Time travel is one of the most beguiling concepts in storytelling. There’s a reason it’s been a popular theme for science fiction stories since the late 1800s: It’s a perfect example of technology’s endless possibilities and endless repercussions.
Glimpsing our potential — or our fate — is a powerful notion. Time travel also opens up the possibility of travelling backwards, which leads to the rueful question of the do-over. How can I change the past to improve my present?
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Along comes 12 Monkeys, director Terry Gilliam’s masterful 1995 retelling of Chris Marker’s 1962 featurette La Jetée, with a clever and suspenseful screenplay fleshed out by Blade Runner scribe David Webb Peoples and his wife, Janet Peoples. The script was brought to life by an engaged lead in Bruce Willis, who played a confused time traveler like only he can. In case that’s not enough, you also get a scene-stealing, Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt, and a masterfully understated performance by Madeleine Stowe.
The plot toys with weighty concepts like causality and fatalism that many time travel stories desperately try to avoid. In the opening scenes, Willis’ James Cole is sent back in time from a bleak, post-apocalypse 2035 to observe past events that lead up to a mid-1990s viral outbreak. He has no hope of altering past events or averting the virus, but tries to uncover something that will prove to be crucial to humanity’s future. His only leads are a degraded voicemail and a prolific graffiti tag, both of which insinuate the involvement of a group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.
Arriving in the past disoriented and hostile, Cole is assumed to have a mental health condition and is placed in a care facility. It’s here that he meets Pitt’s unhinged animal rights activist Jeffrey Goines and Stowe’s Dr. Kathryn Railly, the psychiatrist to whom Cole attempts to prove his story and sanity.
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12 Monkeys ably explores the psychological toll of both time displacement and knowledge of an inevitable crisis. Stylistically, the world of 2035 is the most overt evidence of Gilliam’s trademark avant-garde aesthetics, showcasing weird, impractical designs that feel suitably futuristic but ever-so-slightly fantastical. The movie’s opening sequence features the most straight sci-fi worldbuilding, as Cole scours the post-outbreak surface streets of 2035 in what looks and feels like a nuclear winter.
Aside from the leads, there are memorable performances from the late Christopher Plummer and David Morse, along with ‘60s Riddler Frank Gorshin and Harry O’Toole as a disembodied voice speaking to Cole from a neighboring prison cell. Remarkably, Carol Florence, who puts in a star turn as one of the scientists, seems to have given up acting soon after.
While it’s normal these days to think of Brad Pitt as a versatile actor, back when 12 Monkeys debuted he was still trying to shrug off the himbo image that Thelma & Louise had given him. It was a revelation to see his frenetic, twitchy portrayal of Goines, complete with chewed fingernails and patchy scalp, setting the stage for future starring roles like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden.
At its heart, what makes 12 Monkeys a favorite for me is its focus, not on the physical effect time travel might have on world events, but on the emotional effect it can have on one human life. Cole is a heroic but tragic figure, and it’s through his eyes that we see both the futility of hoping to change the past and the certainty that we can make a better future — if not for ourselves, then for those we leave behind.
12 Monkeys is streaming now on Peacock.