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Customer Review

59 of 67 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A film fascinating, fun and frustrating, January 31, 2006
This review is from: 12 Monkeys (Special Edition) (DVD)
12 Monkeys is a convoluted tale of time travel, insanity, apocalypse, and who-done-it, with some romance thrown in. What I enjoyed most about it was the twisting and ambiguous path it followed, which was fresh and well thought out, to a point.

Bruce Willis plays Cole, a prisoner in a post-apocalyptic future recruited to do some dangerous time-travel work in the past for a group of very odd scientists. The goal of the work only becomes apparent later, and by then there is confusion about whether Cole is really on the mission he thinks he is or is just deluded. Brad Pitt has a major supporting role hamming it up as another who may or may not be insane.

Ultimately, while I don't think the film does full justice to its premises and possibilities, it does well enough to be entertaining and thought provoking. Director Terry Gilliam's surrealism adds much. The acting is very good on the whole, itself rather surreal in some of the supporting roles. There is some violence showing how disturbed Willis's character is, not bad for an R-rated movie. It's definitely worth seeing to judge for yourself what it's really about.

I want to comment on the things you think about after the film is over, to see how well it holds up. I'll have to go into details you may not want to know about if you haven't seen the film yet, thus the spoiler alert. If you'd like to know what my general conclusions are, without any spoilers, just skip to the last couple paragraphs headed "In Sum."

*SPOILER ALERT*

Madness

There are many points designed to suggest that parts of the film are delusions, but they're balanced by points seeming to show the opposite. There is the over-the-top strangeness of the future (the video ball, serenading scientists, etc.), the obvious parallels between the psych ward and the future prison (similar panels of doctors/scientists, the two guards, etc), the voice that calls Cole "Bob" (moving around as if in his head, though it seems to belong to the wino too), the music in the ruined department store (apparently a premonition (or something) of the time Cole is there in 1996), the lion and bear (again paralleled in 1996, unlikely denizens of a wintry abandoned Philadelphia).

But then Cole's disappearances, the French that Cole himself doesn't understand in WWI (yes, it's real French), the photo of Cole from WWI (though nearly impossibly convenient), the WWI bullet, Cole's knowledge of the boy in the well prank, all seem to settle things conclusively against delusion. That is, unless we're to imagine that not only the future but the whole film is delusions, of Cole (or Bob) and/or Railly, in line with her own fears and the comment by the virus culprit (Morse) that Railly might be succumbing to her Cassandra syndrome. Confusing? That's what Gilliam was aiming for.

In a way, the view that the whole film is largely delusion seems the most coherent overall interpretation, in that it can explain away all failures of logic. But it has trouble explaining how good the logic is. The film, strange and muddled as it is, really does seem far too lucid and coherent to be primarily be a string of delusions.

The End, Time Travel

The ending has stirred much debate. The woman sitting next to the culprit on the plane is one of the scientists from the future. She is presumably there to do exactly what Cole said the scientists planned to do, gather a sample of the virus from before it mutated. According to Cole, the scientists didn't send him to change the past, which he says is impossible. He was sent to gather information, which he did. We must assume that the sample is gathered and that this enables humanity in the future to return to the surface of the planet. It doesn't help the 5 billion killed.

That appears to be the basic sense of the ending, but it has its own loose ends. Why was Cole given the gun, if not to try to change the past? (Jose's line that it's too bad they didn't get the information sooner makes no sense to me in the context of time travel.) The scientist introduces herself on the plane saying, "I'm in insurance," which is a great line if she's a backup for Cole, in case he fails to stop the spread of the virus. But that too implies he could have changed the past. Even getting a sample of the virus seems to change the past. Trying to figure out the point of all of this is further complicated by the the fact that we are shown the virus being released by the culprit when it was being inspected at the airport. By the time Cole tried to shoot him it was already too late. This adds to the pathos, and the confusion.

