A convict, sent back in time to stop a devastating plague, is sent too far back and is hospitalized as insane.
Terry Gilliam makes films, not videos. The downside of that is that most of his films look murky and feel slow when shrunk into a box for home consumption, and his tendency to fill dialogue scenes with people shouting at each other is also a trial for the most well-balanced surround sound home entertainment system. However, Twelve Monkeys is a rare film not because of its top-lined performers or even its visual dazzle but its plot, and so this plays much better as a rental re-run than it has a right to. If you saw it theatrically you might even find it worth another look now that you know the ending, so you can see just how much of the Möbius strip time-travel storyline adds up.
Taking a Twilight Zone-ish nugget from Chris Maker’s classic short
La Jetée, screenwriters David and
Janet Peoples throw us into the mind of Cole (Willis), a bald loser in a futuristic underground hellhole who is sent back to the 1990s to locate a sample of the virus which will wipe out most of humanity in our immediate future. However, as he is whipped back and forth between World War I, 1990, 1996 and the future, Cole fixates not on his mission but on psychiatrist Kathryn (Stowe), who manages to convince him that it’s all a delusion.
The horrible irony is that as soon as Cole starts trying to rationalise all the science fiction stuff as a neurosis, Kathryn turns up physical evidence that suggests it’s all true. Meanwhile, loony animal activist Goines (Brad Pitt, who seems to have been maintaining Dennis Hopper’s brain cells) is planning a major coup of some sort, and that deadly virus is nestled in Goines’ dad’s laboratory, just waiting to be set loose.
Gilliam is a past master at nightmare futures and bizarre images, and post-Terminator viewers will be able to follow the story — the realisation of just what the woman from the future is doing on the plane in the last scene is a kicker — but the strength of Twelve Monkeys is its heart. Willis finally proves he can really act in a daring knockout of a performance — which ranges from terrifying violent outbursts to a childish, touchingly desperate nostalgia for
“20th century music”.
Though initially disorienting, Twelve Monkeys really gets it together at the half-way point and then becomes masterly, transcending its apocalypse nuttery with a last-minute realisation, cued by an all-night Hitchcock festival, of what perception might be for. A single misstep might be the use of Louis Armstong’s Wonderful World, which seems like a borrowing — along with supporting player Simon Jones, aka Arthur Dent — from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Disorientating, but good performances all round. Will have you thinking for days afterwards.