12 Monkeys

12 monkeys 3Today we revisit another of the internet archived reviews. As I read through it in preparation for its republication, I was struck by how much my critiquing has evolved over the years. Back when I wrote this I had the feeling that I was on to something with my approach, and yet [as I re-read] I realized my efforts now are much, much better. Is this the “always thus and always thus will be” fate we writers face. Is there never a time when we become the best writer we can be? Would we even want that?

Either way, there are some diamonds in these roughs. For that reason I subject the world to my antiquated review [using the archaic questions] of this exceptional script.


I want to get two points out of the way quickly about today’s script:

1. If you’re writing a thriller, do yourself a favor and read this. It is a clinic in how to write a successful story in that genre.

2. As proof of 1, I’ll list Source Code. I was somewhere around the midpoint when I spontaneously realized Ben Ripley owed both his plot engines and most of his structure to Twelve Monkeys. The similarities extend even to mundane things, like the protagonist’s name. Cole for Twelve Monkeys. Colter for Source Code.

1. Can “we see” the description? Are the images clear and appropriate? (10 points)

Part A) Here are our opening images:


CLOSE ON A FACE. A nine year old boy, YOUNG COLE, his eyes wide
with wonder. watching something intently. We HEAR the sounds of
the P.A. SYSTEM droning Flight Information mingled with the
sounds of urgent SHOUTS, running FEET, EXCLAMATIONS.

YOUNG COLE’S POV: twenty yards away, a BLONDE MAN is sprawled on
the floor, blood oozing from his gaudy Hawaiian shirt.

A BRUNETTE in a tight dress, her face obscured from YOUNG COLE’S
view, rushes to the injured man, kneels beside him, ministering
to his wound.

ANGLE ON YOUNG COLE, flanked by his PARENTS, their faces out of
view, as they steer him away.

Archaic camera directions abound, but I’m not holding the writers responsible for those.

I would, however, edit this sentence:

We HEAR the sounds of the P.A. SYSTEM droning Flight Information mingled with the sounds of urgent SHOUTS, running FEET, EXCLAMATIONS.


The P.A. SYSTEM DRONES Flight Information mingled with urgent SHOUTS, running FEET, EXCLAMATIONS.

Actually, this part of the new sentence is still imprecise:

The P.A. SYSTEM DRONES Flight Information mingled with…

This imprecision existed in the original sentence too. The sentence reads as if the flight information, the urgent shouts, and the running feet sounds are all coming at us through the P.A. system. So, in order to be totally clear, you would need to say something like:

The P.A. SYSTEM DRONES Flight Information. These sounds mingle with urgent SHOUTS, running FEET, EXCLAMATIONS.

[The only reason I’m being this intensive about this description is because it is the first block in the script. As regular writers with no track record, we have to do a little better.]

I’ll let the passive voice in Cole’s POV shot slide. It would require a fair amount of grammatical contortion to preserve the meaning.

The rest of the description is visually interesting even if it is not as highly polished as it might be. The trend begun with the opening image, continues throughout.

7 out of 10 points.

2. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (20 points)

Part A) This script contains multitudes. Of exposition. However, the authors handle it in a really ingenious way. They make it part of the story.

Cole is continually apprehended by various instances of authority who ask him what he is up to, where he came from, etc. Thid makes absolute sense given the context, and it will always work.

So successful is the exposition in this script at not feeling like exposition, I think it merits a further walking back of my stolidly anti-exposition claims.

I still believe that most everything you think the audience needs to know is available through the context but, I am willing to say now that, whenever you can force the context to demand exposition, it will read easy. In other words, anytime your protagonist is apprehended by the authorities in your story, it makes story-sense for your protagonist to engage in swaths of exposition.

8 out of 8 points.

Part B) This script does an excellent job of infusing nearly every line all of the characters utter with subtext that reinforces the script’s overall theme—

It’s impossible to judge your own sanity.

Let me lay down my reviewer’s red pen for one second and engage in being a writer who likes, more than anything else, really good writing…

This theme, and its deployment in this story, is GENIUS. Just look at how the writers set each of the three large roles in the script up for failure in judging his/her own sanity:

1. Cole: He is placed into a mental ward with “divergent” people who have the kind of paranoid delusions he is sure he is not having.

