Twelve Monkeys (12 Monkeys) - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

Twelve Monkeys (12 Monkeys) Reviews

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Super Reviewer
½ July 5, 2007
what if you knew it was insane to visit your own past, to go there to your past to try to change it, especially if changing your past meant that you wouldn't have a future, wouldn't have a "now" (there's the insanity) ... but went anyway? bruce willis' best movie, brad pitt's best movie, maddy stowe's only movie that counts, and the lists of terry gilliam's achievements here go on and's his best movie, as well
Super Reviewer
September 4, 2007
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.
Daniel Mumby
Super Reviewer
August 23, 2010
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.
Super Reviewer
November 11, 2012
Strange. Disturbing. Over-the-top. Yet, strangely involving. Brad Pitt's acting is unique in this flick. Enjoy -- on an unconventional evening.
Super Reviewer
½ September 13, 2012
'12 Monkeys' is easily one of the best science fiction movies of all time. I am not a huge fan of Gilliam's style and some parts of the story may get a little choppy, but this film's potency cannot be denied. Willis handles the main role superbly well, but Pitt is a freakishly good mental patient that makes it look easy. It's no wonder his performance was lauded at the Oscars. The production design is eerie and uniquely well done, and the script is entertaining and enticing. There are few flaws to be found in this film, but for those that find them, they are easily excused. '12 Monkeys' is that sometimes rare combination of a movie that is so well done and so entertaining at the same time. I could barely tear my eyes and mind from the screen.
Market Man
Super Reviewer
½ August 20, 2012
I like the idea, but "12 Monkeys" is a poorly directed mess. The cinematography is bad and almost makes it feel like a B-Movie. The story is somewhat interesting but is executed in a bizarre way. I think it's the style of the director; I don't care for it. I also think there's just a little too much time-travel, which makes the plot a bit messy.
Super Reviewer
October 27, 2011
Gilliam's darkest look at the future.
Super Reviewer
April 16, 2007
I'm still not 100 per cent sure that I knew what was going on during most of this movie. And yet, it was fairly original, and kind of trippy, and rather well acted, and suspenseful... just a cool flick. Part of two interesting mid-90s "out there" trifectas, for both Pitt (12 Monkeys-Se7en-Fight Club) and Willis (12 Monkeys-Fifth Element-Sixth Sense), this is a movie to see, and to see again, as I plan to do soon. Wacky stuff, really enjoyed it.
Super Reviewer
½ August 15, 2011
There is so much going on in Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys." From a story standpoint, the narrative is sprawling and complex. From a visual standpoint the film has an incredible amount of detail. From an emotional standpoint the performances are committed and vivid. All of this adds up to an energetic and chaotic experience. Thankfully Gilliam has a firm hand over the screenplay, making "12 Monkeys" an ultimately rewarding experience. The major complaint with the film is that, since the viewer is always being bombarded with new concepts, images and wacky characters, the film feels a lot longer than it is. "12 Monkeys" can be exhausting, but like I said, the ending is certainly worth it. If the film didn't end so strongly it might not have been worth it. Aside from an uncomfortably obvious Hitchcock reference, the film ends on a resonant, metaphysical note. The film also works as well as it does due to the trio of central performances. Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt deliver their characters seriously. They are anxious, crazy people, but you always believe them. This is no easy feat. They somehow find the perfect balance of hyper and real.
Super Reviewer
½ July 21, 2010
What a great movie. Very entertaining and smart. I really enjoyed this movie.

Grade: A-
Super Reviewer
June 26, 2011
Shame on me. I haven't seen Brasil but I have heard it's a fantastic scifi movie. But while I do my homework, this is to me the best Terry Gilliam's movie I've ever seen. Brad Pitt's acting is fantastic. The story of an unknown apocalypsis already took place and therefore James Cole has been sent to the past to help the scientists in the future to learn what a hell happened.
Super Reviewer
June 13, 2006
Terry Gilliam paints a pretty pessimistic picture of the future, where the few survivors or a worldwide pandemic dwell underground. At least they managed to find the means to time travel, not without trial and error. Bruce Willis is sent back to investigate the cause of the virus. After many hero roles, this was a rather unusual one, with his drooling and spider-eating. The plot is really smart, full of false leads and twist. The ending is pretty sobering but leaves enough space for interpretations. The production design is disturbing, as always with Gilliam. Still, the cinematography offers several unforgettable shots, especially of the animals taking over Philadelphia. A dark, exciting emotional rollercoaster ride.
Super Reviewer
½ September 6, 2010
From the creators of Brazil, comes another great sci-fi thriller. It involves time travel, politics, and memory. All the best sci-fi themes. Plus, it's exciting and suspenseful. I highly recommend this movie to sci-fi fans.
Super Reviewer
November 2, 2006
Yet another inventive fantasy from Terry Gilliam, 12 Monkeys is the story of a prisoner in the future who volunteers to go back in time and gather information on a plague that wiped out the human race originating in modern day Philadelphia. Brad Pitt's idea of insanity seems to be to channel Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now after 3 gallons of espresso, but Bruce Willis gives easily one of his best performances as the man out of time, tortured by the burden of the knowledge of the deaths of 5 billion people he seems completely unable to prevent and fearing for his sanity. Madeleine Stowe displays her usual appealing combination of beauty and vulnerability and the future scenes show off some more excellent production design born of Gilliam's fantastic imagination. The story penned by one of the co-writers of Blade Runner is an intriguing time paradox based on short film La Jetee and although it lacks much of the ex-Python's trademark satirical humour, it still ranks amongst his best.
Super Reviewer
May 26, 2007
When he came back to the past the second time, I was like, really now? That's when you know that the movie is getting too long and full of itself.
Super Reviewer
March 3, 2007
12 Monkeys is a surreal and crazy tale, with magnificent directing and writing. The art direction is remarkable and the lead actors (Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe) are great; but it's Brad Pitt who gives the best performance in the picture (and of his lifetime)...
Super Reviewer
January 13, 2011
One of Brad Pitt's best acting efforts. A mindtruck film with a downer ending, deep themes.
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