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The Test of Time: 12 Monkeys (1995)

01.29.2015by: Ryan Doom

We all have movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? So…the point of this here column is whether or not a film stands the test of time. I’m not gonna question whether it’s still a good flick, but if the thing holds up for a modern audience.

Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt

Of all the many, many, many TV shows adapted from the movie world, I have to admit there’s a hellva lot of films I expected to see before Terry Gilliam’s weird ass time-traveling masterpiece. But what do I know? And now that I’ve caught a few episodes on the SyFy channel, I have to admit it’s better than expected (that channel has suckered me before…). So, what a better time than now to check out the original mind-f*ck flick where Bruce Willis keeps getting washed by strange men with brooms.

Under the examination: 12 Monkeys

Even Brad thinks he did well.

THE STORY: In a crappy post-apocalyptic future, a lethal virus wiped away five billion folks in 1996, and decades later only 1% has managed to live. Convict James Cole is “volunteered” to go back in time to 1990 in an attempt to gather information about how it all started. He ends up in a mental ward where he encounters Dr. Railly (a shrink) and Jeffery Goines (a nut). Another jump in time to 1996 and things have changed again, this time involving the army of the 12 Monkeys. Can Cole save the day? Or is he just plain crazy? And why did I even attempt to explain the plot?

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: I’m not going to claim to be a Terry Gilliam expert or superfan. I’m not. Some of his work I dig, some of his work I just don’t get. However, I think it’s fair to say 12 Monkeys is one of his best. Granted, the Monty Python movies are true classics, but they’re within a subgenre all their own.

12 Monkeys is something else. The exploration of time, the seemingly insane or not, life and death, and reality and fantasy, it’s one of those films that truly does leave everything…confusing. 

I guess HD TVs don't survive the future.

The first thing that comes to mind are the performances. It’s funny watching this now out of context and see Brad Pitt just as he reached full star status. Hell, I nearly forgot he received a nominated for an Oscar (lost to Kevin Spacey for Usual Suspects) and damn he did deserve it. His introduction in the mental ward, with the tilted Batman-style cameras and Looney Tunes (well, some cartoon) blaring on the TV that sets the stage for just how confusing the plot will be. Pitt spits out information at a manic pace, with little to none of it making sense. But who cares? It’s entertaining. As is the decision to give him that lazy eye. It makes the character.

Even more impressive is Bruce Willis, which I say because now he either seemingly has forgot how to act or just doesn’t give a damn anymore. Regardless of go-through-the-motions now, the man was on a role in the mid-1990s, and he’s effectively haunted, mildly heroic, and thoroughly confused as the convict Cole. He looks the role, too. Filthy, tired, confused. Willis will never be remembered as a fine actor, but here he plays against type (apparently at Gilliam’s request) and it’s welcome.

And like any great movie, the music acts as its own character with one of the more bizarre themes by Paul Buckmaster (inspired by Astor Piazzolla's song). It works perfectly with the organ grinder/accordion sound, creating that circus atmosphere that a movie like this needs. (Oh, and it’s great to see Frank Gorshin in a major movie. Riddler!)

Plastic is the future in fashion.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: I love time-travel movies, and the more confusing and complex the story, the more its ends up interesting and rewatchable in an attempt to figure out what in the shit I just watched. With that said, it’s also a bit of a fault as things end up so complex and confusing that I don’t know how anyone on a single viewing could could figure out the plot. Consider this a minor bitch because honestly, I’d be full of it I write about what else blows. Not much does.

THE VERDICT: Good science fiction is hard to come by and 12 Monkeys is that. Inspired by the 1962 short La Jetee and written by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner), it hasn’t aged a bit. In fact, it somehow plays more poignant than ever. 




The Bubble Man.



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