Film Review: 12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys (1995) – IMDb

12 Monkeys: Directed by Terry Gilliam. With Joseph Melito, Bruce Willis, Jon Seda, Michael Chance. In a future world devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population on the planet.

12 Monkeys

Synopsis:A man from the post-apocalyptic future, Cole uses a dangerous, untested method of time travel to get from 2043 to the present day. He is on a mission to locate and rid the world of the source of the plague that will eventually annihilate the human race.


12 Monkeys (1995)

One of the great successes of the Monty Python troupe was the emergence of member and animator – Terry Gilliam – as an accomplished director. Not only did he direct the Python movies, he evolved into a gifted filmmaker with credits such as Brazil (1985) and The Fisher King (1991) among his greatest achievements. A Gilliam movie often has a fantastical element to it with engaging characters, amazing visuals and a compelling storyline. In 1995 Gilliam released Twelve Monkeys which I always wanted to see but somehow the movie just slipped me by. A mere 27 years later, I finally delved in to see what all the fuss was about.

Crazy, crazy nights. James is dragged into Jeffrey’s chaotic world

Set in 2035 the film follows the story of James Cole (Bruce Willis), a convicted prisoner who is incarcerated in an underground compound beneath Philadelphia. Back in 1996 a deadly virus wiped out the majority of mankind and was believed to have been released by a notorious group known as the Twelve Monkeys. In exchange for a reduced sentence, Cole is chosen to go back in time to locate the virus before it is released and to – hopefully – help lay the foundations for a cure of some sort. Such a procedure is fraught with risk not just to Cole but to paradoxes in history, while unwanted visions of a shooting at an airport play havoc with Cole’s mind. Dreams? Memories? Hallucinations? It’s all a mystery. When Cole is incorrectly sent to 1990 his knowledge of the future is interpreted as insanity and he finds himself in a mental hospital under the care of Dr Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and in the company of a peculiar patient named Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). What follows is Cole’s attempts to convince others of his sanity, of their impending doom in less than a decade and the small matter of trying to traverse the timelines to prevent this terrible epidemic. 

Watching Twelve Monkeys I was left somewhat disappointed. Not with the film, but with myself for waiting nearly 30 years to finally watch it. The Gilliam flair is here once again and he carefully controls what is a complex narrative. As with all time travel movies, there are the inevitable mind fuck moments in here but as the pieces start to come into play you find yourself blown away by the revelations as we lead to the denouement. Bruce Willis demonstrates his versatility here, offering a tough but fragile lead in James Cole, while Madeleine Stowe works well alongside him. There is a notable appearance from the always reliable Christopher Plummer but much of the plaudits have to go to the Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt who is delightful as the unpredictable, intricate and destructive Jeffrey Goines. Twelve Monkeys is a film that warrants repeat viewings so you can go back and look for the clues and suggestions to how it all ultimately unfolds. It’s certainly one I will go back to in the near future and not 30 odd years from now.

Verdict: Perplexing, dazzling, well-acted and utterly enthralling, Twelve Monkeys is up there as Terry Gilliam’s best work. 


My name is Dave and I live in Yorkshire in the north of England and have been here all my life. I hope you enjoy your visit to All is Ephemeral.

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