12 Monkeys (1995)

12 monkeys

“This is a place for crazy people. I’m not crazy.”

The Scoop: 1995 R, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt

Tagline: They’re Coming.

Summary Capsule: Time traveler tries to figure out the ultimate cause for the plague that wiped out humanity.

PoolMan’s rating: It’d be far too easy to rate this on a monkey scale. So I won’t. (Two thumbs up! Eh? Eh?)

PoolMan’s review: I have a lot of friends who don’t like Bruce Willis. They claim he comes off as flat, uninteresting, and ultimately only plays one character: himself (or perhaps, John McLean). The Sixth Sense changed a lot of minds bout this opinion, but if you want to break this rumour completely, sit down and watch the 12 Monkeys. Egad.

I have a new favourite in this movie. James Cole (Willis) comes from a post-apocalyptic earth where humans are forced to live underground due to the release of a supervirus released in 1996 by a militant protest group named the 12 Monkeys. His mission is not to stop the release, as that is believed to be inevitable, but rather to gather all the information possible about the original, pure virus so that they can find a cure for the people of the future, and live on the earth’s surface again.

However, what we quickly realize is that Cole is quite mad. Is he really a traveller in time, or is he simply a drooling psychotic who fashions fantasy out of incredibly distorted reality? Is his madness the symptom of time travel, the effects of the human mind’s inability to occupy two points in time, or is he really just insane? Will the virus prevail? What is the 12 Monkeys’ place in history? You’ll know by the end, but not before, and expect your opinion to shift a couple of times. Actually, to tell a whole lot about the story is to render it null and void. You simply have to experience it for yourself. Just when you’re starting to think James is insane, it looks like he’s actually telling the truth, and just when the truth starts to reveal itself, it disappears in a shroud of secrecy again. Eventually the characters surrounding him all have similar dilemmas.

Willis shines in this role, and in my own opinion, he outdoes himself in the Sixth Sense. The various scenes depicting the decay of his mind, both in the future and in the past are gritty, dark, and frightening. Seeing him chained, drugged, and salivating on the floor of the mental hospital is a disturbing image. It’s hardly the only one here.

Also, look for the equally outstanding Brad Pitt as the mental patient Jeffrey Goines. Seriously, he steals nearly every scene he’s in, and I would personally put this performance ahead of Se7en without blinking. He is simultaneously likeable, unstable, dangerous, and incredibly enigmatic. Wonderfully done.

I’ve said it before, I love science fiction done right. Interesting, growing characters, deep storylines, and excellent imagery are often overlooked in the genre, but 12 Monkeys has them in spades. Combine that with the thick, murky darkness that permeates this film, and you’ve got a Slaughterhouse 5 flavoured winner.

Watch it with the lights off.

Justin’s rating: Would you like to buy a monkey?

Justin’s review: I remember seeing this in the theaters and being majorly disappointed. Not because Twelve Monkeys was a bad movie, but because I found the ending so obvious and really expected something a little deeper and a little more profound. However, on multiple viewings afterward I grew an affection for this movie, akin to a familiar scab that I keep digging at so that it won’t ever go away.

One of the more bizarre time travel tales out there, Twelve Monkeys begins in the future, where mankind lives underground after a plague’s wiped out the majority of the human race. Prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) is so good on his observation trips to the surface that some wacked-out scientists enlist his help to travel back in time and discover the cause of the massive plague. He first ends up in 1990, where he lands up in a mental institute and encounters the deranged Jeffrey (Brad Pitt) and helpful psychiatrist Dr. Railly (Madeline Stowe). A second trip brings him to World War One, but finally he ends up in 1996 and lands him deep into the Twelve Monkeys conspiracy.

This being a Terry Gillam film, we’re treated to a world somewhere in a parallel universe. It’s full of funky costume designs (plastic seems to be the fashion statement of the future) and sets (the mental institute is particularly otherworldly). Generally, the whole feel of the movie is both gritty and jury-rigged, and it works well to create a new look at a post-apocalyptic future. Brad Pitt is so jittery and fragmented that it made me jumpy to watch his performance, yet it is entertaining nonetheless.

What is it about monkeys, anyway? Cute, furry, nasty, somewhat resembling certain athletes I knew in college. In any case, they make a cool centerpiece for this film. There’s a lot of recurring imagery and themes of monkeys, the Florida Keys, and Brad Pitt through the whole film. I think that I was initially dissatisfied with Twelve Monkeys because I had expectations on how films like this should turn out. Gilliam doesn’t like to pander to the typical plot twists, and strange as his movies are, at least they dare to be different. And when it comes to twelve little monkeys, different is always good.

It’s like the audition in Flash Dance… Set in Hell


  • The blood all over Catherine’s hands in the final scene at the airport disappears rather quickly.
  • James’ last name (Cole) is the first name of the boy in The Sixth Sense.
  • A guard in the mental insitute is reading the Weekly World News
  • The insane asylum rec room is introduced by a shot of a TV showing a cartoon of an animal bouncing off a mattress and doing flips. Near the end, the whorehouse is introduced by a shot of kids in a vacant lot doing the same thing.
  • The connections with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo
  • Director Terry Gilliam first met Bruce Willis while casting his film The Fisher King. He was impressed by the sensitivity shown by Willis in the scene from Die Hard where McClane (Willis) talks to his wife while pulling glass from his feet. Talking to Willis, Gilliam discovered that this part was ad-libbed by Willis. Gilliam remembered this, and was convinced to cast him in Twelve Monkeys. Willis said that this is only the second film where he decided to take a role in a film after only one reading of the script. The other film was Pulp Fiction. Gilliam gave Willis a list of “Willis acting cliches” not to be used during the film, including the “steely blue eyes look.”

Groovy Quotes

Cole: Look at them. They’re just asking for it. Maybe the human race deserves to be wiped out.
Jeffrey: Wiping out the human race? That’s a great idea. That’s great. But more of a long-term thing. I mean, first we have to focus on more immediate goals.

L.J. Washington: I don’t really come from outer space.
Jeffrey: Oh. L. J. Washington. He doesn’t really come from outer space.
L.J. Washington: Don’t mock me my friend. It’s a condition of mental divergence. I find myself on the planet Ogo, part of an intellectual elite, preparing to subjugate the barbarian hordes on Pluto. But even though this is a totally convincing reality for me in every way, nevertheless Ogo is actually a construct of my psyche. I am mentally divergent, in that I am escaping certain unnamed realities that plague my life here. When I stop going there, I will be well. Are you also divergent, friend?

Cole: This is a place for crazy people. I’m not crazy.
Dr. Fletcher: We don’t use the term “crazy,” Mr. Cole.
Cole: Well, you’ve got some real nuts here.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Brazil
  • Slaughterhouse Five
  • Frequency


  1. A while back, I checked out this movie because of this review and ended up a bit disappointed. The scenes with Cole being interrogated by the panel of scientists were kind of cool and I liked that there was no pretense of changing the past (one of my big issues with time travel stories). But I found the present day stuff to be rather blah. I also disagree with Poolman’s assessment of Pitt’s performance. His shrieking got on my nerves and his scenes couldn’t end soon enough.

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