Top 100 Movies Of The 1990's: #80 12 Monkeys
Box Office: $57.1 Million
Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Costume Design
Oscar Wins: None
Available To Stream: Amazon Prime ($4), Vudu ($4)
This is a mindfuck of a movie that is greatly benefited by a cast and director that elevate a story with some holes in it the longer you look. However, I don't believe that's what you should be doing with this movie. This is directed by Terry Gilliam so mood and larger themes like the failures of bureaucracy take over. Because this is a Gilliam film, that also means it remains really entertaining.
The story is wildly complex so I'll try to be brief. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a prisoner in 2035 where everyone lives underground due to a plague that started in 1996. Cole is forced to go back to the 1996 to see why and how the plague started. He is able to travel to the past but they send him to 1990 by accident and no one believes his story and he is put in a mental institution. All of that takes place in roughly the first half hour alone. There is a lot going on in this movie but the storytelling (with a script by David Peoples who also wrote Unforgiven) does a great job not making you too confused.
It never hurts to get very lucky with casting. When Brad Pitt was cast in this movie, he was known for Thelma & Louise but that was about it. By the time the movie was released, Interview with a Vampire, Legends Of The Fall and Seven had all come out and he was a star. He's fantastic in this as Jeffrey who we meet in this scene where he shows James around the institution that James has been placed because people don't believe he's a time traveler. This role would get Pitt his first Oscar nomination.
Bruce Willis was at a crossroads point in his career. Up until Pulp Fiction (which came out the year before), he had been known more as a smart-ass character like we saw in Die Hard and Moonlighting. But with Pulp Fiction and 12 Monkeys, he began playing quieter characters who were more stoic. It's almost like he could only be funny when he had hair. The stoic roles continued with Unbreakable and Looper. Obviously his eventual aphasia diagnosis led him to taking those roles as speaking became more difficult but I do wonder what made him shift in this direction starting in the mid 90's.
Budget was a huge issue surrounding this movie during all of production. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen came out in 1988 and was also directed by Terry Gilliam. It was a box office disaster costing Columbia Pictures almost $40 million dollars. His next movie was a mild hit (The Fisher King) but studios were still weary of working with Gilliam especially on a science-fiction picture. Universal did green light 12 Monkeys and gave Gilliam final edit but under one condition: that he keep the budget under $30 million.
He did but by many accounts, this was a stressful shoot and instead of using soundstages, they would use abandoned buildings in/around Philadelphia. I think it's a strength of the movie. Everything feels like it's falling apart and we are supposed to feel that way with society about to crumble. The architecture (like in the above clip) is so unique, no set designer could have created those details on a studio lot.
Because Gilliam was so careful with the budget, this wound up making a nice amount of money. The first weekend it was a wide release, it was number one and it was up against a pretty loaded marketplace with movies like Heat, Jumanji and Toy Story all already in theaters. It was even number one the next weekend and then From Dusk Till Dawn opened the next week to knock out of the number one slot. But this wound up being a profitable movie and his last one to gross over $50 million in the US.
So what are my issues with the plot? It is a time travel movie so you're going to have paradoxes but that's an unfair complaint. My bigger issues are:
-They intend to send Bruce Willis back to 1996 from 2035 with the intention of finding out how the plague started. But in 1996, they rule out the 12 Monkeys. They say so on the car radio. Wouldn't a group of elderly scientists know this already? It was only 39 years ago. Many of them would have been adults when the plague began.
-If the scientist is able to stop David Morse on the airplane (she calls herself "insurance"), why do they need Bruce Willis at all? This seems like something they could easily do themselves.
-That Madeline Stowe needs to "remember" Bruce Willis from somewhere is bad screenwriting. Time travel movies always have an issue with getting people to believe the time travelers. This movie already leans a little heavy on time being in a loop or dreams having importance.
Any movie that has this much going on (we see Bruce Willis in World War 1, 1990, 1996 and 2035 in this movie) is going to have some giant plot holes or things that just don't make sense. It's about the imagery, performances and the journey. This movie does all of those things really well.
80. 12 Monkeys
81. Stir Of Echoes
83. Total Recall
84. Quiz Show
87. Men In Black
90. Three Kings
98. Any Given Sunday