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Twelve Monkeys (12 Monkeys) (1995)

tomatometer

88

Average Rating: 7.4/10
Reviews Counted: 58
Fresh: 51 | Rotten: 7

The plot's a bit of a jumble, but excellent performances and mind-blowing plot twists make 12 Monkeys a kooky, effective experience.

85

Average Rating: 6.9/10
Critic Reviews: 20
Fresh: 17 | Rotten: 3

The plot's a bit of a jumble, but excellent performances and mind-blowing plot twists make 12 Monkeys a kooky, effective experience.

audience

88

liked it
Average Rating: 3.7/5
User Ratings: 386,360

My Rating

Movie Info

An intense film about time travel, this sci-fi entry was directed by Terry Gilliam, a member of the comedy troupe Monty Python. The film stars Bruce Willis as James Cole, a prisoner of the state in the year 2035 who can earn parole if he agrees to travel back in time and thwart a devastating plague. The virus has wiped out most of the Earth's population and the remainder live underground because the air is poisonous. Returning to the year 1990, six years before the start of the plague, Cole is

Mar 31, 1998

Universal Pictures

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All Critics (58) | Top Critics (20) | Fresh (51) | Rotten (7) | DVD (20)

While all of Gilliam's movies are worth seeing, there's a fair amount of his designer grimness here mixed in with the cabaret comedy.

May 27, 2011 Full Review Source: Chicago Reader
Chicago Reader
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Neither as visually compelling as Brazil nor as emotionally gripping as The Fisher King.

March 26, 2009 Full Review Source: Variety | Comments (3)
Variety
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Gilliam gives the material a lunatic poetry of his own, but remains impervious to the requirements of narrative pacing.

June 24, 2006 Full Review Source: Time Out
Time Out
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Dark and somber like Blade Runner, this sci-fi is a spectacular mess, a convoluted film with too many ideas for its own good, blending (among other things) the virus thriller with the post-apocalyptic genre.

August 12, 2005 Full Review Source: Variety
Variety
Top Critic IconTop Critic

There's always overripe method to his madness, but in the new 12 Monkeys Mr. Gilliam's methods are uncommonly wrenching and strong.

May 20, 2003 Full Review Source: New York Times
New York Times
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Bruce Willis, in an eruptive performance of startling emotional intensity, stars as Cole, a prisoner tagged for an experiment that may get him killed.

May 12, 2001
Rolling Stone
Top Critic IconTop Critic

One of the best-looking and smartest sci-fi films of the modern era.

December 19, 2012 Full Review Source: Antagony & Ecstasy
Antagony & Ecstasy

Terry Gilliam has seldom been more inventive or more compelling.

August 16, 2011 Full Review Source: Cinema Sight
Cinema Sight

Gilliam goes on to deliver a movie that is not only rich in visual detail but offers an involving, occasionally baffling storyline and builds the tension to positively unbearable levels during the final reel.

May 27, 2011 Full Review Source: Film4 | Comment (1)
Film4

Gilliam's greatest all around film.

March 4, 2011 Full Review Source: Three Movie Buffs
Three Movie Buffs

speculative fiction at its best in that it doesn't just trifle with science fiction concepts, but rather tells a grander story with characters and world disasters

March 2, 2011 Full Review Source: 7M Pictures
7M Pictures

Terry Gilliam's violent dystopian masterpiece.

January 1, 2011 Full Review Source: Common Sense Media
Common Sense Media

A dark and gritty sci-fi thriller, 12 Monkeys stands apart from other sci-fi films, due to its unique and twisted concept on the future of mankind.

July 6, 2010 Full Review Source: Matt's Movie Reviews
Matt's Movie Reviews

Gilliam's polarizing style is at its near-best...a dazzling feat of storytelling that bristles with provocative ideas. [Blu-ray]

August 12, 2009 Full Review Source: Groucho Reviews
Groucho Reviews

Gilliam has taken on a conventional Hollywood sci-fi thriller with big stars and turned it into his own rough beast.

July 23, 2007 Full Review Source: eFilmCritic.com
eFilmCritic.com

12 Monkeys seems to go down smoothly without compromising anything or dumbing itself down.

May 26, 2006 Full Review Source: Combustible Celluloid
Combustible Celluloid

..less an essay on the nature of madness than a crazy person's poem. It is wild and beautiful and deeply disturbing all at once.

May 9, 2005 Full Review
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Oh my!

December 31, 2004 Full Review Source: StaciWilson.com | Comments (5)
StaciWilson.com

A messy mélange of action, adventure, sci-fi, romance, horror, and comedy.

December 5, 2004 Full Review Source: TheMovieReport.com | Comment (1)
TheMovieReport.com

An antithesis of how The Terminator handled time travel.

June 23, 2004 Full Review Source: Ozus' World Movie Reviews
Ozus' World Movie Reviews

A clever, complex, and poignant success is as astonishing as it is satisfying.

