IMDB Top 250 Review: #179: Twelve Monkeys (1995)


For more reviews in my IMDB Top 250 series, click here.

What do I think of when people say the name Terry Gilliam? A man who is so full of good ideas, perhaps too many, that when revealed to others his imagination simply clogs his creations. Terry Gilliam  (Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) is an ex-pythoneer who has a knack for flights of fancy, or anything bizarre, surreal, insane, or deranged. 12 Monkeys (1995) is probably his most well known film, and his main one accountable for his financial success in directing. Typically his films haven’t done financially well at the box office, and usually go on to become cult hits. I didn’t know what to expect from 12 Monkeys, but i rarely do when it’s a Gilliam film. I’m still fairly undecided if I loved it, or hated it. 

James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a convict living in a dystopian world where society now lives underground, due to a mass viral outbreak that killed roughly 5 billion of the population, leaving a small 1 percent behind. James is a convict guilty of several counts of violence, and ill-behavior. As penance, a ruling board of 5 scientists send James back to the past in order to find out more about this outbreak. They send him to 1990, instead of 1996 as chaos ensues, and he is arrested for gibbering about the future which police officers interpret as madness. He is locked away for his insanity, as psychologist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) begins to feel sympathy for him.  James almost turns insane himself numbed by the intensity and quantity of drugs administered. He escapes the confines of the institution from the help of completely insane conspiracy nut Jeffrey Goins (Brad Pitt). James kidnaps the good doctor Railly, and takes her on a journey in order to alter the future he comes from.


The ruling board of scientists.

The synopsis may seem messy, but it’s a very ‘busy’ film as you’d expect from Gilliam. Essentially it’s an apocalyptic future science-fiction drama, with elements of romance. James’ psyche is stretched between two worlds and we see his mind deteriorate as he attempts to identify what’s real and what isn’t, although seemingly all of it is. Conflicted by Railly’s words, and that of the scientists the whole thing is incredibly surreal. The goal to stop this ‘army of the twelve monkeys’ is a wild goose chase, and is based around the idea of the recollection of false memories, and how we our self alter our memories to the most logical or likely solution, though it can fool us. The state of dream is thought of in this way too. James has a recurring dream, which would turn out to be the closing moments of the film which he sees as a child (due to time travel) which he recollects differently each time. 


While entertaining, and certainly original, Twelve Monkeys left me wanting. There’s just a bit too much going on, if it were more streamlined and the script were more solid I would have enjoyed it a lot more. Admittedly the performances went a long way in holding it together, particularly that of Willis, and Pitt. It’s an odd concoction of a film, artistic in it’s ideas and views, yet it plays out like an action film, with strong hints of romance? You could literally repackage the film again and again, in entirely different ways. For example: A psychologist falls in love with her patient who thinks he’s from the future, who sees himself die, only to dream about seeing himself die, incorrectly. Brad Pitt plays a maniac, while Bruce Willis thinks Brad Pitt will cause an apocalyptic plague, when in reality he just raids the zoo.

Bizarre, quirky and distinctly original. However original though, at points I found it rather tedious. I’d be surprised if this is exactly what Gilliam wanted it to be. Some elements certainly seem shoehorned in. I didn’t love Twelve Monkeys. But I was intrigued by it. At 179, it holds a solid, firm ranking. I’m tempted to say it deserves it’s place simply because there are films on the list that don’t bring anything new to the table, while this does. For now, I’ll stick with debatable.

Judgment – Debatable


6 thoughts on “IMDB Top 250 Review: #179: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

  1. This is actually one of Gilliam’s best films in my opinion and one of my favourite Sci-Fi’s. I think it deserves its place, wholeheartedly. Willis and especially Pitt are fantastic as well.

      • Well, it’s definitely deserving from me but I can understand why some may not be as enthusiastic as myself. This and The Fisher King are my favourite from Gilliam. Brazil is also first class, though.

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