A dark and somber sci-fier in the mold of Blade Runner, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve 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.
Pic’s 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.
Story 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 (Bruce 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 (Brad Pitt), unstable son of a renowned scientist, Dr Goines (Christopher Plummer).
Cole himself questions his sanity. Nonetheless, two bizarre clues continue to torment him: 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.
Unfortunately, the stellar cast can’t overcome the cartoonish nature of their characters. The few joys to be had are in observing the majestic peculiarities of Gilliam’s ever-fanciful universe.
1995: Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Brad Pitt), Costume Design