his return from the surface world. Barely noticeable in the background there is a silhouette of a hamster on an exercise wheel projected on a screen. While Willis performed his scene flawlessly the hamster had difficulty running on cue. Gilliam became obsessed with getting the shot right, taking the better part of a day shooting the scene over and over again until the hamster's performance satisfied him. Gilliam's artistic vision can be an asset as well as a liability when he is involved in a film. To his credit Gilliam's artistic vision and integrity made it possible for him to resist test audiences and the studio executives suggestions that elements of Twelve Monkeys be changed to clarify the story.

Twelve Monkeys clearly suggests a form of time travel where the past is immutable and that any effect a visitor from the future might have on the past is already anticipated. This is demonstrated by the climatic ending that shows Cole's fate has already been sealed by his own actions. With outstanding performances by both Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, Twelve Monkeys is a richly textured movie that demands repeat viewings and continues to be rewarding each time.

Return to Movies by Title Index

Return to Andy's Anachronisms Home

Andy's Review of La Jetée (1962)

Jump to Internet Movie Database for 12 Monkeys (1995)