BLAST FROM THE PAST: Twelve Monkeys

Cert: 15 Runtime: 129 mins Director: Terry Gilliam  Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe and Brad Pitt

There’s no right, there’s no wrong, there’s only popular opinion

Looper is out in the cinemas in a few weeks and I am getting excited after reading tons of reviews. Many are comparing it to Twelve Monkeys, so this weeks blast from the past is Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece. An unknown and lethal virus has wiped out five billion people in 1996. Only 1% of the population has survived by the year 2035, and is forced to live underground. A convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) reluctantly volunteers to be sent back in time to 1996 to gather information about the origin of the epidemic who he’s told was spread by a mysterious “Army of the Twelve Monkeys”and locate the virus before it mutates so that scientists can study it. Unfortunately Cole is mistakenly sent to 1990, six years earlier than expected, and is arrested and locked up in a mental institution, where he meets Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), a psychiatrist, and Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the insane son of a famous scientist and virus expert.The future dystopia has been a staple of sci-fi movies for around forty years now, and for even longer in sci-fi novels. However there are only so many ways you can show the world going to buggery before it gets a bit samey. Twelve Monkeys however is a future dystopia movie that mostly sidesteps looking at said dystopia, and instead twists through time to reveal where things went wrong in the first place.

Although sometimes thought of as a non-linear movie, Twelve Monkeys in fact follows the personal timeline of its hero as he zips back and forth, and in broad outline is not actually amazingly complex. However, the David and Janet Peoples screenplay does not make any clear opening statements – apart from a couple of lines on a title card which are put in dubious context. We then plunge straight into the flowing narrative and have to glean what the movie’s about in bits and pieces along the way. While this demands close attention from the viewer, it works very well to embroil us in the world of a confused outsider.This confusion and oddity is deepened in the approach of director Terry Gilliam, who uses rather overt stylisation to make the world of Twelve Monkeys as distorted and alien as possible. His near-constant Dutch angles and claustrophobic camera positions (racked up or toned down depending on protagonist Cole’s mental state) could easily become tiresome, but the focus on macabre set design, unusual faces and familiar objects made to look outlandish allows us to get swept up in the wonkiness of the whole creation. At times, watching it feels a bit like being unpleasantly drunk. But don’t let this fool you into thinking there isn’t precision to all this. Knowing that the story often relies upon the audience recalling some tiny detail, Gilliam uses a number of cunning tricks to fix something in our memories, for example Madeleine Stowe’s distorted voice on the words “Merry Christmas” or the fact that Dr Peters has those distinctive ginger locks.

As Gilliam garnered his reputation as a belligerent maverick, he also began to work with more and more prestigious Hollywood stars. Twelve Monkeys sees Bruce Willis in a role that is arguably to his type, with a fair bit of macho action, but with a presentation that is very much counter to his usual confident demeanour. He’s actually very effective in this lonely, vulnerable guise, seeming mysterious yet sympathetic. The most memorable turn is that of an exuberant Brad Pitt. Pitt’s madman act is derived mostly from the hammy madman acts of Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, and it’s really just as overdone, although there is some amazingly complicated business he’s doing with his fingers that is at the very least distinctive. Gilliam seems to have achieved the impossible and make Pitt look, not unattractive as such, but disappointingly plain. Madeleine Stowe gives a strong and steady performance, a credible turn in what is really the only straight dramatic role. Her best highlight – and the most poignant moment in the whole picture – is that ghost of a smile in her final scene.While Twelve Monkeys in many areas falls some way short of perfection, it works better than many movies with stronger components, simply because good or bad everything is of a piece. Pitt’s overacting, Gilliam’s extrovert camera, the improbable converging of events in the storyline, these all fit in with the strange and giddy rhythm of the movie and its grim yet oddly sentimental mood. It is far from the typical sci-fi fare that gets the geeks salivating, but it is an absorbing thriller and one that, even through its unreality, carries a striking humanity.

8.7/10

 

 

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