12 Monkeys

on December 27, 1995 by Kim Williamson
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An intoxicating blend of existential SF and unrequited romance, lands-end images and Dutch angles, the latest from director Terry Gilliam ("The Fisher King") is his first to benefit from a major star playing the lead role. Here, Bruce Willis turns in a taut performance as Cole, a post-apocalypse prison inmate who's repeatedly time-tunneled back to our present. His mission: to gather clues for his world's scientists, a none-too-shrewd assembly of Big Brother pencil-packers who hope to develop an antidote against a deadly virus let plague-like across the planet in 1996, apparently by a secret group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. He finds first antagonism and then assistance from a psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly (an empathetic Madeleine Stowe), who unlike her associates at the sanatorium where Cole is placed comes to believe his dire predictions about humanity's near future.
Some of the film's visuals--a lion stalking along a snowy ledge on a decrepit skyscraper, a brightly lit department-store ceiling that morphs into the dark and half-collapsed state that awaits it after the Fall--brilliantly capture both the otherworldliness that the best SF evinces and the human feeling of desolation such a scenario engenders. Working with superbly dystopian sets (designed by Wm Ladd Skinner, they're as marvelous a group of gloomy imaginations as those of this season's alternate-universe "The City of Lost Children"), Gilliam brings his usual edge-of-kilter equipoise to the project, adding fisheye lensing, accordion riffs, monkey motifs and other not-quite-plausible touches wherever unneeded and making them work in seamless synapse. Fans from the director's Monty Python days will be amply satisfied, but there's far more meaning of life here than there is jabberwocky, and as such "12 Monkeys" represents some of Gilliam's most mature work. The proof arrives in the final scene, which even more than in his affecting "The Fisher King" carries emotional reverberations that are profoundly moving; even as a whole world is tilting like the Titanic in his "Time Bandits," Gilliam's camera remains tight on human faces.
What keeps this Atlas Entertainment production from making masterpiece status is the screenplay. Basing their work on the script for Chris Marker's 1962 short "La Jetee," writers David and Janet Peoples add resonance--if at the cost of too much happenstance--by criss-crossing many of their characters' paths. That Cole and Kathryn recurringly meet deepens their relationship and gives the dehumanized man something to live for; but having him chance to land in the same sanatorium as the founder (a "Kalifornia"-hyper Brad Pitt) of the Twelve Monkeys Army, and having Kathryn bump into the real malefactor ("The Crossing Guard's" David Morse) at the climactic airport scene stretch credibility. (In SF, anything is possible, but not always.) Spectacular in its complexity, Peoples' narrative suffers from implausibilities and illegibilities. Also, everyone's (even Cole's) often-referenced doubts about his sanity are just wasted time for the audience, which knows the truth from the get-go; the story's dramatic impact, already heady, would have been heightened further had we been placed in the desperate straits of having to believe or doubt too. Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by David Peoples and Janet Peoples. Produced by Charles Roven. A Universal release. SF. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 128 min
Tags: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Terry Gilliam, David Peoples and Janet Peoples. Produced by Charles Roven. A Universal
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