Terry Gilliam, director of the apocalyptic scifi thriller 12 Monkeys, is a conflicted figure. He has the sense and sensibility of a grand English eccentric, yet he's American. He is full of wonder and mystical awe, yet he also seems a sociological pessimist. His work mixes a childlike humor and delight in whimsy with a tone of bitterness and misanthropy. He's half gleeful entertainer, half angry artist.
It's an unstable combination of qualities, and the movies that it produces are often awkward--overstuffed, or unclear, or chilly and off-putting. Yet most of them are, at the same time, works for which the term "genius" is not too extravagant.
Gilliam began in film as an animator; he first gained notice providing clip-art animations forMonty Python's Flying Circus, on which he alsooccasionally appeared as a bit player. He codirected the troupe's classic big-screen outing Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Jones in 1975, and in 1977 he made his solo debut with a terrific, now nearly forgotten Dark Ages comedy called Jabberwocky.
His wonderful children's movie, Time Bandits, followed in 1981. Then, in 1985 and '89, came Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, grand-scale pictures that mixed Wellesian brilliance with clumsiness and overambition, not always in equal measure. After both of these pictures had been shot, Gilliam wrangled with the studios over the right to final cut, and grumbled publicly when the films were released in mangled versions.
Since the commercial failure of Munchausen, Gilliam seems to be playing it a little safer: Although 1991's The Fisher King and the new 12Monkeys are by no means run-of-the-mill cinema, they are somewhat less freewheelingly imaginative than prior efforts. In both recent cases, Gilliam seems to have looked for properties to which his gift for idiosyncratic, epic surrealism could be reasonably applied, rather than subjects from which it arose naturally.
Though this recoil from the edge does constitute the self-muzzling of an important artist, the results haven't been all bad. In many respects, The Fisher King was more emotionally engaging, more finally satisfying than any of Gilliam's previous films other than Time Bandits. And, while 12Monkeys is not all one might hope for, it's still striking and engrossing.
12 Monkeys takes the outline of its plot from LaJete, Chris Marker's unforgettable half-hour short of 1962 told entirely in still photographs. Gilliam--or, perhaps, the screenwriters, David Peoples and Janet Peoples--pays further tribute to Marker in the course of the film: The use of clips from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and the mention of an emu on a highway both are references to Marker's mad travel-footage collage, Sans Soleil.
Over the structure of Marker's small, dovetailing conceit about time travel, Gilliam and the screenwriters have built an elaborate, wildly convoluted plot. It involves an international epidemic, a band of radical animal-rights activists, reckless science, blind psychology and Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill."
The tormented hero is a time traveler (Bruce Willis) who is sent to the '90s from a grim future in which a portion of humankind survives underground after a horrifying plague has wiped out most of the world's population. His ravings about the catastrophe to come and his need to find "the Army of the 12 Monkeys" sound exactly like madness, and an insane asylum is where he ends up. There, he meets a dotty young schizophrenic (Brad Pitt), as well as a sympathetic shrink (that fine actress and astounding beauty, Madeleine Stowe) who, it turns out, is connected to a lifelong recurrent vision by which he is haunted.
Some elements of the plot are gratuitous, obvious excuses for the director's visual flights. And I could have done without some of the cheap fatalism at the film's conclusion, or the hint of snotty irony in the film's attitude toward the romance between Willis and Stowe. In the end, though, the various weird strands do come creaking and groaning together into a coherent whole, like a piece of rattletrap Rube Goldberg apparatus from the background of one of Gilliam's sets.
Pitt acquits himself well in his showy role, and mere competence from him may, sadly, distract from how good the star is. This is the most vulnerable acting Willis has done, and, on occasion, the most ecstatic. When Willis is enraptured by the smell of the air in present-day Baltimore or transported by the sweet sound of rock music on the radio, his performance makes a point: As bad as our world has gotten, we'd miss it if it got any worse.
Directed by Terry Gilliam; with Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, Frank Gorshin, David Morse, Fred Strother, Faith Potts and Lisa Talerico.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.