2. Dr. Railly: She treats people who have the kind of paranoid delusions she is sure Cole is having.

3. Jeffrey: Gets it. It doesn’t matter whether you think you’re sane or not, what really matters is whether the world treats you like you’re sane or not.

In the world according to Jeffrey, mental illness is a choice society makes on your behalf.

I don’t know whether I agree with this presentation of reality, but I can tell you I will be spending more time thinking about it. And if you write a script that makes people think about it long after they close the pdf, you’ve written a GREAT script.

4 out of 4 points

Part C) The character individuation is well done. Jeffrey is, as Brad Pitt ably demonstrated, the resounding success of this question.

8 out of 8 points.

3. Do the writers understand the challenges and rewards posed by the medium in which they’ve chosen to tell their story?

Yeah, little mystery here, it’s a movie and couldn’t be anything else.

I could manufacture words for this question by going into how the script spends studio money freely, but I’m sure the writers matched their pages to a foreordained budget.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there anything unique in what the writers present? Basically, do I have to hire THESE writers in order to get their original take on things? Are the rest of the writers’ ideas, based on this sample, likely to be original?

Well, I’m at a disadvantage because I haven’t yet tracked down the Chris Marker film it’s based on.

Even if all the originality in the script comes from the source material, these authors have shown themselves to be worth taking seriously.

10 out of 10 points.

5. Do we have a hook (the first 2 pages)? (15 points)

The first 2 pages do their job admirably. The distorted dream images from the airport and how they merge into the “less real” environment of the prison is very good storytelling.

Giving us a prisoner as a protagonist is always going to be a tough sell; the authors ease us into acceptance of a bad guy as a good guy by having Cole “volunteer” for a special mission. Since we open with Cole being mistreated by the authorities, and since we get to see the authorities using the word volunteer incorrectly, we assume there are extenuating circumstances with his prison sentence. Because the authorities are immediately shown to be wrong, it’s okay to trust Cole as a protagonist. He still has all of his likeability to burn.

We then see him suiting up into impenetrable body gear. The very last line on the bottom of page 2 comes from an offscreen voice:

If the integrity of the suit is compromised
in any way, if the fabric is torn or a zipper
not closed, readmittance will be denied.

You see how lines like this hook a reader. How do you read this and not keep reading? Don’t you just have to know whether his “readmittance will be denied”?

15 out of 15 points.

6. Is the hook effective (the next 8 pages)? (15 points)

Pages 3-5 show us an apocalyptic city in moonlight overrun with exotic animals and no people, which Cole gains access to by coming up through a man hole cover. He collects bug and animal specimens in glass cylinders. Since there has been zero exposition to this point, this is effective for sure.

Page 5 gives us the lengthy and thorough decontamination process Cole has to undergo to reenter the below ground level human world.

Pages 6-7 introduce us to the author’s preferred exposition technique of having Cole be “apprehended” by the authorities and questioned about his activity. I know it’s not literally true that Cole has been apprehended in this case, but the dynamic works as though he has been, and it is this dynamic that repeats over and over.

The authors also make their first mistake near the bottom of page 7 when they overstep with this:

As the SCIENTISTS start to whisper animatedly among themselves,
COLE’S eyes drift across the newspaper clippings taped to the
wall. One headline screams, “VIRUS MUTATING!” Another features
a photo of an OLD MAN (DR. MASON, who we’ll see again later on)

If you’ve read any previous reviews, you know how much I hate the newspaper and TV reporter trope. This is, by the way, a perfect example of why I hate it. It’s so unnatural. The people in this story already know this information, there’s no reason for them to being putting it on the wall of their “interrogation room”. Trying to pretend they would is just silly.

The authors know they’ve overstepped and try and rescue it with this from the top of 8:

Tell us about the pictures on the wall…

Uh, you mean the newspapers?

Tell us about the newspapers. Can you
hear my voice? What do I look like?
What does he look like, the man who
just spoke? How old were you when you
left the surface?

But no matter how you try and make newspaper clippings relevant, you can’t. It will always be an expositional cheat. And the question I’d ask the authors is:

Is it really so important that we get this exposition about the virus right now? Seriously, is this not something that is going to come up again and again throughout their story?

Pages 8-10 give us: Cole’s dream again, Cole in front of the scientists again, and then Cole’s first trip back into the past.

To be honest, with the exception of the newspaper fail, this is one of the best first 10 I’ve read. But the newspaper fail is particularly jarring, so:

12 out of 15 points.

