"12 Monkeys" Review

Updated on April 5, 2019
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interest is science fiction and zombie movies. Pessimistic and survival films I also enjoy a lot.

From the very first moment we witness the flashback(?) at the airport, where a mustached man with flowered shirt and long hair is gunned down alongside the horrific screams of a beautiful woman in short dress and the astonished look of a child, accompanied by the mysterious Argentine tango of Paul Buckmaster, we know we are facing a sinister story about memories, perceptions and their reliability as faithful portraits of reality.

James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a prisoner of an underground steampunk Gilliamnesque compound. The year is 2035 and he is part of the 1% of the world population that survived the 1996 epidemic and was obliged to live below ground. Forced to “volunteer” to a surface exploration, Cole ends up being also selected for an experimental time travel to the past, to gather information that can prevent the 1996 catastrophe.

The main reason why Cole is selected for the trip is his allegedly good memory and ability to memorize details, which immediately tells us about the importance of memories and perceptions in the themes of this film.

Cole is sent to the past, but unfortunately 6 years earlier than expected. The collision with the social fabric is imminent and he is quickly locked up in a mental institute, where he meets an extroverted patient called Jeffrey Goines (in perhaps the best performance Brad Pitt has made in his entire career) and Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) to whom he explains the 1996 situation and the reason for his time-travel expedition.

Cole manages to return to the future, gather more information and make a trip back to the past, to try to complete his mission. Convinced that a guerrilla-eco-terrorist organization called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is responsible for the release of the deadly virus, Cole begins to tie the knots that would allow him to stop the catastrophe.

However, Cole also begins to realize how his past interactions with Goines (son of a billionaire virologist) and Dr. Railly were the catalysts for the catastrophic events to start their course.

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Director Terry Gilliam, of course, help makes Cole an unreliable narrator. The fact that his actions in the past are sometimes perfect mirrored in his future, leaves the doubt as to whether we are seeing beautiful coincidences or replicas of his imagination, adapted to his fictitious version of the facts.

The other option is not exactly inspiring either. The fact that Cole has created the temporary paradox of having inspired the army of the 12 Monkeys or even the real culprit Dr. Peters while at the same moment being incapable of avoiding it, is the Cassandra syndrome at its finest. It's the most cynical view possible, in which we are mere pawns of a destiny more than predetermined.

Of course, Gilliam stirs up the debate with that ending, reaffirming the possibility that Cole--in a redeeming-Christ-like fashion, could have inspired but also manipulate the timeline, even coming to predict it. That final ambiguity is the perfect dressing for this great dystopian neo-noir film, written by David Peoples (Blade Runner) and Janet Peoples.

12 Monkeys is a story about how the time-space context can turn a subject's memory into a coherent or demented one, without anybody being able to do anything about it.

Movie Details

Title: 12 Monkeys (Twelve Monkeys)

Release Year: 1995

Director(s): Terry Gilliam

Actors: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, a.o.

5 stars for 12 Monkeys

© 2019 Sam Shepards


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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      15 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      On my show list. Thanks. Well done article.

    • Sam Shepards profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Shepards 

      15 months ago from Europe

      Hi Guckenberger,

      I really like this movie. I saw it first when I was around 12 years old and have good memories of it. Back then I had not seen that many time travel movies yet. Some of the ideas were quite fresh. These days most people have seen more than a dozen movies with similar themes, but I still think it's great because of the style and 2 of my favorite 90's actors.


      I mean Willis and Pitt in their prime period.

    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 

      15 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

      I remember some of this movie. My Mom had rented it a while ago.


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