The Review/Short Read/

Hump Day Movie: 12 Monkeys

This psychedelic science-fiction mystery proves Terry Gilliam's genius

by
Jul 27, 2016

This Friday, July 29, TIFF Bell Lightbox will screen what is inarguably one of the best comedic films of all time, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The film has everything. A Frenchman with clever insults involving the scent of elderberries. Complex bridge questions that deal with the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. Knights that say “Ni,” for some reason.

With their “Ministry of Silly Walks” and “Lumberjack Songs,” their “Dead Parrots” and “Upperclass Twit of the Year,” Monty Python have formed the basis of much of what I, and most humans that have access to weird British television, consider funny. The group has also birthed the careers of a variety of talents, including the comedian/animator/director/general polymath Terry Gilliam. Gilliam’s work is.... super strange. From the fantastical world of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (greatest film title of our age), to the totalitarian nightmare of Brazil, Gilliam has a talent for bringing to life worlds that are at once drastically different and startlingly similar to our own.

So, let’s all jump into time machine that looks like it’s made out of used car parts and transport ourselves into the deeply off-putting future depicted in Gilliam’s 1995 mind-bender 12 Monkeys. Based on Chris Marker’s 1962 masterpiece La Jetée, 12 Monkeys shows a future where humanity has been driven underground by a virus that has decimated the population in 1996. In 2035, a prisoner named Cole (Bruce Willis, sweaty and confused) is selected for a mission to travel through time to gather information on the virus that destroyed humanity, and stop the Army of the 12 Monkeys, the group that perpetrated this crime.

Dropped back in time six years earlier than was intended, Cole is quickly arrested and sent to a mental hospital. There, he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, nominated for an Oscar for his role), whose father (Christopher Plummer) runs a virology lab that could be harboring the deadly virus. In the hospital, he is is treated by Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) who initially dismisses his warnings from the future. She is eventually convinced that he is telling the truth.

A lot of completely insane time travel happens in this film. Cole is wrenched from the future to the past and back again, as he is assailed on all sides by a villainy so intense it would verge on comical, if the fate of the world weren’t so clearly in the balance. A bombastic filmmaker, Gilliam is like the Steph Curry of shot selection. His cinematography defies all logic, but still somehow works. Confronted with the futility of fighting against the inexorable passage of time, 12 Monkeys is at once a parable, while injecting enough bravado to make it amusing. The joy of the film is not in following its topsy turvy time travel logic, but rather in surrendering yourself to be just as bewildered as Willis is. The world one he paints here is scary, but only one of many possible universes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be prepping my bunker with copies of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Zero Theorem.