It may be my short attention span, but usually so-called ‘cult’ films do not do it for me. However, the exception would have to be 12 monkeys. Treading on the border between reality and fantasy, Terry Gilliam takes you on an uncompromising, dark and chilling journey into his beautifully crafted dreamworld. This is not a simple film: you may have to watch it several times to understand it fully, and Gilliam is careful to leave some unanswered questions.
There are outstanding performances from Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt, and the plot is complex and absorbing, but in my opinion it is the hand of the director that has made this film so outstanding. Those who have seen The Ring will know that repetition of motifs and clues: things-you-know-you’ve-seen-earlier-but-you-can’t-quite-remember-where, can produce the greatest shiver up the spine, and this is certainly true here. From the mesmerising symbol of the Twelve Monkeys, showing in hallucinogenic spirals at the starting credits, to the image of a lion on a rooftop, the boy in the well, or a suitcase covered with labels, Gilliam tugs at our awareness and our senses. In certain scenes, such as the bizarre dream-sequence repeated throughout the film, reality is suspended: the characters wear bright, improbable clothes against a white background to create the question: what is real? This surrealism is echoed in other shots where we see, for instance, a herd of giraffes galloping down a motorway. Gilliam lays this bizarre beauty against the genuine terror of the voices in Bruce Willis’s head, until you can no longer be true what is the product of the bending of the laws of nature in sending people back in time, and what is the product of Cole’s disturbed mind. A chilling, apocalyptic film that should definitely be seen.