erik lundegaard

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12 Monkeys (1996)

Director Terry Gilliam always seems a man out of time. In Brazil, he made the future look like the past. In 12 Monkeys, he makes the present look like the future.

Written by:
David Webb Peoples
Janet Peoples

Directed by:
Terry Gilliam

Starring:
Bruce Willis
Madeline Stowe
Brad Pitt
Frank Gorshin
David Morse

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor (Pitt)
Best Costume Design

It’s the 21st century and James Cole (Bruce Willis) lives underground with the rest of humanity because a deadly virus wiped out 5 billion people in 1996. Occasionally he is “volunteered” for surface duty to collect insects; eventually he is volunteered for a trip back to 1996. His mission is not to stop the virus but to gather information on how and when it spread so a scientist can attain the virus in its pure form and work on an antidote. Unfortunately time travel is an inexact science (everything is inexact in Gilliam’s world) and he winds up in a psychiatric ward in 1990.

This allows Gilliam to have fun comparing our time with his imagined totalitarian future. Incarcerated in the 21st century, Cole is incarcerated in 1990. A lone man before a committee of scientists in the 21st century, Cole is, in 1990, a lone man before a committee of psychiatrists, including a female Ph.D., Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), who will become The Love Interest.

But — hate to ask this — would the movie have been better without Gilliam's heavy hand? Gilliam loves portraying the stupidity and inefficiency of bureaucracies, and this can only be done if the film focuses on Cole from the start. But what if the movie had been Kathryn Railly's? The opening: her morning, her day, and what happens when James Cole suddenly enters her life. The audience would have been forced into wondering with her whether James Cole was telling the truth — and the world would lose 5 billion in 1996 — or whether he was insane. Instead we know; and we wait for her to know.

The worst moment in the film is the climax. At the airport, Cole and Railly are chasing the man with the deadly virus. If he escapes, five billion, including, probably, Railly, die. But before Cole can reach him and save the day, he is shot by airport security. So what does Railly do? She cries and moans by Cole's body. She gives up. The assumption is that all movement, all action, evaporates when the male hero is gunned down. I'd be infuriated if I were a woman.

—January 3, 1996

© 1999 Erik Lundegaard