July 30, 2003 Full Review Source: TV Guide's Movie Guide
TV Guide's Movie Guide

Audience Reviews for Twelve Monkeys (12 Monkeys)

An overwrought, messy, and confusing sci-fi with a silly Hitchcock nod at the end.
Terry Gilliam has one of the world's great fertile imaginations but I find that he returns to the same thematic and stylistic material again and again. 12 Monkeys is where I simply had enough of his cartoony mad holy quest time-travel grungy dystopia vision.

You know what this movie reminds me of ? That cheesy no-budget MTV video by the Police for Synchronicty II where Sting is wearing a "futuristic" costume inexplicably festooned in ribbons. "Oh no! The post-apocalyptic future will be windy and covered in torn fabric!"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UlSK4WVZ9A

Same deal - stick a fork in 'em, they're done.
July 28, 2007
brooklynspo

Super Reviewer

Average sci-fi drama that is somewhat interesting. The concept is interesting and the acting superb, however it's promises so much but executed in a way the delivers very little.
February 7, 2014
FiLmCrAzY
Film Crazy

Super Reviewer

Just as Star Wars shifted the focus of science fiction from inner space to outer space, so there is a trend in the 1980s and 1990s for time travel films which are more concerned with the mechanics of time travel than its metaphysical implications. For all the intelligence of Back to the Future, its fascination with how a flux capacitor could actually work leads us to get distracted from the deeper impact had on the characters. Eventually this trend of effects over depth gave us the likes of Timecop, in which time travel is little more than an action gimmick.

In one fell swoop, Twelve Monkeys completely redresses this imbalance which has dogged this sci-fi sub-genre for some time. Taking the best elements of the Chris Marker short Le Jetee, it draws on the likes of Blade Runner and Slaughterhouse Five to create a chilling and compelling portrait of both a post-apocalyptic future and a chaotic near-present on the brink of destruction.

The examination of time travel in Twelve Monkeys centres around Novikov's self-consistency principle. This complicated area of theoretical physics deals with the issue of paradoxes - for instance, going back in time to kill one's own grandfather. It essentially postulates that while time travel may be physically and technically possible, the past and future cannot be altered because any intervention by the traveller would create a paradox.

A good cinematic example to illustrate this is the much-maligned ending of Superman, in which Superman reverses time by spinning the Earth backwards so he can avert an earthquake and stop Lois from being killed. In this example, the cause of Superman going back in time is the death of Lois - but if he changes events and she lives, he would have no reason to go back and so Lois would still die. The timelines correct themselves, with cause and effect cancelling each other out.

Twelve Monkeys expands this realisation into a fascinating thesis on the futility of humanity and its inability to avert potential, self-imposed disasters. Novikov's logic is present throughout: Cole is chosen to go back because he is a good observer, rather than some kind of hero who can stop the virus. The scientists who send him there are only interested in finding a cure for their society, rather than stopping the virus at its inception. Cole witnesses his own death but can do nothing to prevent it. Arguably he causes it the crisis as well, considering what happens when he is sent to the wrong time the first time out.

Cole and his counterparts are modern-day Cassandras: in the words of Dr. Railly, they have "the agony of foreknowledge combined with impotence to do anything about it." Cole's agony is aggravated by the flashbacks of the airport, which become more significant and poignant as the film rolls on. There is a through-line between Cole's predicament and that of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five; both characters have some foreknowledge of their own deaths and some form of fatalistic contempt for the powers-that-be, whether they be generals or scientists.

To prevent such a depressing thesis from weighing the film down, Twelve Monkeys is shot is a deeply disorientating manner. There are many Terry Gilliam tropes involved such as unusual camera angles and cleverly timed zooms which gave a sense of scale and demonstrate how small our protagonists are. Most of the scenes (especially those with Brad Pitt) have an immense kinetic energy, with a script which walks a tightrope between wacky profundity and blathering nonsense. But unlike on his later films, Gilliam's execution of these scenes is perfect and profundity always wins out.

Like Brazil and The Fisher King before it, Twelve Monkeys is a great examination of insanity and the thin line between madness and genius. But what makes this film clever is the way in which our perceptions of madness and sanity shift as the characters develop and more information about the apocalypse comes to light. There is a rich thread running throughout the film about the assumed status and logic of psychiatry, and how this status is used to manipulate people. This clearly hints back to the work of French philosopher Michael Foucault, whose work in Discipline and Punish explored the relationship between knowledge (e.g. the discipline of psychiatry) and power (the way individuals can be controlled through the received credibility of said discipline).

At the beginning, we are convinced that Cole is the only sane person within the world of the film. The doctors who examine him in 1990 diagnose him as mad on the basis of the accepted wisdom of psychiatry, the "new religion". But by the final half-hour, it is Railly who is convinced that he was telling the truth, while Cole wants to accept that he is delusional. In the end, we don't know how real anything is any more. We remain glued to the story because of the high stakes and tension, but are just as confused, hysterical and disorientated as the characters, which in testament to the immersive power of the film.

