Posted by: daveed | July 2, 2008

On permanent rotation I: 12 Monkeys

I love Terry Gilliam, I truly do. But so much of his work suffers from too much creativity (Brazil, Baron Munchausen, etc.) that his brilliant vision often turns into clutter and noise. He needs a steadier hand to guide him at times, and we’ve found it with David Peoples’s (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) marvelous screenplay.

12 Monkeys is Gilliam’s most disciplined, moving and thought-provoking film precisely because we are able to relate to its ideas surrounding insanity, paranoia and doomsday.

Bruce Willis is a convict in a dystopian future where nearly all of mankind has been killed off by a super-virus unleashed in 1996. The survivors live underground like rats and the animals (immune to the virus) are the only creatures on the surface. He is recruited to go back in time to retrieve a sample virus so that the scientist plutocrats who rule his society can develop a vaccine.

OK, typical plot developments occur, right? “Bruce, back in the 1990s, is considered a crack-pot and a looney and he’s locked up. He’s got to get out and complete his mission and there’s one person who can help: Dr. Kathryn Reilly, psychiatrist and do-gooder.”

But wait, there’s more. So much more, including Brad Pitt (in my favorite performance as the maniac who may be behind the virus); complex time travel that effectively distorts YOUR idea of what’s real; man’s corruption of the earth; and a vision of humanity’s collective madness that only Gilliam could capture.

Because at the center is Bruce Willis as James Cole. A violent person hardened by life, but who can also listen to a song on the radio with the relish of a child. Madeleine Stowe is at her most luminous as Dr. Reilly, and the love that develops between them is neither unnecessary or contrived. After all, love is their last grasp at what what it means to be real. Everything else is just a collection of artifacts.


  1. Great movie, and I agree – Gilliam needs a tight script to succeed and Peoples is an incredibly gifted writer.

    Reading this makes we want to go back and watch it again!

    I think when we look back at that period – 1994-1996, there are a lot of great films. This was a rich time in filmmaking compared to most of the 1980’s. I remember at that time, I was so excited to go to the movies and watch 12 Monkeys or True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Seven, Natural Born Killers, Hoop Dreams, Ed Wood, Usual Suspects, Trainspotting, Fargo…

    How does today’s mainstream filmmaking compare?

  2. If I recall, you participated in the test screening at the theater in Tenleytown, right?

    You make a great point about this brief moment in which a-traditional (but still commercial) films were being made. I think it even extended up to around 2000-2001 with films such as Mulholland Drive and Memento. There were more chances being taken—for better or worse, of course.

    Now, caution seems to rule the roost—studios are bankrolling “proven” properties, usually stuff optioned from successful novels or (fucking hell) previous films. They’ve found comfort in retreads. Frankly, it makes for dull cinema, but some are making money. Usually the ones targeted squarely at the fattest audience financially: teenagers.

    They’re the ones who will line up around the block for Harry Potter or the latest doofus comedy on opening night. So they’re immune to any negative critical reception—they don’t even pay attention to critics anyway.

    This group, too can afford to see a movie multiple times (and will). This is also the audience most primed to buy into spinoff product: video games, sequels, DVD, downloads. The movie then becomes just a piece of a larger entertainment package.

    The notable exception appears to be Speed Racer, which should have made buckets of money despite all the critical panning. Yes, it flopped, but I think that’s more because it’s a dated property—the only ones who could be interested in it are those who remember the cartoon as kids, essentially 30+ folks. But the real money is with the 16-25 year old set, and Speed Racer isn’t as retro-cool with the younger crowds as I think the Brothers Wachowski and Warner Brothers wanted to believe. I suspect it will enjoy a second life as a cult classic a few years from now…

    Anyway, mainstream filmmaking isn’t challenging people, it’s delivering comfort food. Stories in which we know the ending. Special effects that distract us from the shallowness of the film—the lazy writing, formulaic structure, mediocre acting.

    Then there are the poseur films that pretend to be challenging us, which really only force feed the same tired cliches. I’m talking about the spate of Iraq War-derived fare that has bombed (pun intended). That’s because we’ve heard it all before ad nauseam, and we already have opinions about it. These films are not only pretentious, they are grossly crass and dishonest, masquerading as “courageous” or “controversial”. If they’re not berating people for having a different opinion from the filmmakers’, they’re merely validating what some already believe.

    That’s not challenging your audience. So fuck them. They deserve to fail.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    The Iraq War movies are indeed really lame, and you are right, movies like Jarheads teach us nothing. (Sam Mendes gave us American Beauty ten years before).

    Or Deniro’s film, The Good Shepherd – comes twenty years too late – we all are completely aware of our government’s wrong doings, so we learn nothing.

    In terms of book adaptations that never should have happened, how about DaVinci Code? Shame on all of them for making that.

    To end this comment on a good note, I saw a great anti-war film this week: Waltz With Bashir. It is a soldier who fought twenty years back and makes this film to revisit the unfinished feelings and demons he has.

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