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 Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995)

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995)   Sat Sep 06, 2008 11:17 am

After the nightmare of getting The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) made, Terry Gilliam decided it was time for a change, and this meant walking into the lion's den and offer his services. In other words, getting a Hollywood agent, and work as a director for hire on projects he didn't originate. The first of which was The Fisher King (1991) a romantic fantasy with overtones of the mythology of the Holy Grail to it, (which Gilliam knew all too well... Wink) Gilliam said the it was the easiest film he'd ever made, and it was a big hit at the box-office, and it finally got his foot in the door of the Hollywood system, he should have started his next film instantly, but that wouldn't be for another 4 years. He nearly did a version of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, that never happened, he tried to get his long in development gumshoe film The Defective Detective made, again, it fell by the wayside. Then, in 1994, he was offered a remake, but it was one which sounded promising, it was a time-travel sci-fi film, but with a few twists. It was based on a 28 minute French short by Chris Marker called La Jetée (1962), however, Gilliam would make the remake his own, and it would be one of his most successful films to date. Twelve Monkeys (1995), is a film which requires your full attention, if you do, it all makes perfect sense.

Twelve Monkeys opens in 2035, a deadly virus wiped out 5 billion people between 1996 and 1997, what's left of the world's population has retreated underground. In one of these underground societies, prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis), is the unwitting volenteer of an experiment which will take him back in time to try and discover clues to the source of the virus. The scientists in charge of this experiment say his sentence will be reduced if he gets the info they want, which involves an activist group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, who they believe are responsible for the outbreak. He's meant to be sent to late 1996, however, because of the haphazard nature of the unperfected time-travel machine, he's accidentally sent to 1990. Where he's put in a mental asylum, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. It is whilst he's in here, he meets inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who is the son of famous virus expert Leland Goines (Christopher Plummer), Jeffrey tends to go off on violent rants. Cole is under the care of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who while skeptical of Cole's delusional rants, cares for his wellbeing. When Cole is sent back to 2035, he is given another chance and this time is sent to 1996, where he discovers more info about the group in questions, he even finds himself with Railly, who starts to believe him more and more, and Cole even begins to question whether the future is real, although there's evidence to the contrary starting to emerge.

It's a very complicated film, and it'll take more than a few viewings to make sense of it all, but it's full of little distractions which does raise more questions than answers. Maybe all the bits set in 2035, were the delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic, or perhaps all the bits of the past are dreams. But, as the film progresses, there's little bits which contradict one another, with Cole recognising parts of Philadelphia which would be in ruins in 2035, and the finale in the airport. Which suggests Cole could been used as a decoy by the scientists, without giving too much away. But, we eventually discover what the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is, and how they've been barking up the wrong tree all along, just when Cole fears he put the idea into Goines' head in 1990. It's a film which is open to alot of intepretation and theories, and anyone is welcome to their own theories on how the film works out, and what's real and what isn't.

Terry Gilliam was the perfect choice for this film, he brings the best out of his performers, and he's really in his element with the slums of 1996 Philadelphia and the bits set in 2035. The Interrogation Room is inspired by the works of Lebbeus Woods, as for the time machine, well, all the underground scenes were shot in abandoned power stations outside Philly, and a giant generator became their time machine. Wink It's a beautifully crafted film with weird imagery (kudos to production designer Jeffrey Beecroft), and it's well shot as well, (made for $29.5 million, it looks alot more than that.) It's a blessing whenever Gilliam makes a film, and he was lucky to have made this, it's a complex film, (a sort of thinking man's Terminator, which was also inspired by La Jetée), it's the sort that could have alienated people, and it raises more questions than answers, but that's the point, Gilliam wants to challenge it's viewers to come up with their own interpretations on the reality of the film.

Alot of people associate Bruce Willis with Die Hard, and for being a wise-cracking action hero. There's non of that here, with this, Gilliam unlocks a side we've never seen to Brucie before, a more emotional, vunerable side. A tortured soul who happens to be man-kind's last hope. A reluctant hero who just happened to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, even when he's listening to the music of the 20th Century in Railly's car, his eyes say it all. Madeleine Stowe is a quite underrated actress, best known for the likes of Stakeout and Short Cuts, Gilliam had originally wanted her for The Fisher Kind and A Tale of Two Cities, he got her here, and brings the best out in her, Railly at first does scorn any idea of Cole coming from the future, but when evidence starts to emerge that Cole might be telling the truth, she begins to question her own sanity. But, the scene stealer in the film is Brad, who at that time was on the brink of superstardom, he'd just finished Se7en, Interview with the Vampire was about to open, Gilliam got him just at the right time. He plays Jeffrey Goines with an unhinged exterior, with facial ticks and a demeted look, (not a million miles away from what Johnny Depp did in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Gilliam's next masterpiece.) It won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, this helped him on his climb to fame. Oh, and look out for little appearances from Frank Gorshin (best known as The Riddler in the 1960's TV version of Batman), as Dr. Fletcher. Simon Jones, (Arthur Dent from the TV version of The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy), as the Zoologist, and David Morse as Dr. Peters, who's involvement in the film's plot is inexplicably crucial, I'll say no more... Wink

Terry Gilliam on David Letterman, talking about the film. December 27th 1995. Gilliam talks how he was nearly killed during the film while on a horse ride!! Shocked



As stated, it's a film open to many different intepretations of what's real and what isn't. There's no right or wrong answer, it's a film which has been left for it's audiences to work out. All the answers are in there, waiting to be discovered. By the end, you'll know who is responsible for it all, but everything else, all the time travel elements, is all waiting to be explained. But, there's just alot of things in life that can't be explained, even Cole himself can't explain how he ended up in the middle of WW1, with an 80 year old bullet in his leg, and even Railly is convinced she knows Cole from somewhere, (there's references in this to Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), which they watch.) But, the film is bookended with shots of Cole as a boy, traumatised by a shooting at an airport and how it'll effect him in later life. The film was a huge success, it should have put Gilliam on the road to bigger and better things, quite the opposite actually, but he'll get what he wants made, sooner or later... Wink
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