The Quarantine Stream: '12 Monkeys' is the Perfect 2020 Holiday Movie

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: 12 Monkeys

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time from 2035 to 1996 to gather info on a deadly plague that wiped out almost all of humanity.

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: We’re currently in the midst of a pandemic Christmas, which makes 12 Monkeys, a pandemic movie set during Christmas, feel all the more relevant this year. Then again, it’s not exactly going to lift your spirits and bring you holiday cheer.

Arguably the last genuinely good movie of Terry Gilliam‘s troubled filmmaking career, 12 Monkeys is the perfect Christmas movie for 2020. The film deals with a deadly pandemic against a Christmasy backdrop, and it’s as bleak and weird as you’d expect it to be. That might not appeal to everyone right now, but as the sudden resurgence of Contagion proved at the start of the pandemic, there’s something therapeutic right now about movies about plagues and viruses.

There’s a lot to love about 12 Monkeys, including its set-up. A more “Hollywood” movie would be about someone going back in time to stop the plague from even happening. But 12 Monkeys makes it clear up front that’s not possible – there’s no way for our hero, James Cole, to stop the virus. It already happened. It already killed millions and millions of people. The best Cole can do is gather information to help the people of the future find a cure.

In Cole’s future – which is never technically specified, but press materials list it as 2035 – humanity is all but extinct, and the survivors are living underground. After a disturbing opening in which Cole stalks around a snowy, deserted Philadelphia, he’s given the opportunity to go back in time and gather intel. Unfortunately, they haven’t worked out all the kinks yet, and Cole keeps ending up in the wrong year. Eventually, he makes it to 1996, the year the virus was unleashed, and ends up kidnapping a psychiatrist, played by Madeleine Stowe.

Stowe’s character obviously thinks Cole is nuts, but slowly she begins to realize he might be telling the truth, and that humanity is indeed about to be doomed. Also in the mix: a legitimately crazy person played wonderfully by Brad Pitt, who scored his first Oscar nomination for his role here. Willis is great here, too – remember, while he’s been sleepwalking through his career as of late, Willis can turn in strong, memorable performances if he decides to give a shit.

Most of 12 Monkeys is set against the backdrop of Christmas, but it’s not a warm, inviting, family-friendly Christmas. Everything is dingy and dark, even before the plague. Gilliam does a great job of capturing how filthy a city can be in the midst of winter, with dirt-covered snow all around. And around every corner lurks death and an uncertain future.  It’s the feel-bad holiday movie you need right now. Happy Holidays!

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