Nutcase on a Case

“12 Monkeys” tells of a grim future where most of the human race is wiped out by a deadly virus. The resulting and peculiar setting has human survivors residing underground while animals are free to roam on the surface. A team of scientists sends a man named James Cole (Bruce Willis) back in time to investigate the source of the virus. His only lead is that a rebellious faction called the Army of 12 Monkeys is deemed responsible. The time machine places Cole to Baltimore in 1990. The time traveler however ends up in a mental institution. It’s an inevitable destination if one talks about coming from the future. Here, James Cole meets two integral characters: a nutcase played by Brad Pitt and a pretty psychiatrist played by Madeleine Stowe.

The premise of “12 Monkeys” is satisfying in its own surreal way. This is my first step into Terry Gilliam’s cinematic world. It might be dark but it’s also enlightening. There might be dread but it’s never dreadful. And while it starts from underground, the movie has a way of building up. I love the way the plot strangely develops as it generates theme after theme, idea after idea. Very few movies are able to rise above their material the way “12 Monkeys” does. It’s a highly evolved film.

As for acting, nobody could pull off James Cole as brilliant as Bruce Willis. He has a certain skill in convincing us that what’s happening to him is real no matter how unreal his world might be. It’s interesting to note that he utters the line “I see dead people all the time.” In the movie, he’s referring to all people who would eventually die of a virus. But one can’t help but be reminded of another dark and surreal film he would later take part four years later. Another revelation here is Brad Pitt, who takes a chance to sully his good looks by playing a loony. Still, the actor remains charming despite the crazy act. Leave it to the star struck Golden Globe voters to award him a Best Supporting Actor award for the role. Kevin Spacey would later beat him in the Oscars.

I’m quite surprise that Brad Pitt garnered much nominations for this film. I thought the screenplay and direction are more worthy for some awards. For fun, there’s the tinkering of time, which the film handles masterfully. In “12 Monkeys,” the chronological treatment is impressively complex without the side-effect of confusion. Its success reminded me of “Minority Report,” where precise premonitions play a big part to the story. The movie also contains one of my favorite themes: distortion of realities. Its psychological discussion of what’s real and what’s not is even more profound and palpable than what “The Matrix” has to offer. And finally, the movie has a special “something something” for some film buffs, particularly Hitchcock aficionados. My hands-down favorite scene occurs in a movie theater and one of the most emotional and longing film scores plays in the background.

If you notice I’ve been dropping film titles on this review. It’s pretty surreal to me how I’m reminded of movies both younger and older than “12 Monkeys.” The effect parallels that of the protagonist, who can move back and forth in time. As a viewer, it feels like I also traveled back and forth through movies of past, present, and future. Here’s what I call a timeless film.

Grade: A+

Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, and Christopher Plummer
Inspired by the short film
“La Jetée” by

Chris Marker
Screenplay by
David Peoples
Janet Peoples
Directed by
Terry Gilliam
Rated R for violence and language