7. Are there enough reveals to maintain the initial hook?

This script is structured around Cole’s three trips into the past. Act I ends after his trip to [in the script] 1989. Act II ends after his first trip to [in the script] 1995. [There is also a temporal pitstop inside this act to a WWI battlefield.] Act III centers on Cole’s last trip to 1995, in the hours immediately preceding the release of the virus.

Let’s bring back my statement of this script’s theme:

It’s impossible to judge your own sanity

and see how the authors use this theme to punctuate their act breaks.

Cole’s entire presence in 1989 consists in being institutionalized. We first see him in a jail cell where he meets Dr. Railly, after which he is transferred to a psychiatric hospital. The rest of the act takes place in the hospital. It ends when he pulls his “Houdini” and manages to escape from an inescapable cell while fully sedated.

Again, I can’t stress enough how brilliant I think this choice (of having Cole be institutionalized for the entirety of Act I) actually is. This is exactly how someone with severe mental illness would experience the world– a period of intense delusion that ends in institutionalization. Cole doesn’t doubt his own sanity anywhere in this Act, but the seeds for a future doubt are sown. He is being shown how his interpretation of the sensorial evidence of his environment is BEST explained by the hypothesis that he is, in fact, insane.

This would be ridiculously brilliant by itself, but the authors outdo themselves by having each of the other main characters experience this institutionalization of Cole too. Dr. Railly and Jeffrey treat Cole as if he is insane because the world labelled Cole as insane before they met him.

Act II begins with Cole kidnapping Dr. Railly in 1995 to get her help in finding out about the Army of the 12 Monkeys. You see how Cole’s “delusion” is growing more complex and detailed, exactly as it would be if he were actually insane. He presents to Dr. Railly the scientist (the empiricist) as a classic instance of the schizophrenic type.

Importantly, Dr. Railly’s self-assessment of her own sanity requires that she see Cole for what he is, a crazy person. If ever she errs in her judgment of Cole, then, necessarily, her judgment of herself is also called into question. To resist what the world requires her to do (see Cole as mentally ill) would make her mentally ill as well.

Jeffrey, in this act, serves as the liaison between worlds. He is equal parts sanity and insanity. Or, to put it more clearly he is both stark raving mad and clinically sane. The higher truth that only Jeffrey USES is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re sane or not, it only matters whether the world treats you as sane or not.

In another display of overbearing brilliance on the part of the authors, it is Cole’s interaction with Jeffrey that convinces him to judge himself insane.

The scene at the dinner party where Jeffrey and Cole interact is probably the greatest achievement in the script. I say this because it seems like Jeffrey shakes Cole’s belief in himself by telling him that he (Cole) invented the idea of infecting the world with a virus. I say “seems like” because the subtext of that scene is that Jeffrey gives Cole the real truth. The thing we’ve spent the whole first two acts working toward:

It’s impossible to judge your own sanity.

Act III wraps all of this up into a very neat bow. All three characters decide to DISREGARD the world’s opinion of their sanity and twelve-monkeys 2place their trust in their own judgment.

I congratulate the authors for having the foresight to include a character like Jeffrey in a resolution like theirs. They don’t pull any punches and Jeffrey ends up being the thematic cherry on the plot points sundae because:

If it’s impossible to judge your own sanity, then sometimes you really are insane.

That’s a truth which is hard to tell and it’s also certain to hold domestic receipts down—like in the 57 million dollar range.

10 out of 10 points.

8. Does the script recognize the size of its most likely audience, and deliver a story with a realizable profit?

169 million worldwide on an undisclosed budget. Adding in marketing costs…

5 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 90

Although I found no place for it in the regular review, I want to mention a technique for heightening suspense that I fenced from this script. Since I like to think of these techniques as manipulating the information available to the reader, I’ll call this one:

Predictive Information.

Twelve Monkeys deploys this over and over, the most memorable instance coming on page 57:

Nevermind. It’s not real — it’s a
hoax. A prank. He’s hiding in a barn.
Hey, turn left here. Left!

If you have a character make a prediction about something that is going to happen in the near future of your script, you guarantee that a reader continues to read until the prediction is able to be verified. We can’t resist our common psychology; predictions are things we have a visceral attachment too. Look at the continuing popularity of figures like Nostradamus—or this Mayan Calendar thing which currently “looms” over us.


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