IMDB Top 250: 12 Monkeys (1995)

My mission to watch all of the TOP 250 films in the IMDB site (as of March 22nd) continues….

Among all of the top rated films of the site, there are few that received as little recognition by the public as 12 Monkeys.

The movie, directed by the underrated Terry Gilliam, touches upon a subject that is much too common in contemporary cinema: the extermination, or near extermination of the human race due to a virus that either kills humans completely or partially (zombies!).

In 12 Monkeys, we are presented with a grim future of civilization. 99% of the human race has been completely wiped out and the remaining few now reside in a subterranean world, far away from the virus that has contaminated the air. A good part of the merit of this film can be attributed to the artistry behind the design of this futuristic world, one in which animals roam the surface freely unaffected by the virus, while humans live away from the sun, no longer populating cities and crowding the planet’s resources, but in cages and laboratories. It is a dark world, where civilization is only a shadow of its former glory, trapped indoors, defeated by the circumstances and alienated by its horrible fate.

In this context, we are introduced to James Cole (Bruce Willis), a man secluded in a cage, punished to live like a rat due to his history of aggressive behavior. On a day like any other, James is randomly selected to explore the surface and collect evidence that could continue to lead scientists to find a cure and piece together the events that led to the extermination of the human race. Despite his supposedly delinquent past, James strikes me as one of the more “normal” humans of this virus-ridden world, since even those who sit at the top of this world seem to be caricatures of humans, strange obsessive scientists that have clearly been mentally affected by their inability to find a cure. In James they find yet another rat lab in which to deposit their hope of finding a way out.

After a few successful trips to the surface, the scientists present James with a unique opportunity. He is to travel to the past, using a time machine, right before the first case of the virus was detected. He is told this is an opportunity to find answers and be the hero. Without many options, James starts a journey that takes him to the early 1990s, in the midst of a society that feels foreign to him. His inability to understand his surroundings and adapt to this world quickly put him in a mental institution where he faithfully meets Jeffrey (Brad Pitt), who is to play a major role in the destruction of the human race.

It is at this moment that James starts shaping not only his future, but the events that would follow, finding himself, sometimes accidentally, in the middle of the situation that led to the spreading of the deadly virus.

From here on, the movie presents us with a dual reality, one rooted in the future, and the other in the past. These worlds are obviously very different, but it is in their similarities that the film makes a strong statement. To James, the future clearly sucks, but the past does not feel all that great either as he witnesses a chaotic society full of vice, corruption, crime and poverty. He is, despite his tendency towards aggression and violence, the only one that seems interested in saving civilization, always struggling to find his voice in a world that does not believe in his doomsday theories. Eventually, James finds a confidant, his psychiatrist Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe). She, unlike the rest starts to listen as he proves, time and time again, that he is too rational and strong-willed in the pursuit of his goal to be crazy. As she starts to trust and support him in his quest, James finds a small escape from the huge burden of responsibility and, in doing so, he begins to make us doubt about the real purpose of his quest, making us question if he already feels he is destined to fail, or even more tragically, whether his mission is real at all.

In this sense, the film finds its force in the uncertainty of the plot. The way it works itself out is not only richly complex, but it also makes us doubt, giving the audience a reason to think about the very nature of the conflict, and whether or not the struggle to save humanity is real or simply the wild imagination of a man consumed by paranoia.

With enough twists and turns to make you dizzy; with a familiar yet original way of approaching a familiar movie genre; with a very convincing and entertaining cast; and a great amount of artistry in its portrayal of the past and the future; 12 Monkeys is one of the greatest and most accomplished sci-fi films of all time. I recommend anyone to watch it before a virus kills us all !

Rating: 4 out of 5 (great)

Note: Initially I had 125 films left to watch of the TOP 250 of IMDB. I have now seen 5 of the films and I have reviewed three. Expect a couple of reviews in the coming days exploring “Gran Torino” and the classic “Casablanca”.

Niels

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