Some views of time travel allow the past (and future) to change. It could work this way. Young Cole goes to the airport, there is no shooting, he survives the virus, and is eventually sent back, where he is shot, witnessed by young Cole, who survives the virus and is eventually sent back, where he remembers the shooting and gets shot (the scene we see near the end of the film). This would allow one more twist in the film, one suspected by some optimistic viewers. Railly, recognizing the boy Cole, would tell the boy to remember that the culprit wasn't the 12 monkeys gang but Dr. Goine's assistant. Then Cole could conceivably grow up and loop back one more time, this time preventing the virus from ever being released, and getting the girl. There is no hint of this, however. Had the filmmakers wanted to hint at the possibility, they easily could have (by having Railly whisper something in the boy Cole's ear, for example).

In Sum

All in all, the film is stimulating and fun but ultimately more frustrating than it might have been. I like a film that provokes thought, but I tend to prefer one that rewards it with additional insights and clarity. That only goes so far here, and then things seem impossible, muddled or otherwise unsatisfying. There is a certain postmodern sensibility that prefers just this kind of lack of clarity and incomplete logic. I don't know if that was intended here or just came about accidentally (I suspect some of each), but if that sensibility is your thing, you should love this film.

The DVD anamorphic video and 5.1 audio quality are fine. There is commentary track with director Gilliam and producer Charles Roven, and a full-length making-of documentary. Both are interesting and worth the time, but don't expect answers to the puzzles the film leaves, other than a hint or two expressed as personal opinion.
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 29, 2008 10:08:24 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 29, 2008 10:09:57 AM PDT
Thanks for looking over my own review of 12 Monkeys.

As for my own interpretation, I never thought of the film as being Cole's delusions. Nor did I find it to be frustrating. Engaging, complex and thought-provoking, yes. Frustrating, not so much.

My theory about the film's ending is that the Microbiologist in the plane is there not to insure that the virus is stopped, but that she is actually there to insure that the virus is spread. This is supported by the fact that Jose is also sent back and gives Bruce Willis the gun. It's often assumed that he was meant to use the gun on the Apocalypse fanatic (Dr. Peters, I think his name was) with the virus. I always saw it differently. In my mind Jose gave Cole the gun because it is Cole who made the spread of the virus possible to begin with, and therefore if Cole were to kill himself as a child, then the timeline would be corrected and he never would have grown up and gone into the past. The Microbiologist is often seen as being nervous and twitchy in the future, from my perspective this is because she has been secretly sending people back and forth through time without the approval of the other scientists, hence the hobo who refers to Cole as Bob popping in and out of the story without explanation. Also if you will take note of the fact that it is she who makes import of Cole noticing Goines in the slideshow, which causes Cole to finger the Army of the 12 Monkeys to begin with. She does this (1) because she wants the other scientists to think that it is Goines who is responsible for the spread of the virus, which indirectly he is, and (2) because through Cole she can gain access to the virus herself, which she does in the end of the film. Cole is in essence sent back to uncover information about a virus that would not have been spread if he had not been sent back in time. This loop-around logic is somewhat paradoxical but is commonly used in time travel films like Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, and Donnie Darko.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 29, 2008 11:45:46 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 2, 2008 5:10:22 PM PDT
Sanpete says:
*Spoilers*

Interesting ideas, CO. We agree that the scientist from the future on the plane isn't there to stop the spread of the virus, since it had already been released at airport security (Peters is shown opening the vial at the request of the the security officer), and the scientists had said they only wanted to get a sample from before it mutated.

It hadn't occurred to me that she might be there to do no good, maybe to bring the virus back to the future to finish off humanity. It does seem she might have been infected just by being with Peters after he had opened the vial. That would be a problem. But if she had wanted to do something evil with the virus, she didn't need to go back in time, apparently, but only to use a sample from the surface of the planet in the future, as it was apparently still deadly in its mutated form. I think she was nervous for the same reason Brad Pitt was nuts, just to heighten the tense and strange atmosphere.