This rich, enticing vein of ambiguity runs throughout the screenplay, which comes from the co-writers of Blade Runner. This time round it is not a question of who is human and who is a replicant, but who is mad or sane. And as in Blade Runner, there is an appealing third possibility - namely that neither distinction matters because the lines between them are blurry, artificial constructs. Like Deckard and Rachael before them, Cole and Railly choose to abandon their intended paths and escape, not just from this dark world but from all concept of reality. Fantasy and reality blur into one in the final section: one moment they are in a cinema showing Vertigo and The Birds, the next Railly is a Hitchcockian blonde who appears as Cole's salvation.

Aside from its bleak exploration of time travel, Twelve Monkeys is a great political document, subtly tipping its hat to a wide range of contemporary issues. Having a virus which is destined to wipe out most of mankind can be interpreted as a reaction to the growing AIDS pandemic. The film is deeply cynical about political action, depicting the Army of the Twelve Monkeys as "teenagers playing revolution" in the mother of all red herrings. And many of Brad Pitt's jabberings in the mental hospital are insightful comments about Western culture. Comments about people becoming little more than consumers and being infantilised by television are closely reminiscent of Neil Postman's arguments in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

The performances in Twelve Monkeys are all of the highest calibre. Bruce Willis gives his finest performance as Cole, displaying genuine sensitivity and emotional depth so that we truly feel the pain and suffering of his character. The few action sequences in the film are downplayed so that they don't feel like John McClane has just burst into the future.

Madeleine Stowe has the same stoic noir beauty that Sean Young has in Bade Runner, managing to show frenzy without ever overcooking it. Brad Pitt is great, managing to play crazy without annoying us, and giving a rounded performance fully deserving of his Oscar nomination. And David Morse is downright chilling in his pivotal role; certainly it's a million miles from Brutus Howell in The Green Mile.

Twelve Monkeys is an outstanding science fiction film written and directed with confidence and intelligence. The performances are superb, the visuals and set design are captivating, the dialogue is both funny and poignant, and the ending is truly perfect. As a Gilliam film it takes pride of place next to Brazil, and it is up there with The Green Mile as one of the greatest films of the 1990s. It is an utter triumph from every conceivable angle, that will scramble your brain and then stay with you forever.
October 6, 2013
Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

Gilliam hasn't done this well since the Python era.

Full review coming to themoviefreakblog.com on 8/28
August 3, 2013
spielberg00

Super Reviewer

    1. Jeffrey Goines: You're here because of the system.
    – Submitted by Augusta M (18 months ago)
    1. Jeffrey Goines: All the doors are locked too. They're protecting the people on the outside from us from the people on the outside who are as crazy as us.
    – Submitted by Dov D (18 months ago)
    1. James Cole: I am insane. And you are my insanity.
    – Submitted by Dov D (18 months ago)
    1. Dr. Kathryn Railly: Cassandra in Greek legend, you recall, was condemned to know the future but to be disbelieved when she foretold it. Hence the agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.
    – Submitted by Dov D (18 months ago)
    1. Jeffrey Goines: You know what crazy is? Crazy is majority rules. Take germs, for example.
    2. James Cole: Germs?
    3. Jeffrey Goines: Uh-huh. In the eighteenth century, no such thing, nada, nothing. No one ever imagined such a thing. No sane person, anyway. Ah! Ah! Along comes this doctor, uh, uh, uh, Semmelweis, Semmelweis. Semmelweis comes along. He's trying to convince people, well, other doctors mainly, that's there's these teeny tiny invisible bad things called germs that get into your body and make you sick. Ah? He's trying to get doctors to wash their hands. What is this guy? Crazy? Teeny, tiny, invisible? What do you call it? Uh-uh, germs? Huh? What? Now, cut to the 20th century. Last week, as a matter of fact, before I got dragged into this hellhole. I go in to order a burger in this fast food joint, and the guy drops it on the floor. Jim, he picks it up, he wipes it off, he hands it to me like it's all OK. "What about the germs?" I say. He says, "I don't believe in germs. Germs is just a plot they made up so they can sell you disinfectants and soaps." Now he's crazy, right? See? Ah! Ah! There's no right, there's no wrong, there's only popular opinion. You... you... you believe in germs, right?
    – Submitted by Dov D (18 months ago)
    1. Jeffrey Goines: Telephone call? Telephone call? That's communication with the outside world. Doctor's *discretion*. Nuh-uh. Look, hey - all of these nuts could just make phone calls, they could spread insanity, oozing through telephone cables, oozing into the ears of all these poor sane people, infecting them. Wackos everywhere, plague of madness.
    – Submitted by Dov D (18 months ago)
View all quotes (7)

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Foreign Titles

  • 12 Monkeys (DE)
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