Science fiction and genre films of today lack certain qualities that made the movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s feel unique. Unless you’re Alex Garland with films like Ex Machina or Annihilation or Julia Hart with Fast Color, recent years offered a litany of sameness in many a genre movie. It’s to the point where fans — depending on the topic or characters featured — can go into the film with their expectations relatively met.
And when a film, such as Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, beautifully obliterates fan expectations, it’s met with praise but also intense criticism that sadly might deter studios from taking more considerable risks with their popular IP.
While the 2000s and 2010s were still a great time for cinema, the ‘90s were more peculiar in science fiction, fully committed to the age of technological discoveries and the wary cloud of doomsday. Enter 12 Monkeys, which by all means is an imperfect film, but one that truly exemplifies the time and places it was created in and seems near impossible to replicate now (TV adaptation notwithstanding).
Here’s why you should watch or revisit 12 Monkeys before Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film, starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, leaves HBO Max on December 31.
In 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a convicted inmate living in the 2030s. Cole is recruited on a mission to the 1990s with the promise of reducing his sentence and possibly saving the world. Back in the past, his mission is to unearth information about a plague that would wipe out most of the human race.
Of course, as is the case with many time travel stories, the trip doesn’t go as planned. Soon, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) has determined Cole delusional and sends him to a mental hospital. Later, he escapes, returns to the future, and then goes back to the past. He meets the animal rights activist Jeffrey (Brad Pitt) and learns about Jeffrey’s father (Christopher Plummer), who may be running a lab that hosts a deadly virus, which will lead Cole on a dangerous path to learning the truth.
It’s a fearless film tackling every genre, mixing road movies with time travel elements, dystopian thrillers with action and nihilism. Amidst it all, 12 Monkeys even tries to fit in a romance.
12 Monkeys is a product of a bygone era of sci-fi filmmaking when the genre was populated by new, exciting, and ahead of the curve ideas. Co-written by David Peoples, who wrote Blade Runner, the film is deliberately off-putting in its visuals and costuming. There’s nothing sleek or appealing about the outfits Cole finds himself in, nor anything that immediately screams futuristic. The costumes fittingly look like what may be cobbled together from whatever is leftover by scraps. The suit Cole wears to go above ground is bulky and cumbersome.
The film doesn’t play with palatable colors and instead rests in overlit scenes and dreary colors, which wash the actors out. No frame is empty, and each set is designed with purposeful business (like people had to rush to stock belongings in available spaces). Yet, while it’s all still cold and sterile, there is no escaping the mess at the end of the world. There’s a reason why the movie draws the panel Cole meets with as a mix of mad scientists and uppity bureaucrats. 12 Monkeys is off-putting in a way that genuinely unsettles viewers with its contradicting, dystopian visuals.
It’s funny because now a television series like HBO’s Station Eleven, with the initial premise of a deadly virus wiping out most of humanity, isn’t so far-fetched and knows how to build off today’s paranoia. In the ‘90s, this type of paranoia could be seen in 12 Monkeys and films such as Todd Haynes’ Safe starring Julianne Moore. These stories capitalized on the idea of the invisible illness and the silent threat. As a result, it made them incredibly frightening due to the creeping sense of catastrophe lingering over the characters’ shoulders.
Movies like 12 Monkeys have a lasting impact, not because of the story or performances but for the overall atmosphere and how the film engages it. We don’t remember the specific plot beats but the mood it struck and its uncanny and kaleidoscopic ambition. It’s a film meant to leave the audience apprehensive, and it succeeds because so much of the state of the world and our characters are unknown to us.
Disorienting and provocative, 12 Monkeys is a pure ‘90s sci-fi trip worth revisiting or seeing for the first time.
12 Monkeys is streaming on HBO Max until December 31, 2021.