PROS: Great cast. Much better than your average time-travel flick. Bruce Willis managed to pull off a very weird role. The interaction between Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe is fun to watch. The interaction between Brad Pitt and everybody else in the movie is fun to watch. Bonus Christopher Plummer.
CONS: Developing time travel in the time frame they did seems unlikely. Since it’s meant to be the near future, Cole’s present was so gonzo I found it a little distracting.
THINGS I LIKED: Seriously, it’s worth the price of rental just to see Brad Pitt as Jefferey.
NITPICKS: The bullet they supposedly recovered from Cole’s leg looked like it had never been fired. Can you really pull your own molar out in ten seconds with nothing but a switchblade?
James Cole’s present is effectively our future, and in that future humankind has been almost completely wiped out by a virus which was intentionally released by (at least it is suspected it was released by) a group of hardcore animal rights activists who called themselves the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Interestingly, if you sneak up behind Sean Hannity and whisper the word ‘liberal’ in his ear, this is exactly the nightmare scenario that is triggered in his mind.
Forced to live underground, humans can only return to the surface for brief periods of time in environmental suits to collect samples. Since the virus has only wiped out man and nothing else, this is doubly dangerous as animals (including zoo fauna like lions) now pretty much have the run of the place. The world below is only glimpsed, but what we do see shows prisoners living in cages, scientists trying to manage some kind of cure, and a kind of gestapo police force than stands between them. I don’t think it’s ever spelled out exactly what the prisoners did to get stuck in the cages, but it doesn’t matter – they’re there, and James Cole (Bruce Willis) is one of them. These prisoners are very useful to the scientists who use them do dangerous things like the aforementioned trips to the surface.
Suffice it to say the scientists feel that their new time travel device (which they hope to use to go back in time to collect a sample of the original, un-mutated virus in order to help concoct a cure) is pretty rock solid, but not *quite* rock solid enough to risk their own asses in. James Cole is volunteered to make the trip, and science-fiction merriment ensues.
When Cole arrives in our time, it doesn’t take him long to end up in big trouble. Before he can even get started he ends up drugged, beaten, and thrown in a mental institution for observation (on the advice of Kathryn Railly, played by Madeleine Stowe). While in the mental institution he meets fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines, whose father is a world-famous virologist. These become our three leads in the film.
Things unfold from there in a very strange and entertaining way. The premise is nothing new, there are tons of movies out there where someone travels back to our time from a dystopian future hoping to change it, but in this movie it *feels* different. For one, Cole knows he can’t change the future, he’s just hoping to bring something useful back with him. For another, he’s not a soldier, or a scientist, or a ninja, he’s an uneducated (if well-meaning) thug who only vaguely remembers the world he returns to.
Everyone is great in this movie, but especially the three leads. Bruce Willis totally sells the character of James Cole who is uneducated but not stupid, alternating between a ruthless determination to complete his mission and an almost childlike joy at being able to run around on the surface, out of his cage. Madeleine Stowe responds perfectly, never quite believing he is really from the future but sympathetic to what she assumes is his delusional state. Even when he scares her she is compelled to help him until she begins to maybe, just maybe consider there might actually be something to his crazy claims. Their relationship is really fun to watch. Then there’s Brad Pitt as Jefferey, who just might be my favorite Pitt character ever. Jefferey is as strange as they come, and it’s clear that unlike Cole he really does have some kind of mental issue, but his odd behavior, mannerisms and ways of speaking are all very consistent which make him come off as a real person. Jefferey loves chaos, and he creates a lot of it wherever he happens to be since it doesn’t take much to trigger a wonko rant from him, and his insanity almost seems to be catching.
Time travel movies are more about the journey than the destination (we know where we’ll end up, we’ve already seen it), and I totally recommend this one.
BOTTOM LINE: Offbeat, and miles above most Sci-Fi offerings.
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