Humans are forced into underground living after an apocalyptic virus nearly wipes out the species. James Cole is sent back in time as a means of collecting information on the virus and, in his travels, comes across the Army of the 12 Monkeys.
Bruce Willis revisits the sci-fi genre as James Cole, a Volunteer from the future who attempts to chase, track, and understand a viral pandemic that ultimately leads to the demise of the majority of humankind. It’s a plot that feels especially haunting in the current global climate, punctuated by PPE suits, germ theory, and quarantine practices that we’ve all grown more familiar with over these past few uncertain months. The simple relevance of this story adds a unique sense of eerie dread outside of the intended discomfort.
A modern day viewing of the 12 Monkeys is only digestible because the film makes a determined and purposeful effort to distance itself from the viewer. Originally designed to frame the present as an unfamiliar setting, the film utilizes a series of camera tricks, clever writing, and disjointed editing in order to present the world through the eyes of James Cole. While normally I would favor a deeply empathetic storytelling method, the lack of empathy in 12 Monkeys supports the plot with an impressive level of nuance.
That, unfortunately, is just about the only bit of good that a modern day viewing holds.
This film was undoubtedly a gem in its time, but it simply hasn’t aged well. The performances are well delivered and the execution of time travel will always be among the better uses of the trope. However, any of the film’s greatness is shrouded in antiquated notions of neuro-divergence, institutionalization, and womanhood.
There are scenes in this movie that are simply hard to watch. The first twenty minutes of the film are spent intimately depicting the inside of an outdated mental institution. Cole is beaten and sedated throughout the entirety of his time inside. This is not presented as a commentary of the (still rampant) unjust treatment within mental hospitals, but rather as a narrative inconvenience fueled by a macabre aesthetic. It’s a gross exploitation of a typically harmful environment for the use of large-scale entertainment.
The character of Kathryn Railly also falls victim to an old way of thinking, falling firmly into the category of female character that is written only to support the male protagonist. The romance between the two characters is strained and boring. Their initial interactions are spent with Kathryn in a state of immense stress and fear, before she inexplicably begins to fall in love with her patient and kidnapper. There is no emotional backing to it, save a couple of extremely violent outbursts that are inappropriately framed as acts of chivalry.
12 Monkeys certainly does what it sets out to do, and in great form. It captures a particular feeling. The filmmaking is spot on, and you won’t find any denial of that in this review. However, the actual content of the film doesn’t hold up. I’ve heard many a complaint about how the 2015 reboot doesn’t align with the film’s story, and upon watching the original it becomes blatantly obvious as to why the show strayed: this movie could never be remade in a present day setting. It relies far too heavily on problematic storytelling techniques.
12 Monkeys is a good watch for anyone who is interested in the progression of the sci-fi genre, as I can only in good conscious recommend an academic or analytical viewing. The casual viewer will likely find themselves feeling disappointed, especially if transitioning over from the stronger and more developed television series. The subject matter of the film doesn't stand the test of time, and the film itself is not enough of a classic for audiences to willfully turn a blind eye to the sexism and ablism.
It’s About Time: 12 Monkeys (1995)
Writing - 6/106/10
Storyline - 7/107/10
Acting - 9/109/10
Music - 4/104/10
Production - 7/107/10
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