12 Monkeys (1995)

After the disaster of {moscontentlink:The Running Man}, 12 Monkeys is a welcome contrast. Directed by Terry Gilliam, of Brazil fame, this movie explores the thin boundary between sanity and madness and applies it to one of the most confusing topics of science fiction: time travel.

 James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a "divergent mind," a criminal that gets a chance to save the world after a virus wiped out 90% of mankind. He is to go back to the year 1996, when the virus first spread, to collect samples of the unadulterated virus. He is to bring these samples back, so that scientists can create an antidote, cure, or the like.

As in Brazil, the idea of government as embodied here by the scientists is synonymous with incompetence. A first attempt sends Cole six years too far, to the year 1990, where he meets his psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), and a fellow patient, Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), as he gets admitted into a mental ward since he is evidently disturbed. 

He returns to his time, only to be sent back to 1996, where he will try to get the virus samples. In the process, the virus is released and he is shot to death.

You'd think that a plot that deals with madness combined with time travel is bound to be horribly confusing. Indeed, a few sites specialize in explaining what's going on, giving the impression that this is a lame joke that needs a manual to be appreciated.

That would be far from truth, though. Both the script and the director make it clear what's going on, especially when the dramatis personae themselves are confused. Additionally, the iconic contrast between the acting of Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt is a phenomenal barometer of the direction of things to come.

The basic tension in the movie is contained in a simple and unanswered question: {xtypo_quote_alt}Is James Cole's world and story real, or is it just a figment of his lunatic mind?{/xtypo_quote_alt} We can speculate as much as we want, but ultimately the final answer would destroy the tension in the movie. We are better off guessing.

Once the premise is clear, time travel becomes the next challenge. Thankfully, in all the morass of events and years, the screen writers focused on a very small number of characters. Additionally, the only one allowed to travel in time is Cole, leaving everybody else (actually, including him) contemplating him unchanging while they are undergoing constant modifications.

A recurring dream that gives Cole cold sweats is the central item in this time travel drama. He sees how, just before the virus struck Earth when he was a child, a man is shot to death in front of him. It turns out the man is no other than Cole as an adult, creating one of those time loops that make time travel so hard to understand and accept.

The movie is otherwise rich in thematic elements that buttress the main plot instead of confusing it. We see the symbol of the 12 Monkeys (an environmentalist group thought to have spread the virus) in different versions – new, old, ancient – to signify the time in which we are. Animals (released from a zoo) are another element used to clarify the time of action and its continuity. 

The acting, finally, is amazing. Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt are perfect for each other in this movie. The former has his trademark stoic patience on display, through which the occasional outburst of emotion is almost always paternal and caring – the opposite of the raving lunatic we should be expecting.

Brad Pitt, on the other hand, is a madman quite as exciting as Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted. In particular, his use of hand gestures is spectacular, somewhere between hip-hop and Italian ruffian. And maybe there is a little bit of Karate Kid tossed in there. 

I was surprised at how pleasant the whole ensemble was. Great job, Mr. Gilliam!