James Cole (Bruce Willis), the desperate hero of 12 Monkeys, has been sent from the 21st century — say, around 2025 — back to the twilight of the 20th century. His mission is to gather information about the virus that will break out in 1996 and kill 99% of the world population by 1997. Cole is supposed to arrive in late 1996, right before the outbreak, so that he can discover how it started and deliver his findings to his 21st-century employers, who will use his information to begin research on a cure. (They don’t expect him to save the world from the virus; they know the outbreak is inevitable.) But instead of landing in 1996, Cole lands in 1990, where, of course, he starts raving about his mission and is locked up in a mental hospital.
So far, this sounds a bit like The Terminator, in which Michael Biehn dropped in from the future to do battle with a robotic killer and was similarly waylaid by authorities who found him delusional. But 12 Monkeys has a lot more going on. The director, Terry Gilliam, specializes in fantasies that can be viewed either literally or as the characters’ own delusions — or, at least, as expressions of their psychological states. Gilliam’s cult classic Brazil is the obvious example, but you can also see it in all his other movies: The Fisher King, his previous film, with Robin Williams as the homeless man driven mad by his wife’s murder, who constructed an elaborate medieval fantasy out of his anguish; Time Bandits, with the little boy who dreamed about visiting storybook legends and came rudely back to earth, where his home was in flames; and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which Gilliam co-directed, in which the knights “rode” not on horseback but on coconut halves they clacked together to simulate the sound of hooves. 12 Monkeys is far from the “Bruce Willis in Outbreak 2” thriller you might expect, and overall it’s Gilliam’s best film since Brazil. But all his movies are both dazzling and flawed (the brilliance and the flaws are often inseparable), and in this case — I never thought I’d say this about a Terry Gilliam movie — the flaw is his over-attention to the plot.
12 Monkeys was written by David Webb Peoples (who worked on the scripts for Blade Runner, Unforgiven, and Hero) along with his wife Janet, taking off from the 1962 short La Jetée by Chris Marker. Judging from his produced scripts thus far, I’d say Peoples has a gift for structure; his themes come together with a neat click when you mull them over later. I don’t think Terry Gilliam was a wrong choice for this tidy script — he was probably the only right choice, since the screenplay’s concerns intersect so smoothly with Gilliam’s. But Gilliam’s strength (and weakness, in terms of narrative) has always been mess, chaos. He demolishes context, replacing it with the nightmare logic of clutter; he puts baffling things on the screen, and you don’t know why you respond, or how you respond — you just do.
Gilliam, who started as a cartoonist and contributed animated bits to Monty Python’s Flying Circus before he began directing, is a master of sour visual hardware-surrealism (a klutzy label, I know, but Gilliam resists labels). His style is best described as antique-futuristic (perhaps one reason that his weakest film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, fell flat; it was just antique). 12 Monkeys has futuristic trappings, all right, and when Gilliam cuts back to 1990 or 1996 he gives us his own baroque vision of modern craziness. But the text itself isn’t always fertile enough soil for Gilliam’s inventiveness to bloom. Visually, much of the movie is cold and brackish in an undifferentiated way: 1996 doesn’t look much worse than 1990, and Gilliam doesn’t show us much of the 21st century except the junky interior of a prison, which Cole takes off from and keeps returning to. The futuristic scenes in 12 Monkeys are what Brazil might have been if it had never left the teeming Ministry of Information building.
In 1990, the institutionalized Cole meets two people important to his 1996 destiny: Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), an imbalanced wacko (even his eyes are crooked) with dozens of conspiracy theories, and Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist who studies the “Cassandra complex” — the delusion that you have seen the horrors of the future and can do nothing about it because no one will believe you. Dr. Railly tags Cole as a textbook Cassandra; Jeffrey looks at Cole and recognizes a kindred spirit. Gilliam bounces us back and forth between three time periods, and the movie gets a bit too clever and plot-centered; the plot is just elaborate scaffolding for Gilliam’s delusion theme.
