The influences on Terry Gilliam’s science-fiction thriller 12 Monkeys are plain to see. The plot is, by Gilliam’s own admission, an adaptation of Chris Marker’s striking short film, La Jetée. The grungy underground world of rusted metal and plastic tubes is clearly borrowed from Gilliam’s earlier surrealist classic, Brazil. The film’s mixture of action and philosophical rumination on the nature of time owes a debt to James Cameron’s first two Terminator films.
Of course, watching a Gilliam film always comes with the sensation that you’ve never seen anything quite like this before. The Monty Python alum’s films are always off-kilter in both style and subject matter, the warped creations of an overflowing imagination. In 12 Monkeys, the world of the future is not quite as ambitious as that of Brazil, the conundrums of time travel are not quite as poignant as in La Jetée, and the action set-pieces are nowhere near as awesome as Terminator 2. But, Gilliam creates a cinematic experience as immersive as any, holding to its unique, bleak vision.
The plot unravels murkily, in bits and pieces: sometime in late 1996, a deadly disease is unleashed upon the world, killing 5 billion people and forcing the survivors underground, Dr. Strangelove-style. One of the survivors, a man named Cole (Bruce Willis) is chosen to go on a time traveling mission to gather information about the virus. What is telling is that his superiors don’t ask Cole to try and stop the spread of the plague; they merely want to gain the knowledge necessary to create a cure, so that the future survivors can repopulate the planet’s surface. The past is the past, what must happen will happen.
Cole is accidently sent back to 1990 instead of 1996, but nevertheless encounters most of the characters who will play a key role in the deadly turn of events later in the decade. Thrown in an asylum, Cole is assigned a psychiatrist, Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who is sympathetic to the seemingly raving madman. One of his fellow patients is Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) an animal rights activist whose famous scientist father (Christopher Plummer) may be responsible for the virus.
As you could expect from any such cerebral thriller, the plot takes numerous twists and turns as Cole searches for the truth. It’s entertaining and engaging enough stuff, but 12 Monkeys really excels in its technical elements. Gilliam’s beloved fish-eye lenses stretch and distort reality, reflecting Cole’s constantly befuddled state. The underground world of the future is more restrained than Brazil’s bizarre metropolis, but is also therefore more convincing; it is cold, dark, damp and harsh. The cities of the 90’s aren’t much better, with their steel-gray skies and dirty streets.
The acting is generally solid all around, but Pitt absolutely steals the show. His paranoid ranting and convulsive twitches are thoroughly convincing, and provide the perfect complement to Willis’ quiet confusion. Who is more insane: the time traveler unsure of his own story, or the illogical prophet completely convinced of his own sanity? The anarchic reality of the present is as unbelievable as anything the future can conjure up.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars