After finishing The Fisher King on time and on budget and seeing the film go on to critical and financial success, Terry Gilliam felt his reputation as an overspending prima donna had been rehabilitated in Hollywood circles. He began making the rounds, expecting access to bigger budgets for his projects, but Tinseltown does not work rationally. His projects fell into the studio quagmire known as development hell, but scripts from other screenwriters made their way to Gilliam through his agents. One of them was 12 Monkeys, a dystopian time travel story written by Janet and David Peoples, the latter the writer of Blade Runner and Unforgiven. Despite his reluctance to once again direct a screenplay he did not write, the script intrigued Gilliam and he signed on. The result would be the most financially successful film of his career.

Inspired by La Jetée, a 1962 French science fiction short by Chris Marker about post-nuclear humanity driven underground, time travel and foretold death, 12 Monkeys begins with a dream. A child watches a gun-toting man get shot down in an airport. A voice comes over a loudspeaker, waking the dreamer. His name is James Cole (Bruce Willis), and he is a prisoner in the subterranean world below Philadelphia in the year 2035. The voice on the loudspeaker tells him he’s “volunteered” to go to the surface and collect biological samples for the scientists to study. The plague that wiped out five billion people and drove the survivors underground is still active, making this dangerous work. But Cole shows adeptness for it, which opens up an opportunity. The scientists offer to pardon his crimes if he travels back in time to 1996 to gather intelligence on the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, a radical leftist group believed to have released the virus that wipes out humanity.

Cole agrees to the assignment, but the scientists miss their mark. Instead of 1996, he arrives six years earlier in Baltimore, gets arrested and then institutionalized by Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). In the mental hospital he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the son of a prominent virologist played by Christopher Plummer. Jeffrey believes himself a revolutionary, but he’s privileged enough to know his father will get him released from the institution after just a phone call. By 1996, Jeffrey will be the leader of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, inspired by the conversations he had with Cole during their brief stay in the psychiatric ward. Instead of gathering information to help prevent his present, Cole learns that he may have caused it.

Gilliam tries to leave the possibility open that Cole is simply insane for as long as the narrative will allow. He draws many visual parallels between the dystopian underground of 2035 and the mental hospital. Both places are oppressive and filled with people crawling over themselves. Both scour a naked Cole, disinfecting him before he can enter. Small councils of scientists interrogate Cole in each location: the psychiatrists behind their long table in 1990 and the scientists hidden behind their sphere of screens in 2035. A gravelly, disembodied voice follows Cole across time, giving him information, but such voices are rarely proof of sanity. A great deal of work goes into making the audience question the nature of Cole’s reality, but it’s never really a mystery. A bullet in his leg from WWI and his foreknowledge of the fate of a boy trapped in a well mark him as a time traveler. A photo of Cole taken in the French trenches makes a believer out of Kathryn after Cole has stopped trusting his own sanity.

Despite themes about the precariousness of sanity and perception, technological and informational overload and the fallibility of memory, 12 Monkeys is easily the most staid of Gilliam’s first seven films. It has neither the unrepentant imagination of Time Bandits, Brazil or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen nor the radical inventiveness of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is nothing unexpected in 12 Monkeys. The dystopia of 2035 looks like it takes place in the deepest bowels of the world of Brazil and the exploration of madness and perception had just been undertaken in The Fisher King, albeit in a warmer human drama. Even Cole’s sacrifice, foretold as it may be, is a kind of standard for a Gilliam film. After the death of Kevin’s parents in Time Bandits and Sam Lowry’s madness in Brazil, Gilliam has trained his audience to expect the unhappy ending.

Burdened by the ingeniousness of its predecessors, 12 Monkeys is simply a good movie. Willis and Pitt appear intent to prove that they were better actors than anyone had previously expected. To his credit, Willis sheds the bravado typical of David Addison and John McClane, giving a subdued performance that oscillates between menace and innocence. As Goines, Pitt is a study in self-aware mania. His ticks and speedy patter were memorable enough to garner him his first Oscar nomination. Stowe is typically excellent, delivering like the underrated star she always was. Then there is Gilliam. Like his two stars, he seemed intent to subvert reputational expectations once again, delivering another under-budgeted movie on time. He may have hoped executives would hear about this workmanlike phase of his career and give him all the green lights he would need, but, like Cole, Gilliam’s fate in Hollywood was already foretold.

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