Even if she were up to no good, there would have been no need for her to insure that the virus was spread around the world, as Peters was already doing that, and she already knew that he had done it successfully (otherwise they wouldn't have been forced underground). Maybe I'm not following what you're saying about that.

Can you explain how Cole made the spread of the virus possible? Seemed to me Peters did that despite Cole, for reasons independent of Cole.

I don't understand the part about Cole killing young Cole with the gun, as there was no hint of that idea. The whole point of the gun makes little sense (frustratingly, to me), but it had to be there to preserve the basic idea from La Jetee that the movie was built around. So the writer just invented a rather lame reason, or so it seems to me.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 2, 2008 12:57:28 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 2, 2008 2:33:59 PM PDT
Cole made the spread of the virus possible because he fingered Goines as being the leader of the 12 Monkeys, which he was, but of course the 12 Monkeys wasn't responsible for the virus. Cole makes the spread of the virus possible in the scenes where he breaks into the Goines' mansion and causes a disturbance, while Jeffrey is ranting and raving, and in the scene where Kathryn calls Goines' father about the rumors that Goines is upt o no good. If these things hadn't happened, both of them because of Cole, then Goines' father would not have entrusted the virus to Dr. Peters who unleashed it. Therefore it was Cole's being sent back in time that made the spread of the virus possible.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 2, 2008 5:06:44 PM PDT
Sanpete says:
Sheesh! I see I reversed the names (haven't seen this since I wrote the review). I'll have to edit my previous comment so it makes sense. That's an interesting point about Peters getting the virus because of Cole's actions. I think I assumed that Peters could get the virus anyway, and didn't make much of the connection you refer to. I'll have to keep that in mind when I watch again.

As you say, that would introduce an impossibility, a paradox, if indeed Peters couldn't get the virus without Cole's actions. There are other aspects of the movie that don't seem to add up, but they aren't that kind of tight paradox.

Thanks for sharing your ideas on this, especially that last point. I'll have to watch again.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 8, 2008 12:48:31 PM PDT
No problem. I love all films about quantum physics and time travel. This film has to be one of my favorites alongside the Planet of the Apes films, the Back to the Future Trilogy, and Donnie Darko.

Posted on Oct 2, 2011 8:40:03 AM PDT
michaelray says:
I think part of this is just the problematic trouble with time travel. He can't change the past and yet he is constantly doing so. In films like Back to the Future, the paradoxes of time travel are emphasized and leads to many more confusing possibilities and dangers of endless loops, or annihilation. I think one needs to just set aside reason and enjoy a film like this and try to not focus so much on the logical assumptions that are confused in the film. I enjoyed it as it was. An interesting film with great performances from both Willis and Pitt.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 7, 2013 3:39:52 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 7, 2013 3:41:23 AM PDT
An excellent review capturing the failure to reconcile ambiguity many of us had watching the movie, thanks.

Posted on Jan 9, 2014 10:43:38 AM PST
Russell Dean says:
Nice review - I think one thing that has not been touched on is that part of this movie is a love story that can never be fulfilled as Cole is doomed to a time loop of finding Dr. Railly (they are heading for Florida in the airport) but being killed in the process. As a boy Cole witnesses his own death and sees the Doctor looking at him. When he meets her later as an adult this affects him into falling in love with her only to be doomed over and over again. There is a good chance the Doctors in the future know that Cole must die at the airport (old newspaper articles) in order to assure that the virus sample is attained - that's why they give him the gun.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 16, 2014 4:30:59 AM PDT
Totally agree. Great review. Echoed my feelings.

Posted on Apr 1, 2015 6:36:06 AM PDT
SactoGuy says:
SPOILER
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I haven't seen it in a while, but it seems to me that the scientists of the future enjoyed their positions of authority and being paranoid, ('better to rule in hell than serve in heaven', so to speak) sent him to the past to make sure the future proceeded as normal. It's clever and depressing; you genuinely care for the characters and then the ending sucks all hope out of you. There is enough drama in real life for directors to make endings like this.
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