Inspired by Chris Marker’s remarkable 1962 short La Jetee, director Terry Gilliam once again tackles time travel with the visually-stunning sci-fi mystery 12 Monkeys, his magnum opus. Playing with similar themes from his own Time Bandits, Brazil and The Fisher King, Gilliam and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples construct a complex non-linear story that leaves the audience, and, one gets the sense, the cast and director, guessing from scene to scene.
In the year 2035, in subterranean Philadelphia, prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) is “volunteered” to travel back in time to stop the catastrophic virus that wiped out a significant portion of humanity and drove the rest underground. His arrival, naked and babbling, in 1990, prompts Cole’s institutionalization at a mental ward where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the son of a noted biochemist and Dr. Kathryn Raily (Madeline Stowe), a respected psychiatrist.
Soon, Cole is questioning his own sanity. He is confused even further when he is violently leapt back to the future, where he is berated for failing, but offered another chance to set things right. This time, Cole is transported to 1996, where Goines is attempting to exact revenge on his father by leading the Army Of The Twelve Monkeys, eco-terrorists and, according to historians of the future, those responsible for the apocalypse. Cole shanghais Raily, convincing her, after several harrowing encounters, that he isn’t delusional and what he says is the truth.
Jeffrey Beecroft and William Skinner’s production design is phenomenal, the post-apocalyptic surrealism of the future not only counterpoints, but also mirrors the urban decay of modern Philadelphia. Paul Buckmaster’s score is outstanding, a should-be classic.