The foundation on which Terry Gilliam has built the exotic and impressive fantasy 12 Monkeys may seem awfully familiar--at first. For one thing, this paranoiac vision is partly set, again, in a grimy, post-apocalyptic future ruled by Orwellian slavemasters. For a second, it strenuously demonizes science and technology: The cackling villain (Christopher Plummer) has won a Nobel Prize for virology, and the heroine (Madeleine Stowe) is a celebrated psychiatrist who eventually throws down the tools of her trade. For a third, beefy Bruce Willis kicks a lot of butt.
We've seen those things before, but this is no flat-footed action flick. From the opening sequence, in which Willis's tormentors stuff him into what looks like a full-length body condom and expel him from their underground lair into the poisoned world above (Philadelphia, actually), you know you're in Gilliam Country--because you've joined his altered state of mind. It's a place where layers of reality keep shifting and planes of consciousness remain at play, a place where Gilliam's old employer Monty Python is forever bumping into Franz Kafka.
The hero of 12 Monkeys is bald and battered James Cole (Willis), a prisoner (for crimes unspecified) of the heartless and nameless regime that may or may not be trying to put back together a planet that was destroyed way back in late 1996 and 1997 by a mutant virus. This was possibly loosed upon mankind by a shadowy band of ecological guerrillas called The Army of the 12 Monkeys. Five billion people were killed by the plague, we're told, and there are times James probably wishes he'd been one of them: As it is, the grotesque authorities have tattooed a couple of bar codes onto the side of his head, and they track his movements with little antennae they've planted in his molars.
No black helicopters, but so far, Timothy McVeigh would love it.
The first of several twists Gilliam and screenwriters David (Blade Runner) and Janet (The Day After Trinity) Peoples crank into their diabolically complex machine is a little time travel. That may sound like old hat, too, but never in the history of movies has the traveler had to put up with the kind of cosmic jet lag imposed on poor James Cole. The grotesque scientists who keep firing him back into various decades in the hopes that he can solve the mystery of the virus seem to have studied under Dr. Mengele, and they haven't got the bugs out of the machinery: At one point James is dispatched to the fiery trenches of World War I instead of 1996, and a little trip to 1990 lands him in a hellish mental hospital in Baltimore where, drugged to the eyeballs, he raves on about an impending world apocalypse and gets himself shackled to a steel bed for his trouble.
Thus does Monkeys' beguiling plot get to the unwinding--across several major time zones and in the minds of several baffled questers. There's James, of course, who becomes more traumatized every time he ping-pongs between dimensions. If you want to see Bruce Willis slaver, just watch. There's Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe), the world-wise, world-weary shrink who comes to believe Cole's rantings. Best of all, perhaps, there's young Jeffrey Goines, who's as insightful as he is certifiable: Even those who think Brad Pitt belongs back in algebra class owe it to themselves to have a look at Hollywood's top glamour boy here. As a comic, raving lunatic (or is he?), Pitt gets most of the film's juiciest lines and steals half a dozen of its biggest scenes.
Meanwhile, Gilliam and company are cannily raising the Big Questions. What is madness? Who defines reality? Is science our servant? Can we get unstuck in time?
Happily, Gilliam's stint as a Pythonite serves him even better than his ambitions as a social philosopher. For its compelling disorientations of time and space, Monkeys is a bit reminiscent of Adrian Lyne's unheralded Jacob's Ladder. It's also a welcome corrective to the idiocies of last year's killer-virus movie, Outbreak. Most of all, though, it's the same fetching mix of visual adventure, cold-sweat nightmare and roaring satire that characterized Gilliam's most accomplished film, the incomparable cult favorite Brazil. Whenever that beauty began edging too far into grim, humorless 1984, Gilliam saved its bacon by sticking a hat in the shape of an inverted spike-heel onto a foolish woman's head; when his black mystical streak starts to obliterate pleasure here, he comes up with a madman down in the day room of the asylum who's funnier than anyone in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or an unexpected Marx Brothers clip (what else but Monkey Business?).
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Hey, the moviemakers even claim the inspiration for 12 Monkeys is La Jetee, a short time-travel film perpetrated by the elusive French director Chris Marker back in 1962. Outside of the Sorbonne and NYU Film School, no one's ever heard of Chris Marker, and rightly so, I might add. Terry Gilliam's little joke? Count on it.
In other words, let's hear it for balance and for contrast of tone. A wise man once said that the secret of a bore is that he tells everything: Gilliam has a great gift for stopping just short of telling everything he thinks is important, then jolting it all up with comedy when we least expect it. With that in mind, there's no use going into the recurrent airport dream tortured James Cole keeps having, or what he does to a low-down pimp in the upper reaches of a fleabag hotel, or why Dr. Railly dyes her hair blond, or what a clinical syndrome called "the Cassandra complex" has to do with the fate of the planet.
We might even get out of here without saying that Bruce Willis gives the most enjoyable performance of his entire career as the fugitive who never knows what day--or year--it is and yearns only to live in the present.
Suffice it to say that 12 Monkeys (did they do it or didn't they?), despite its spate of seeming conventions, is one of the most inventive, intelligent and scary films of recent years. That it's also clever enough to salt one very dark landscape with outlandish satire is tribute to the skill of its makers. Let's hope it's a movie with a future.