In 1996, Cole kidnaps Dr. Railly, who gradually begins to believe him, and they try to track down Jeffrey, who is now an animal-rights activist turned terrorist — part of an underground group called the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Jeffrey is rebelling against his dad (Christopher Plummer), an eminent virologist; Cole suspects that Jeffrey plans to steal a virus from his father’s lab and uncork it, killing off the humans and letting the animals take over. There are also flashbacks that might be flash-forwards — they’re flashes, anyway, and they hint at something dark. 12 Monkeys isn’t hard to follow, but sometimes it seems that too much of Gilliam’s energy is spent trying to keep things clear for us, taming the wild time-tangle of the plot. In a simpler plot (and Brazil really had no “plot”), Gilliam is free to tear the fabric of logic and stitch the tatters into a crazyquilt all his own. 12 Monkeys is more like individual, dazzling quilt squares that Gilliam shows you one at a time, so that you don’t get confused.
Yet within those squares, Gilliam is free to doodle and embroider. In this movie and The Fisher King, he disproves once and for all the old, false charges against him as a graphic artist who lets humans recede into the design. It might be a coincidence that the three main characters here correspond almost exactly to three of the main characters in The Fisher King, and Gilliam’s actors here deliver performances of comparable depth. Bruce Willis (like Jeff Bridges’ self-hating shock-jock) is wounded and vulnerable; Madeleine Stowe (like Mercedes Ruehl’s strong, responsible video-store clerk) is low-key and logical until circumstances force her into angry action; and Brad Pitt, in the Robin Williams holy-fool role, is a revelation — this is his second solid performance of 1995, after Seven, and I’m daring to hope that his blank-stud days are behind him. Watching him pose and pout over candelabras and horses in Legends of the Fall or Interview with the Vampire, you’d never dream Pitt had this Gilliam-esque wingnut in him. As in his other films, Gilliam calls time-out so that his characters can pause to appreciate pop culture — Fats Domino, Hitchcock. This is where Gilliam’s soft artist’s heart comes out: Unlike Quentin Tarantino, Gilliam doesn’t drop pop-culture references for a goof or a tickle, but to illustrate art’s redemptive power.
Again and again, Cole finds himself up against people who don’t believe his story; after a while, he himself doesn’t believe it, and resigns himself to the fact of his delusion. 12 Monkeys flips back and forth after this — the movie, unlike Brazil, doesn’t end with an icy “And it was all in his head after all” parting shot — but the idea of Cole faltering in his mission and thinking it’s all a mind trick is uniquely unsettling, as I’m sure Gilliam means it to be. It’s a common metaphysical dread that, say, Angel Heart fumbled: What if everything that seems to be happening to you — the life you experience as reality — is in fact your delusion? Terry Gilliam, as a primarily visual fantasist, must place singular importance on his senses — not only his eyes and the way he sees, but his whole set of artistic antennae and what they pick up.
Well, what they pick up is pretty strange: Gilliam’s art doesn’t look like anyone else’s. Artists who scare us with stories about unreliable perceptions are really inviting us into the way they perceive things, and letting us know how lonely and frightening it feels to look at the world and see what no one else sees; this, I think, is the true heart of 12 Monkeys, despite the plot apparatus. All artists have their delusions, and the lucky artists — the geniuses — can forge imagination from delusion. In 12 Monkeys, Gilliam’s images — a mental patient in a tux and pink bunny slippers; a lion prowling atop the ruins of the city; the barcodes tattooed on Cole’s grimy flesh; the metal-intestinal hell of buildings crammed with air vents — tweak parts of you that you didn’t know were there. And this, as I said, in a plot-heavy movie that gives him comparatively little room to doodle. Gilliam has taken on a conventional Hollywood sci-fi thriller with big stars and turned it into his own rough beast. 12 Monkeys confirms his status as the leading movie fantasist of his generation.