Movie Review: 12 Monkeys


A man who believes he has been sent back from the future tries to stop a global pandemic outbreak.


Terry Gilliam, 1995

Ever since the outbreak of a deadly virus in 1996, what remains of humanity has lived underground. In 2027, a group of scientists have created a program that sends people back in time with orders to attempt to stop the outbreak. Convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) is selected to volunteer for the program, but he’s sent back too far. He is arrested and declared insane. Along the way he meets psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and fellow institution patient, the delusional and schizophrenic Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Eventually Cole finds his way back to the future, and they perfect the technology and send him to 1996. But Cole finds that his original trip has complicated his mission, with Railly and Goines both radically affected by their first encounter with him.


12 Monkeys is an interesting beast. It’s a quirky time travel film that goes hard without any time to slow down, but there’s something dated about it now. This 1995 Terry Gilliam offering is a lot more palatable to the general audience than some of his other films, I think, and that’s part of why it managed to gain some traction other than just critical praise. The future of 2027 is very Gilliam-esque, with strange labyrinthine structures and the disembodied voices of the bureaucratic establishment. The stuff set in Cole’s past is generally a lot more effective and interesting, mostly because a trio of solid performances. The strongest of these is from Brad Pitt. His Goines is magnetic to watch even when he’s repulsive, so it’s a bit of a shame when he’s underused in the second half of the film. Bruce Willis anchors the film as Cole, pushing his boundaries in ways he’s rarely pushed. Naturally, Madeleine Stowe gets the short end of the stick as Railly, whose established character traits seem to be easily changed whenever the plot calls for it.

It’s a plot that, for the experience scifi lover, makes it very clear what will happen in the climax before the end of the first act. There aren’t too many twists to change what we already know is going to happen, so the journey becomes the whole game. There are some interesting psychological aspects at play in the film, particularly with regards to Cole questioning his own sanity. The film becomes less interesting as it goes on, though, and it becomes more concerned with wrapping up the plot than exploring those aspects. The weird, trippy future is also at odds with the gritty, realistic past in which Cole finds himself, even if it has some nice stylistic touches. As is often the case with Gilliam, this is a highly ambitious film which is sometimes great.

12 Monkeys on IMDb


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