“I want the future to be unknown. I want to become a whole person…”
Terry Gilliam has consistently been one of the most creative directors in Hollywood albeit not one of the most successful. This paradox shows that creativity and commercial success rarely go hand in hand. Gilliam has produced more thought provoking, evocative cinema than perhaps any other director of his era and Twelve Monkeys is surely one of his finest achievements.
A deadly virus has wiped out most of the worlds population leaving the last traces of the human race living underground. A group of scientists contrive to send a convict back in time to try to gather information on the virus in order to better help those in the future.
It gives you some idea of the perceived prestige of working with Gilliam that major star Bruce Willis agreed to defer his fee until the after the movie was released and he surely has no regrets about that decision. James Cole is one of Willis’ least heroic roles and therefore one of his most interesting. He is totally invested in the character without succumbing to scenery chewing, a pitfall that Brad Pitt unfortunately doesn’t avoid. Pitt has his moments as the psychotic Jeffrey Goines but his performance is a little too close to Jim Carrey territory for my taste. Madeleine Stowe is excellent as the measured Dr. Railly and it is her assured performance that helps to ground the film in its more outlandish scenes.
When done correctly, time travel is always a fascinating topic and Gilliam has form in this area having memorably touched on it in Brazil and Time Bandits. The various consequences and ramifications of what unfolds have sparked years of debate around the ending, and it can be interpreted in numerous different ways. An ambiguous ending is always the best when earned and the fact that I immediately started researching theories about the film as soon as the credits rolled is a fair indicator of how effective the ending is.
Along with horror, Sci-Fi is perhaps the most risky genre as when it goes wrong it goes REALLY wrong. All the more reason then to celebrate a classic like Twelve Monkeys and a director like Terry Gilliam. The only negative is there aren’t many actual monkeys in it. Monkeys are awesome.