A convict, sent back in time to stop a devastating plague, is sent too far back and is hospitalized as insane.
Terry Gilliam's genius as a filmmaker rests in his ability to create movies that are at once masterly and almost impossible to put up with. He crams each and every frame with brilliant touches and draws great performances from unusual actors, but he simultaneously presents a dark-funny vision of the world that regular people are never going to be able to get behind. Brazil may well be the ultimate full-strength Gilliam. Undoubtedly a masterpiece in its director-approved version, it nevertheless suffers from exactly the problem the callous studios recognised: it goes on for 20 minutes (albeit 20 brilliant minutes) beyond the human capacity to absorb such a dense vision.
After that, and the commercial catastrophe of The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam tried to readjust to a more human scale and shot a couple of pictures from scripts by other people. Twelve Monkeys, by David and Janet Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven and, er, Salute Of The Jugger) is by no means Gilliam lite, but it is the one film in his canon that not only delivers the Kafka-meets-MAD Magazine nightmare but also a wholly absorbing emotional ride and a hugely complex plot that — against the odds — turns out to make perfect sense.
The Peoples take their Twilight Zone-ish plot nugget from Chris Marker's classic French short La Jetee, a film told almost entirely in a succession of still images with an overlaid soundtrack. It concerns a time traveller from the future who can build a link to the present because he retains a strong memory of an incident he witnessed at Orly airport as a child, which turns out to be the moment of his own death. Around this, and taking into account various disease scares (AIDS, Ebola, Hanta) of the mid-90s, the script weaves a labyrinthine tale of multiple time-jumps and a Terminator-style project on the part of a future civilisation the purpose of which is not to avert an apocalypse but to ensure that it's survivable.
In an underground hellhole of 2035 Philadelphia, prisoner Jack Cole (Bruce Willis) is recruited by the authorities as a footsoldier in a desperate plan to visit the past and save the future. Cole is painfully blasted back in time to locate a sample of the virus which will appear in 1996 and wipe out most of humanity. But the haphazard nature of the time-travel process and the disorienting effects of the present on Cole's future-blunted psyche complicate his mission. As he is whipped back and forth between 1990,1996, World War One and the future, Cole fixates not on saving the world but on psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who manages to convince him it's all a delusion.
The horrible irony is that as soon as Cole starts rationalising the science fiction aspect of his dilemma as neurosis, Kathryn turns up physical evidence that suggests the opposite. Meanwhile, loony animal activist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, showing more animation here than in all his others roles put together), leader of the eco-terrorist sect "Army Of 12 Monkeys", is planning a major coup, and the deadly Omega Man-type virus nestles in a laboratory run by Goines' father (Christopher Plummer), waiting to be released.
The most recognisable Gilliamesque aspect of the film is the grotesque imagery (lots of brass and dirty polythene) of the futuristic scenes. But the strength of Twelve Monkeys is its heart. Willis does his best screen work ever in a daring, knockout performance which ranges from terrifying violent outbursts to a childishly desperate nostalgia for "20th Century music", and Stowe keeps up with him all the way as the plot noose draws tighter, easily shouldering the burden of representing everything in humanity worth saving. And the script keeps coming up with left-field twists: the lovers check into a sleazy hotel to sort out the plot, but just as their conversation is about to deliver vital exposition, an enraged pimp bursts into the room, convinced that Stowe is a high-class hooker poaching on his territory.
The film flirts with the notion that all we see is indeed a psychotic fantasy, and although initially disorientating, it pulls all its threads together at the half-way mark. From there on it transcends its trendy apocalypse gibberish superbly, offering up a last-minute realisation — cued by a glimpse of Hitchcock's Vertigo — of what perception might be for.
After a heart-rending finale at the airport, in which Cole dies in such a way as to imprint himself on the child witness who will grow up to be him, there's a sequence that takes two or three viewings to appreciate. Cole has been a stalking horse and the whole project is a set-up to get a future scientist onto a plane next to the already-infected "Apocalypse nut" who is travelling the world, spreading the killer virus as he goes. The crucial sacrifice that saves the future is the handshake she forces upon him, which allows her to carry the virus home to 2035 in her own body.
A curveball of a script, coupled with Willis', Stowe's and Pitt's excellence, not to mention Gilliam's trademark visual flair marks 12 Monkeys as one of the outstanding science fiction films of the 90s.