"THERE'S NO RIGHT, there's no wrong, there's only popular," gushes a psychotic genius in Terry Gilliam's new film. It might as well be a movie biz motto--and one this director knows all too well, having enjoyed mainstream success with The Fisher King after Universal Pictures nearly canned his earlier masterpiece, Brazil. Apparently The Fisher King made the studio willing to bank on 12 Monkeys, a movie even darker than Brazil, and one that unfolds at a deliberate pace with grand themes about apocalypse and paranoia, sanity and madness, fate and free will.
Screenwriters David Peoples and Janet Peoples (the former won an Oscar nomination for Unforgiven) have expanded on La Jetée, Chris Marker's landmark experimental short from 1962. More a photo montage than a film, it presented a vague, melancholy sketch of a post-apocalyptic world whose survivors huddle underground while one of them gets sent back in time to determine the cause of humanity's downfall. 12 Monkeys' fleshed-out rendition of Marker's film is so visually rich, narratively complex, and thematically expansive that it would take something on the order of a master's thesis to fully stake out its parameters. Here, the time-traveler is convict James Cole (Bruce Willis), who subsists in 2035 in a literal cage, and who, like the man in La Jetée, is plagued by a recurring dream of himself as a child witnessing a man shot down at an airport.
After he "volunteers" to go above ground--to the blue, wintry gloom of a decaying Philadelphia--and collect insect specimens for a ghoulish band of scientists, it's decided that he's an ideal candidate to travel to 1996, in order to gather clues about the monster virus that wiped out nearly all human life in just a year, and whose origins are believed to lie with some animal activists known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys. (And it's no accident that the film's virus is unleashed during the consumer frenzy that passes for the holiday season: "Isn't it possible that homosapiens' motto 'Let's go shopping' is the true cry of the lunatic?" muses one ancillary but pivotal character.)
Cole first gets sent to the wrong year, 1990, a spectral, naked man ranting about 12 monkeys, global plagues, and whatnot; not surprisingly, he's promptly thrown into a psych ward. There he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the loony son of a wealthy and prominent virologist, and between them the seeds are planted for what will transpire six years hence. He also hooks up with Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist with a side interest in apocalyptic prophecies and an uncanny sense that she's met James somewhere before.
Gilliam's bent version of the present is full of decay and obsolescence, embellished with a wealth of whimsical, telling details: a battered Jaguar plastered with activist stickers, a guard at a Dickensian mental hospital reading Weekly World News's notorious "Bat Child" issue, a guy casually poking a Q-Tip in his ears during a police interview, a hapless Santa trying to catch the bus. Similarly, his vision of a authoritarian future--the sort so often described as "Orwellian"-- is entirely his own, represented (à la Brazil) by a cumbersome and cobbled-together technology, replete with tubes and meters and plastic sheeting (the sets were composed of old and contemporary junk, in keeping with the limitations of a society forced underground).
As the film progresses, its mood grows increasingly absurd as the present moves inexorably into the future, and James and Kathryn are doomed to play out James's recurring dream. Their roles also reverse, with James trying to re-establish his sanity ("I want the future to be unknown," he pleads), just as Kathryn, realizing that the more she finds out the less she knows, becomes willing to go crazy.
Stowe and Willis create a palpable chemistry as their characters are drawn into each other's worlds; their hesitant, clumsy kiss at the airport has more behind it than a dozen other films' worth of passionate clenches. The co-owner of Planet Hollywood and husband of Demi Moore redeems himself with a brutish vulnerability that fulfills the promise he made in Pulp Fiction, and in portraying a woman coming unglued, Stowe has a subtlety that rivals Brad Pitt's bravura mania. As for Pitt, the ladies who slavered over him in Legends of the Fall will be puzzled, if not entirely put off, by his performance here as the film's "true" lunatic, including his wonderful compulsion for flipping people off.
Starring as it does two of Holly-wood's currently reigning he-men, 12 Monkeys would, in a just world, be-come a model for future blockbusters. Of course that's wishful thinking, but this story about the end of the world is still the feel-good movie of the year--simply for showing that there's hope for Hollywood after all.