What sets former Python and now auteur director Terry Gilliam apart from many of his contemporary's in the intellectual side of film? The answer, simply, is his consistent ability to impose odd forms of logic onto his films. All of his good films rely on odd forms of logic; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas relies heavily on drug logic, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen relies on fairy tale logic, The Imaginarium of Dr. Ponassus rely on dream logic, and so on. It is therefore interesting to consider that 12 Monkeys is by far his most linear, straightforward film. That it is not to say that by any normal standard it is straightforward or linear; merely to say that compared to Brazil or Time Bandits it is relatively easy to follow. It's also a heavy favorite for the movie of his career and high on the list of the movies I've reviewed.
The plot setup takes some explaining so give me a moment. Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a convict from a future in which a virus has killed off 99 percent of humanity and forced the survivors underground, leaving Earth's surface to the animals. In this future, they've developed the technology to send people back in time, not to try to change the result or stop the virus, but to gather information to help them find a cure. James is sent back, but is initially unable to handle the switch and is sent to a mental hospital where he meets Jeffery (Brad Pitt) who just might be connected to the virus and Kathryn (Madeline Stowe) who diagnoses him as insane and begins to convince him that the future is just in his mind.
If that setup sounds complex, trust me it gets worse. The plot is full of twists, fake outs and even causes James and Kathryn to question whether James is really from the future. If you end up taking my advice (Spoiler for the end of the review: My advice is that you see it) and find yourself lost, take comfort in the fact that when you get to the end, it'll all make sense.
Bruce Willis, in a fantastic performance, easily one of his best, eschews the action-guy that is the lifeblood of his career in favor of a darker, more nuanced character. We become attached to him as he revels in the small things like music or fresh air, and even his attraction to Kathryn feels desperate, rather than romantic. Madeline Stowe gives a good performance too, as we watch her doubt herself, and begin to despair in the possibility that 5 billion people might die.
It's a shame (but not a flaw) that two such great performances get completely swallowed by Brad Pitt in a scenery chewing role as a violently unhinged lunatic, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Brad says he spent a few weeks preparing for the role at an insane asylum and I believe it. His entire performance is a massive ball of physical ticks, nonsensical rambling and more creepily sensical rambling. When he's on screen he sucks all the energy in the room to himself, and Bruce and Madeline seemed resigned, like Orlando Bloom in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, to sit back and wait for him to go off screen to shine.
The art design, while beautifully designed and owing more than a little to it's director's often slightly surreal vision, is often intentionally bleak and disturbing to look at. The cinematography is well done and works well with the scenes it inhabits, but then Terry Gilliam wouldn't be the name in film buff circles he is if he didn't understand the basics. The score is surprisingly well done, with the 'theme' of the piece emphasizing the madness, real or imagined, of it's characters, and one scene recalling a certain Hitchcock piece. You'll know it when you hear it.
The script is wall to wall excellent, written by Dave and Janet Peoples who also wrote Blade Runner still one of my top 3 favorite films of all time. The characters, even the minor ones, are fully fledged people with flaws and humanity. The time travel logic might be a little difficult to wrap your head around at first, but once you get it, most of the movie should make sense.
I must say, that despite my great love for the film and my admiration for the craft and skill of the filmmakers and actors, this film is not for everyone. The bleak art style and outlook, the labyrinthine plot, the often disconcerting performances and the disquieting themes will often turn off casual viewers. I mentioned Blade Runner a moment ago, did I not? Well that's good, because it's an excellent barometer. If you like Blade Runner then you should get along well with 12 Monkeys.
If you're on the fence (or have never seen Blade Runner, in which case: shame on you) I'd like to recommend you see it. It's a bold and original piece, and probably the front runner for the movie of Gilliam's career so far (though supposedly The Man Who Killed Don Quioxte is still forthcoming, so maybe that'll change). It might not be the most pleasant movie, but it's truly an example of cinema-as-art and worthy of your time and attention.
Next time on Second Age Reviews: The Dark Crystal
Elessar is a 20 year old Alaskan born cinephile and the line about the dentist makes the movie worth seeing all on it's own.