MOVIE REVIEW : ’12 Monkeys’: It’s a Mad, Mad World of Intrigue
A man appears and announces he’s a traveler from the future, from a world that has survived, but barely, a viral epidemic that slaughtered 5 billion people and caused those few left alive to abandon the surface of the Earth. He’s immediately thrown into a mental hospital, and no wonder. But what if, just possibly, he’s telling the truth?
As set up by David Peoples (who had a hand in “Blade Runner” and wrote Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”) and Janet Peoples, “12 Monkeys” has the sound of a conventional futuristic science-fiction thriller. But when Terry Gilliam is the director, no project stays conventional for long.
A cheerful, eccentric visionary with a consistently irreverent point of view, Gilliam successfully joined an extravagant visual sense to a playful sensibility in “Time Bandits,” the brilliant “Brazil” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” Nothing he touches has a chance of remaining ordinary, and while that is usually a good thing, too much of a good thing can become simply too much.
So on the one hand “12 Monkeys” is a magical Old Curiosity Shop, filled with strange and wonderful sights and happenings that capture the eye and intrigue the mind. But on the other, Gilliam gets so distracted by these diverting sideshows he loses his focus and forgets to pay attention to the mechanics of plot, allowing the film to wander into narrative cul-de-sacs it has difficulty finding its way out of.
A more conventional director would have made “12 Monkeys” more streamlined and easier to follow, perhaps even more exciting, but oh the things we would have missed out on along the way.
“12 Monkeys” is based on one of the classics of French avant-garde filmmaking, Chris Marker’s unsettling 1962 short, “La Jetee,” which tells its tale of a man so haunted by a childhood memory he pursues it into the past entirely with still photographs and voice-over narration.
James Cole (Bruce Willis) is similarly haunted by a chilling vision of a gun going off in an airport; it’s the first sequence in “12 Monkeys” and it recurs periodically in the film, though Cole is certainly not in a dreamy situation.
The year is 2035 and, having abandoned the Earth because of that extra-lethal virus, humanity has reconstructed a kind of civilization underground, from which coerced “volunteers” are periodically sent to the surface to bring back specimens for scientific evaluation.
Cole is one such volunteer, and the deserted city he finds when he surfaces, a skyscraper-filled automobile graveyard where tigers and bears roam at will, is only one of several strikingly imagined alien environments envisioned by Gilliam and his design collaborators.
Because of his success in this mission, Cole is dragooned into a more critical assignment. Even though what has been done cannot be undone, fuller knowledge of the past can help the ruling elite cope with the awful present, so Cole is shipped back to 1996 to attempt to determine exactly where and how the fatal virus outbreak began. His only clue: the name of a shadowy group called 12 Monkeys.
But, in a touch Gilliam must have delighted in, the clunky time machine sends Cole back to 1990 instead. And as soon as he starts to talk, albeit monosyllabically, about what he is trying to do, the powers that be throw him into a mental institution where two very different people influence his life.
One is a motor-mouthed fellow inmate, psycho ward politician Jeffrey Goines (a surprisingly funny Brad Pitt), who has nonstop opinions on everything. The other is Dr. Kathryn Railly, a psychiatrist who specializes in the linkage of madness and prophecy and who, not surprisingly, thinks Cole is completely delusional.
Dr. Railly is played, in a shrewd bit of casting, by Madeleine Stowe, an excellent actress with a grounded, non-flighty persona. The sanity of her presence in a film where everyone else is either mad or might as well be is an essential audience surrogate, a welcome life raft as the plot of “12 Monkeys” gets crazier and crazier.
An unlikely love story combined with a visionary detective yarn, “12 Monkeys” is baffling and difficult to decipher at times, but it’s never a standard brand. Mystifying, intriguing, even infuriating, it shows what happens when an unconventional talent meets straightforward material. Almost against his will, Gilliam finally succeeds in building some dramatic momentum, and when he does, “12 Monkeys” catches hold in a way an ordinary version probably wouldn’t. Nobody, Gilliam would probably be happy to tell you, said this was going to be easy.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence and language. Times guidelines: moments of murder and related violence.
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Bruce Willis: James Cole
Madeleine Stowe: Dr. Kathryn Railly
Brad Pitt: Jeffrey Goines
Christopher Plummer: Dr. Leland Goines
Atlas/Classico presents an Atlas Entertainment Production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Terry Gilliam. Producer Chuck Roven. Executive producers Robert Cavallo, Gary Levinsohn, Robert Kosberg. Screenplay by David Peoples and Janet Peoples, inspired by the film “La Jetee,” written by Chris Marker. Cinematographer Roger Pratt. Editor Mick Audsley. Costumes Julie Weiss. Music Paul Buckmaster. Production design Jeffrey Beecroft. Art director Wm Ladd Skinner. Set decorator Crispian Sallis. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
* Exclusively at AMC Century 14, Century City Shopping Center, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 553-8900.