FrankieSays’s review published on Letterboxd:
"I want the future to be unknown."
The future is a tricky thing that's always been debated by us people of the present. Is it ever-changing? An ever-fluid concept that can be changed by the tiniest details? Or is it already a fixed event that can't be avoided, no matter what we do?
The Greeks were firm believers in the idea of Fate and that humanity was nothing but a plaything for the Gods and Goddesses in Olympus. There was no bitterness attached to this belief; just some resignation and maybe a little bit of honor, in that, were you chosen by the almighty deities, then it truly was a great thing.
But over time, humanity has evolved. With the rise of different religions and different beliefs, our idea of the future has changed drastically, because now, we have adopted the idea that we are, perhaps, in control of our own destiny and by extension, our future. We became self-reliant and defiant, casting aside the notion that we are putty in the hands of mythical beings up on a mountain.
And yet, the question persists: can the future really be changed?
Such is the premise and basic thesis of Terry Gilliam's attempt to explore that idea. In Twelve Monkeys, we have people who live in the future who know they can't change the Great Plague that killed most of humanity, and so, they send a volunteer to gather information about it instead. They already believe that they can no longer change what happened in the past, so they send the volunteer on a time-travelling mission to help save their present.
It's just too bad their volunteer gets the crazy idea into his head that maybe, living in the past wouldn't be all that bad. Who cares about saving the world, when he's met a beautiful woman who may have been the friend he's needed all along?
Bruce Willis plays a man who has nothing, not even a future, which is why he always looks so lost and winded every time we see him. But he is a creature of the present, where his survival instincts (or just plain old dumb luck) kick in, always saving him whenever he needs it most.
Madeleine Stowe plays a woman who has everything, including a very bright future, although it may not be necessarily the future that will make her happy. Her fate as a renowned doctor of the mind is a satisfying one, but she finds that she is happiest when spending time with the monkey wrench who messed up her stable life plans.
Brad Pitt plays a man who lives with both eyes fixed on the future, and so, he ignores all the pesky little details in the present that threaten to trip him up. He's Tyler Durden if Tyler Durden existed in real life - locked up in a mental institution, forever ranting to anyone who will listen, and making sure nobody sits on his chair.
Again, the future is a tricky thing; a ball that spins forever and we have no idea when or where it will stop. With an outcome as ever-changing as this, we look to the three main characters for possible responses:
Willis' James Cole follows his orders and does as he is told, but eventually learns to live for himself. Stowe's Kathryn Railly goes with the flow, even if she resists at first. Pitt's Jeffrey Goines seeks to actively change things, but fails to change himself.
By the end of the movie, we are all as confused and disoriented as Cole, as we're forced to contemplate whether the future was a real thing or if it was all just a madman's fantasy. There is no right answer and nobody is judged for their actions. They get what was coming to them, although it was not necessarily what they deserved.
In the end, Twelve Monkeys does not really resolve the age-old debate about humanity's future. But it does make you think about all the infinite possibilities and potential outcomes in a way most sci-fis never could. And with a movie that dabbles in time travel and all the mindscrews that come with it, you know that's all you ever really need.