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The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News



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Retro Review: ‘12 Monkeys’ can’t compare to its original inspiration

Joshua Lustig

This article is part of the “Retro Review” series. Each month, four films — united by a singular theme — are assessed. The theme for January 2024 is “time loop.”

It appears this time loop subgenre is tough for filmmakers to nail, because, just like “Groundhog Day,” “12 Monkeys” fails to keep the viewer interested for its entire runtime. That’s not to say it’s a poor film — it has its moments — but, overall, it misses the mark.

Terry Gilliam’s directorial effort centers around a post-apocalyptic world leveled by a devastating plague in the 2030s. A prisoner named James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to try and find the cause of the deadly disease. Cole, haunted by a traumatic childhood memory, navigates his way through the space-time continuum, as well as his past. 

The protagonist’s journey back in time to find the cause leads him on a collision course with the mysterious Army of the 12 Monkeys, led by an unstable anarchist, Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt).

Any scene with Pitt is just magic. In his scenes, to quote Harry Styles, “It feels like a movie.” Even though Pitt resides in the highest echelon of A-List actors, he does not get enough credit for the roles he’s tackled and the range he’s displayed throughout his career — and this film is a testament to just how excellent he can be in front of the camera. 

That said, there are unfortunately too few scenes with Pitt’s wild character. Fortunately, though, the ensemble surrounding him, which includes an incredibly strong performance from Madeleine Stowe as Kathryn Railly, a psychologist torn between believing and disputing Cole’s futuristic warnings, is sometimes able to pick up the slack.

Another wonderful positive of the film is the score. Paul Buckmaster, a British musician and the film’s composer, absolutely kills it. The opening theme for the film is memorable and dynamic — and might set expectations a little too high for what comes next. Nonetheless, it rocks!

Readers, this is not going to be like reviewing “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” There are, unfortunately, a plethora of things that hold the film back.

Now, “12 Monkeys” had so much to live up to from the get-go, as it was inspired by the classic French sci-fi short film “La Jetée.”

Chris Marker’s 1962 film, which mostly consists of still photos, is centered around a ruined world where a man (Davos Hanich) time-travels to prevent its destruction while being haunted by a childhood memory.

Sound familiar?

Yes, “12 Monkeys” is this premise extended to a 129-minute runtime. (For the record, “La Jetée” is 28 minutes.)

As a result of stretching this story over an additional 101 minutes, this film struggles with retaining viewers’ interest between its beginning and revealing ending, which contains some great “Aha!” moments for viewers. Those moments, though always fun, don’t quite make up for the drowsiness induced by the duller ones — a drowsiness that’s bound to leave some viewers asleep. 

Also, even though the film is centered around Cole and that haunting childhood memory of his, it does not sufficiently build a bond between him and the audience. Besides this very personal moment, shown throughout the film, there isn’t much for the audience to cling to — emotional investment is a near impossibility. Too much time is spent on time travel and worldwide chaos while too little is dedicated to fleshing out main characters, like Cole or Goines.

Even Pitt, Willis, Stowe and Christopher Plummer couldn’t save this film from being sluggish.

Yes, this is back-to-back negative reviews, but positivity is on the way —  promise.

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