Written by Jason Haas

US, 1995. 129 min. Universal Pictures. Cast: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt; Music: Paul Buckmaster; Cinematography: Roger Pratt; Produced by: Charles Roven; Written by: David and Janet Peoples (from a film by Chris Marker); Directed by Terry Gilliam.

It’s almost precious to say of a time travel movie, but Twelve Monkeys was clearly ahead of its time. When it was released in the US at the tail end of 1995, the country was entering the election year that would lead to President Clinton’s second term and the economy was sky high. All of the problems that now dominate pretty much all of our discourse in this country were around but minor and mostly unnoticed, waiting to spring on the country as a post millennial surprise party of doom. Now, in 2006, right after the 5th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack eliminating the majority of the Earth’s population and driving the rest underground seems a little bit more real. Or maybe it will be Avian Flu. The truth of the matter is that the last five or so years have given our day-to-day reality a much more apocalyptic flavor. So how, in the early days of the Internet boom and a mostly sunny security outlook, did Twelve Monkeys manage to acquire such apocalyptic trappings?

Much of the answer to this question can of course be found in director Terry Gilliam, but not so much as you might think. Gilliam is known for seeking control of his projects from the beginning. Of the films being honored in the ongoing Gilliam series at the Brattle, only Twelve Monkeys and The Fisher King were not written by Gilliam. These films were done as “work-for-hire,” meaning that he would work merely as a craftsman director being paid for his labor, as opposed to his more personal 1980s projects, the deeply dystopic Brazil and The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen. Both of those were intensive labors of love that required dread combat with studios in order to get them made. Gilliam fought mercilessly with Universal for his full cut of Brazil to be released, and Munchausen suffered from almost reckless spending on Gilliam’s part that resulted in a lushly gorgeous movie and a great deal of trouble for his career. Gilliam picked up Twelve Monkeys after a four-year absence from filmmaking, later explaining that he wanted to see if he was still “any good” at it. One of the prime ironies was that he was once again working for Universal, the company that made life so unbearable for him during Brazil. Going into this project then, Gilliam was working with some serious personal demons, and this was a man who had already mastered dystopia 10 years earlier.

Gilliam wasn’t the only player with a lot riding on this film, though. Both Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt were relying on Twelve Monkeys to really change their careers. Both took drastic cuts in their standard fees in order to work with Gilliam and to have a chance to do work that established them as actors capable of doing more than their standard schticks. Willis worked with Gilliam to show his more vulnerable side in addition to the tough determination he was known for. In order to escape the “blue-eyed bimbo” roles into which he had been pigeon-holed, Pitt spent extensive amounts of time in Temple University’s Medical Center both as an observer and as an in-character patient! His performance ultimately nabbed him a nomination for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award as well as a Golden Globe and a Saturn award. Critics heaped praise on both actors for rising to meet the challenges of their roles.

These high stakes for the central players end up working in favor of the film as a work of art. The film wrestles with time travel, madness, faith, and with humanity’s decision to believe information presented through different avenues. It deals with apocalypse in both its meaning as information hidden from the mass of humankind and unveiled to a few prophets, as well as its more common meaning today – the end of the world. It is unclear for much of the film whether Willis’ character of James Cole is really a investigator from the future, seeking out the truth of the apocalypse that has forced humanity underground in his time, or whether he’s a mentally divergent person from present day Baltimore. The movie relies deeply on uncertainty, so an audience trying to determine whether or not this is the Bruce Willis they know from Die Hard, or whether this is the Brad Pitt from Legends of the Fall, only feeds the overall uneasiness and uncertainty of the film. Audience members who knew Gilliam’s prior work would also be coming to see if this was the same Gilliam from Brazil and Munchausen, or whether this would be some middle-of-the-road science-fiction vehicle for Willis and Pitt with none of his personality to it.

Indeed, Gilliam manages to capture all of this unease and uncertainty. His voice is strongly felt in the underground world of the future, which deeply resembles the dystopia of Brazil. The abundance of older technology combined with new technology, wide angle lenses on the camera as well as in the set design, strange eye-wear (among other things) echo strongly from that 1985 film. Gilliam’s 1996 present manages to bear a resemblance to his other work as well, especially the mental health institution in Baltimore and the dinner at the Goines’ residence.

The film tested poorly, but ended up being a financial success for Universal, arguably because of the artistic success of the film and its bankable stars. Gilliam and his able cast were able to deliver on the audiences’ expectations even while they subverted them – no easy feat. This success enabled these major players to enjoy greater success afterward. Let us hope then that we can all, in the uncertain times in which we live, take hope from not only Cole’s finding love with Dr. Railly and bittersweet success in saving the world, but in the lessons of the careers of these major players. Change can happen, and better days are potentially around the bend.

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