Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.


Based loosely around Chris Marker’s excellent short film La jetée, Twelve Monkeys shows us the remnants of society after a freak virus forces the surviving population underground. Convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) is offered a pardon if he will submit to a time travel experiment in order to discover the origins of the virus so a cure can be engineered. Of course, when Cole arrives in the past speaking of time travel and infection, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) believes him to be mentally unstable. Can Cole convince her that he’s telling the truth and find a cure?

This really is a kick in the head. So many layers of story to peel back and enjoy, and then you can get into crazy theories… that’s what you get from the best Terry Gilliam. We’ll talk bad Terry Gilliam some other time; right now, this movie is goddamn cool.

If a bit messy.

You’ve got unreliable time travel bouncing Bruce Willis around while he tries to gain information, and the entire time that’s going on, everyone thinks he’s crazy, plus he can’t figure out if fellow asylum inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) is friend, foe, patient zero, whatever… plus six other things I don’t want to tell you. This ride’s just awesome.

My one complaint is that it can drag a bit on the way to the end. I was completely sucked in the first time I saw it, but this viewing left me wondering just how far away those big reveals were. There’s a good twenty minutes towards the end where I feel like, okay, what are we doing? Are we at least in the same direction as the conclusion? Yes? Brevity is one instance where the original outshines. Still, damn. Great flick.

If you’ve ever found Brad Pitt or Bruce Willis to be a one-note song, you haven’t seen Twelve Monkeys.

Fine, Brad, you can go first.

As a longtime Pitt hater, I finally clammed up when I saw this film. His portrayal of a mental patient is just balls-out crazy, hilarious, and terrifying. The fact that he’s funny and upsetting keeps you guessing on his role in the whole story. It’s been said that Terry Gilliam simply stole Brad’s cigarettes to get him to act this way, but you can’t tell me a characterization this great comes from just the need for a smoke.

Willis is also at his best here, giving a performance that’s equal parts frightened child and caged beast. It stands out from even his most famous roles. He projects the tone of every scene onto the audience, something vital to a story of this nature.

Madeleine Stowe greatly conveys the turmoil of whether James is insane, telling the truth, or she’s insane. She often seems to not be in control of her own body; the confusion has caused her to simply go, then think when she can. It’s very effective.

Then you’ve got your nutjobs and your sinister doctors taking care of the nutjobs. It’s a Terry Gilliam film, so they’re satirical cartoon characters that only become more off-putting by how hastily they’ve been sketched.

Every ’80s music video summarized.

Oh, and Christopher Plummer again! That guy may have the record for being in the most time travel movies without ever getting on the poster.

The future is pretty much Brazil, but not.

Form follows function… both of which follow bugfuck insanity.

The time travel itself is achieved by simple edits, though the machines are all impractically goofy steampunk clockpunk glasspunk stitchpunk tamponpunk coffeepunk alligatorpunk poppunk creations that look weird because weird is stylistic. You do your thing, Terry.

Give up? It’s a juicer.

Oh, wait, I forgot. The mid-nineties are when we thought CGI was good enough to make animals with. And it absolutely wasn’t. There are a couple scenes that go full Jumanji.

Because this movie is smart or whatever, we don’t get any overly dramatic table flippings and people screaming, “Time is for doo-doo-heads!” Instead, Kathryn tries to intellectually defend herself when she’s confronted by a colleague for believing James.

“And what we say is the truth is what everybody accepts, right, Owen? I mean, psychiatry…
it’s the latest religion. We decide what’s right and wrong. We decide who’s crazy or not.
I’m in trouble here. I’m losing my faith.”

Watch this movie. If you’ve seen it, watch it again.

Disney’s The Kid (2000)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.