Terry Gilliam returns to the 101 Sci-Fi Movies with this fantastic temporal thriller that nods to both La Jetee and Slaughterhouse Five.
It also, for my money, has Brad Pitt’s finest performance.
Bruce Willis is James Cole, a ‘volunteer’ recruited by the scientists who run the world of 2035. Humanity has been forced from the surface by a virulent and deadly virus, that has allowed the animals to reclaim the Earth. Using temporal technology that looks as if it’s jury-rigged together in typical Gilliam fashion, they send Cole back to track the course of the virus.
They aim for the year 1996, but he ends up in 1990, and is quickly incarcerated in a mental institution where he is watched over by Doctor Kathryn Railly (the lovely Madeline Stowe) who finds his story fascinating if completely out there. He also meets up and inadvertently influences Jeffery Goines (Pitt), a fellow patient who is decidedly off his cart.
Pitt simply embraces the role, and brings Jeffrey to life with quirks, tics and foibles.
But then, Cole vanishes, returning to the present of 2035, only to be sent back again, this time to 1996, where he comes across Railly and Goines again.
It’s interesting watch Cole’s arc, he first believes he is from the future and is now trapped in the past while he works on his mission, but once he sees Railly, listens to her diagnosis, and sees the world of the 1990s, he begins to subscribe to the theory that he really is mentally divergent, and that all his time in the future is nothing more than a mental break.
It’s Kathryn who begins to realize he’s telling the truth, and as they race closer to the rise of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, they struggle to stop the virus from being released and spreading across the world.
Gilliam has always made quirky films, and this is one of his finest, though I will always have a warm spot in my heart for Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It’s smart, well-thought out, and plays with time very nicely.
The film is filled with sequences I’d forgotten until I rewatched it, the slip back to war, the iconic images of the animals after they’ve been set loose, the recurring use of the word monkey through film and images, mirrored imagery in the future and the past (most notably the scientists around the table).
Bruce Willis gives a great performance, possibly one of his most human yet, he’s not an action hero in this one, he’s just a man with no future that sees a possibility at having a life for himself.
I love how the time travel is handled (as well as the look of the equipment), there’s no explanation for it, and as illustrated by Cole’s arrivals in the wrong times, not quite perfected yet (though by film’s end, it’s a little more on target).
It’s smart, well-crafted, has stood the test of time, and can now be referred to as a true sci-fi classic.
What did you think of it?