There are few modern science fictions films as accomplished as Terry Gilliam’s complex and hugely entertaining head-trip 12 Monkeys. It’s easily in my top five from Gilliam. He’s made so many great, wildly fun movies that peer into pure madness that it’s tough to rank them. But this one is easily one of his most accomplished, and it represented that rare time where his incredibly unique, independent minded vision meshed with a somewhat generous studio budget and the rigors of a corporate funded project that was far from a surefire hit during its early conception.Gilliam is a filmmaker of eccentric wit, both of the verbal and visual variety, who also loves to push things as far as he can go with this go-for-broke style, which is borderline lunatic at times if not downright surreal and nightmarish. Looking like it cost twice as much as it actually did (an impossible to imagine $30 million!) and hurtling the viewer through time and space and all manner of various settings and distinct atmospheres, 12 Monkeys is a wonderfully convoluted tale of potentially hazardous time travel, affecting romance, paranoid fantasy, and sketchy virus thriller.
The script’s ingenious final moments on board that plane along with that haunting final line – “I’m in insurance” – it still chills to the bone, and I loved how Gilliam took the brilliant screenplay (co-written by David and Janet Peoples; David Peoples also wrote or co-wrote Unforgiven and Blade Runner), which was an epic take on the phenomenal short film La Jetée, and fine-tuned it to his personal taste and form-pushing aesthetic. Sometimes, when a filmmaker is as wildly original as Gilliam, and they are working with material not authored by them, you get the sense that their talents aren’t being fully utilized. Not here. Everything in this film hits its mark, and in most cases, the performers and department heads went above and beyond the call of duty. Bruce Willis, rarely better, wasn’t the confident, normal “Bruce Willis” we’d been accustomed to seeing on screen when this film was first released. Constantly sweating or drooling or bloodied, massively vulnerable, possibly delusional, always volatile, and incredibly nervous, it’s his “out-of-control” moment as an actor, and it’s fascinating to see Gilliam pick and prod at his big Hollywood star, throwing him through the ringer, and ultimately getting one of the most emotionally accessible pieces of work from the actor.
Brad Pitt, who had a banner year in 1995 with his twitchy, psychotic work in this film as a ranting and raving mental patient and his slick, star-making turn in David Fincher’s Se7en, brought a diseased humor (“Drrruuuggsss!”) to his role of guy with serious daddy issues and some interesting notions regarding animal freedom. Madeleine Stowe was still looking hot and it’s yet another reminder of how good she was on screen, sympathetic from the moment we meet her, and involved in the narrative not just as “the pretty girl,” which was a quality that followed her in many of her acting jobs. David Morse and Christopher Plummer also offered, as per usual, memorable support, with Morse cutting an especially scary portrait of the calm and calculated antagonist. I’ve been fascinated by this movie ever since my dad picked me up early from school (last two classes were ditched as I recall due to a “family event” lol) about two weeks into its wide release (it was his second time seeing the film), and over the years, I’ve utterly abused my DVD with countless re-visits, and it’s amazing to see the film on Blu-ray after all of these years. Roger Pratt’s varied and incredibly stylish cinematography is constantly arresting and a treat for the eyes, while Paul Buckmaster’s never-leave-your-conscience original score still gives me the willies. Mick Audsley’s editing is miraculous when it’s all boiled down; there’s so much depth to the storytelling and imagery and themes and yet the film moves at a beautiful pace. 12 Monkey’s has aged gracefully and rather compellingly over the last 20 years, with its political and social message still firmly intact, and offering cinematic glories that easily match the trippiest, most daring offerings of recent years.