12 Monkeys (1995)

By Afra Nariman

12 Monkeys (1995)

Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Stars: Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeleine Stowe

Plot Summary

A prisoner from the 2030’s named James Cole (played by Bruce Willis) is sent on a mission to the 1990’s to gather information that will help to stop the spread of a deadly virus that has already wiped out 5 billion people around the globe. While in the past, the complications that come with time travel get in his way.


Few films keep you as hooked to the television screen as this one. 12 Monkeys is not just any other time-travel, action thriller. Well, it is that, but it’s uniquely different and one of the more detailed and realistic (as much as it can be) films of that sort. The complications that would theoretically come with time travel arise to deter James Cole from efficiently completing his mission.

First, he is sent farther back than intended, to 1990 instead of 1996. Although this was an original mistake in their calculations, it served as an integral piece of the film’s evolving narrative. While in 1990, a disoriented Cole gets arrested for violence and placed in a mental institution, where he meets Jeffrey (played by Brad Pitt), an eccentric and manic patient at the hospital. While there, he also meets Kathryn, his psychiatrist who ends up being his partner later when he rightfully gets to 1996. His time in the hospital with Jeffrey and Kathryn, although unplanned and originally seen as a mistake, ends up playing a large role in his path to gathering the correct information in 1996.

The second complication of time-traveling that is highlighted in the film is the sense of delirium, or disorientation that Cole experiences, especially the more he jumps back and forth between time periods. It’s most noticeable the last time he visits 1996. Previously, Kathryn had not believed his story of time travel, the plaque or the 12 monkeys, and thought he was just another patient of hers in need of help. Since then, due to a few pieces of evidence, she had come to believe him. But when he arrived this time, he was so disoriented, he began to doubt his own reality and insisted to Kathryn that he was in need of help and that everything he had said, he does not know to be true anymore. These complications add an element of unexpected deterrence for Cole, Kathryn and the mission at hand.

12 Monkeys is thematically about madness and mania, highlighted by Brad Pitt’s performance as Jeffrey and the choice in cinematographic style. Jeffrey is clearly disturbed and manic. In all of his scenes at the hospital, he is spouting off about various things, his attention span is short, his actions are unpredictable, and the film features a sound effect while he talks or moves sporadically on screen that confirms his level of madness. Additionally, the film’s choice of camera angles: tilted shots, high angle and low angle shots and overall fluidity in the camerawork help the film capture the essence of madness and absurdity in its story and characters.

What’s most intriguing and entertaining about 12 Monkeys is that it reveals itself as the film progresses; it evolves with every new detail that it provides us. It keeps us on our toes and controls our senses, continuously keeping us thinking. The film’s ability to peak our interest consistently starts from the very beginning of the film, with the opening quote from an interview with a schizophrenic patient:

“… 5 billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997…

… the survivors will abandon the surface of the planet…

… once again the animals will rule the world…”

This excerpt from an interview with a clinically diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic from 1990 serves as the jumping off point in the creation of this film. What if he were right? That’s what the film responds to.

12 Monkeys also has depth to it. At the heart of the film is a subtle warning about the dangers and potential pitfalls of the ways in which we treat animals. Rather than showing us how the animals are directly affected, although in short moments we see that as well, the film attempts to reach people through the inherent selfishness of humanity: How will this affect you? This adheres to the overall tone of madness that film communicates through. The film explores this question through the 12 monkeys environmental organization led by Jeffrey’s expressive speeches, some conversations between Cole and Jeffrey and finally, by the idea behind the virus itself and the reasoning behind releasing it.

With a veil of despair and madness surrounding the film, 12 Monkeys immerses us in a classic time-travel, action thriller, that is unique due to its depth and ability to keep the audience guessing and thinking at every moment. It does so much and creates an entirely imaginative world with such efficiency. The film’s production is terrific, from acting to cinematography to its writing/directing. Brad Pitt’s performance was particularly exceptional. The film warns us of how fragile human life really is, while managing to serve us an incredibly entertaining and engaging story to submerge ourselves into.

Rating /4

Rating: 3.5 out of 4.

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