With the return to form that was "The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus", I decided it was time to go visit a favorite Gilliam film of mine, the very dark and odd "12 Monkeys". Not a picture that fits in his normally fantastical style, this bleak and oddly very realistic science fiction tale is expertly executed on all fronts. It's superb all the way around from its weird time jumping structure to its technical prowess of getting the audience to forget how it should end. One of my favorite, if not one of the best, science fiction films out there.
A convict from the not too far future Cole (Willis) has been randomly chose for a project by the government to investigate the virus that destroyed most of humanity and forced the rest to live underground. They are looking to find the source of the virus and how it was originally released so they can stop it from ever happening. How, you ask? They send this man back in time on a mission to further research the outbreak and stop it by using an early form of time travel. Now Cole has to desperately grasp onto his own sense of sanity and figure out what happened. Somehow it all seems to be linked to a mysterious rebel group, the 12 Monkeys, and their insane leader Jeffrey Goines (Pitt).
Unlike many of Gilliam's other films, "12 Monkeys" very much grounds itself in a realistic way. There are only a few fantastical (and very "Brazil" inspired) moments throughout the film, most of which occur in the 'future' or the mental ward where our hero ends up for a spell. These are almost satirical in their manner and a great counter to the very gloomy tone of the film's story. The director has always been able to balance serious drama, comedy, and fantasy well, but it's at high marks here with "12 Monkeys".
The film also has a great build towards its final moments. Watching Willis' character transform and go through the ordeals he does is a riveting watch (which is only matched with a stellar supporting cast including an Academy Award nod performance for Brad Pitt) and with the film's oddly distorted structure and time leaps, the audience is pulled into the realm with relative ease. By the end, one is so desperately wanting Willis to succeed with his goals that its basic sci-fi question ending, can one truly change the past to affect the future, becomes an overwhelming anxiety. This kind of execution of film can't be under-appreciated.
"12 Monkeys" easily surpasses many of Gilliam's films (which says a lot in itself) and highlights just what science fiction can do in this modern age. It never feels cheesy and it never fails to succeed on every level as a film. Although the odd humor might throw some viewers off, it is very British at times, "12 Monkeys" is still one of my favorite film experiences. Expertly done and a fantastic watch.
Written By Matt Reifschneider