A visionary filmmaker, Gilliam has few competitors in terms of sheer inventiveness and visual imagination. In each of his films, he constructs a universe that overwhelms the senses with bravura production design, but in the process neglects dramatic logic and narrative coherence, basic principles that would make his stories more involving and meaningful. Gilliam’s work is long on sensibility, short on sense.
A dark and somber sci-fier in the mold of “Blade Runner,” Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” is a spectacular mess, an excessively complicated film that attempts to be timely by blending a “virus” thriller with a post-apocalyptic anti-science drama. Gilliam’s seventh feature is neither as visually compelling as “Brazil” nor as emotionally gripping as “The Fisher King.” A cast boasting two of Hollywood’s hottest stars, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, should elevate pic’s visibility in the crowded holiday season, but ambitious, big-budget effort will ultimately prove a B.O. disappointment. Pic’s source of inspiration is Chris Marker’s “La Jetee,” a landmark 1962 French New Wave film that ran a mere 27 minutes. Its impressive black-and-white imagery, grim voiceover narration and dense texture perfectly conveyed the gloomy post-apocalyptic tale of a young man obsessed with an eerie image from the past, though he’s never sure if this image is dream or reality.
Similarly, the new movie begins with a wonderfully executed airport scene, where a boy (Joseph Melito) with magnificent blue eyes watches in sheer terror the killing of an innocent man. This scene, which is the film’s dominant motif, serves as a visual clue and point of departure to the mystery that unravels onscreen.
Story proper is set in a subterranean nether world in 2035, following the eradication of 99% of the Earth’s population. To reverse their fate, the survivors turn to time travel as their only hope. A group of scientists living beneath Philadelphia “volunteer” prisoner James Cole (Willis) to embark on a dangerous trip back to 1996.
Back in time, Cole lands in a mental institution under the supervision of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), an expert in madness and prophecy. Another inmate is Jeffrey Goines (Pitt), unstable son of a renowned scientist, Dr. Goines (Christopher Plummer). Jeffrey runs around proclaiming the end of civilization with statements about capitalism, consumerism and the evils of modern science, specifically the lab experiments conducted by his father.
At first, it’s easy for Dr. Railly to diagnose Cole as delusional, for he himself questions his sanity. Nonetheless, two bizarre clues continue to torment him: the airport memory and some puzzling symbols from a group called the Army of the 12 Monkeys. In the course of an overly long and convoluted plot, Dr. Railly falls for the tortured man. As their relationship deepens after her kidnapping by Cole, she even begins to believe in his prophetic warnings of doom.
Script reps the first feature collaboration of David Peoples (“Unforgiven”) and his wife, Janet, and former’s involvement points up the similarities to the far superior “Blade Runner,” which he co-scripted. At the same time, “12 Monkeys” includes numerous recurring themes in Gilliam’s work: the fine line between sanity and madness, the ambiguous gap between past and present, the tenuous distinction between fantasy and reality, the failure of modern science, the tyranny of reason, the mythic value of time travel.
But unlike the satirically Orwellian “Brazil,” current pic lacks humor and sharp commentary. And its look and tone are incoherent, changing from sequence to sequence, with Gilliam displaying his penchant for fantasy and multiple time frames to little dramatic or emotional effect. As always with Gilliam’s films, the first reel is suspenseful and engaging, but gradually the yarn loses its grip and meanders from one context to another, with escapes and chases to pump up the proceedings. Gilliam piles on elements of mystery, doom, mythology, romance and even whimsy, but by the end, when the conundrum of the “12 Monkeys” is revealed, there’s not only a sense of deja vu but genuine dissatisfaction.
Unfortunately, the stellar cast can’t overcome the cartoonish nature of their characters. Willis is well cast as the reluctant, silent hero, though playing a victim manipulated by “the system” may not be what audiences expect of an action hero. Stowe is as ethereally beautiful as ever, but she can’t find interesting dimensions in her psychiatrist role. Fans of Pitt may be disappointed by his deglamorized look and put off by his eccentric, over-the-top rendition of “madness.”
Under these circumstances, the few joys to be had are in observing the majestic peculiarities of Gilliam’s ever-fanciful universe, the real star of the movie and the collective product of Roger Pratt’s ace lensing, Jeffrey Beecroft’s awesome production design, Wm Ladd Skinner’s imposing art direction and Vincent Montefusco’s grand special effects.