Even when Terry Gilliam’s latest leap into the wild blue of futuristic fantasy is at its most confounding, you leap along with him. Such is the seductive power of his twisted imagination. Whether it’s Monty Python, Brazil, Time Bandits or The Fisher King, Gilliam guarantees a thrilling ride. 12 Monkeys is no exception. Bruce Willis, in an eruptive performance of startling emotional intensity, stars as Cole, a prisoner tagged for an experiment that may get him killed.
The year is 2035. Nearly 40 years earlier, a killer virus spared only 1 percent of the planet’s population. In a lab located under the city of Philadelphia, scientists prepare to wrap the naked Cole in condomlike latex and zap him back to 1996 to find out how to reclaim the earth. Above ground the city is uninhabitable, except by the wild animals who roam deserted skyscrapers and department stores. Gilliam, along with the gifted cinematographer Roger Pratt and production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, fashions a disturbing and dazzling lost world.
Credit is also due to screenwriters David Peoples (Unforgiven, Blade Runner) and his wife, Janet, who took Chris Marker’s evocative 1962 short film La JetTe and enriched it with their own stirring vision of a future haunted by the past. When Cole travels back in time, he is immediately institutionalized and put in the care of psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). Cole is befriended by a patient, Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), an animal activist and the nutjob son of a medical researcher (Christopher Plummer) whose virus experiments on lab creatures drive Jeffrey into a foaming frenzy. Pitt is terrific, finding a mad fire in a character that is miles from movie-star glamour.
Through Jeffrey, Cole first learns about the army of the 12 Monkeys. It would be unfair to give away more, except to say that the plot kicks in when Cole kidnaps Kathryn, played by the gorgeous Stowe with fierce intelligence and a passionate heart. Her growing belief in a man who doesn’t trust his own sanity sparks an unexpectedly moving love story. Cole is haunted by a recurring dream of a young boy at an airport. The boy stands transfixed as a man with a suitcase rushes past him, followed by a blond woman who weeps by the man’s side after the police gun him down. The tenderness of the woman as she kisses the dying man’s bloody hand deeply affects Cole and the boy.
This dream is the soul of the film. Gilliam returns to it three times, adding more details until the dream links all the pieces in the puzzle, which includes the remarkable David Morse as a researcher with more than a passing interest in Kathryn. Cole’s confusing of illusion and reality suggests Alfred Hitchcock’s masterwork Vertigo, in which a mentally unbalanced James Stewart tries to turn Kim Novak into a reincarnation of the woman he loves, who has died. Cole and Kathryn hide in a movie-revival house showing Vertigo. The 1958 film, now yellowed with age, shows Novak in the Muir Woods using her finger to trace the small space on the rings of a cut redwood that encompasses the years of her life. Bernard Herrmann’s haunting Vertigo score plays over the dialogue between Cole and Kathryn as they leave the theater in an attempt to carve out their own small space in life. Rarely has one film referenced another with such poetic grace. Like Vertigo, 12 Monkeys rewards multiple viewings. You might say it even demands them. For all the fun, fright and hypnotic romance that Gilliam delivers, he digs deepest into fatalistic themes that usually scare away the crowds at the box office. Go with Gilliam anyway. Solving the riddle of 12 Monkeys is an exhilarating challenge.