Terry Gilliam's fantastic, twisted story of a virus destroying all but a handful of people across the Earth and forcing them to move underground and the man sent back in time to gather information about it is a fantastic, dizzying, and highly stylized film that boasts Bruce Willis' best performance ever.
What sets 12 Monkeys apart from most time-travel sci-fi movies is that Bruce Willis character actually deals with what the psychological effects of time-travel, that is, not knowing what reality is actual reality: the place that the time-traveler comes from or goes to. Also, the film recognizes that things that have past cannot be altered and that the prevention of a cataclysmic event, in this case the release of said virus, cannot be stopped or changed. As Willis asserts "It's already happened," while he's in a mental hospital, the major dilemma the film trudges into is not a trite, overdone plot to save the world; instead it's Willis' inner struggle to simply survive himself. It's a fresh, innovative concept, and it works beautifully thanks to a tautly written script by Peoples and Gilliam's unique brand of dementia.
Besides this, 12 Monkey's storytelling is totally non-linear and instead opts to distort and bend the way the story is told skillfully incorporating a bevy of different time sequences: flashbacks, dreams, memories, the present, the past, the future, and even a scene that is lifted out of Hitchcock's Vertigo. All serve to envelop the viewer into its disturbing cacophony of madness and futility.
Visually, Gilliam is a master of desolate umbrage and shadow rivalling Tim Burton in his strikingly despondent scenery and imagery. With cold, wide, and immersing cinematography, Gilliam plunges into the colorless surroundings and darkness of his characters. The scenes are often bathed in a strangely antiseptic, dead white and help serve as a contrast to the often veering-on-madness characters.
Performance-wise, Brad Pitt steals most scenes, filling them with a patented loony, off-the-wall performance that deservedly garnered him an Oscar nomination. As mentioned, Bruce Willis gives the best performance of his career, not reverting to his heroic cliches and cardboard hero and instead portraying Cole as a simple, poignant, tragic everyman. Equally good is Madeline Stowe as Willis' psychologist. She holds her own, injecting her character with both wild energy and strength as she collapses under the weight of what she comes to believe is a false 'religion.'
Gilliam's expert, overwhelming, and complex handling of what could have been a routine action/sci-fi film makes 12 Monkeys a compelling vision of a nightmarish, futuristic landscape. Its rich, well-thought out, intricate storyline along with bravura performances from the entire cast and its brooding, bleak cinematography make it a masterpiece of madness. Ranking in my top 10 of all time, 12 Monkeys is a darkly lavish spectacle of a film brimming with brilliance.
10 out of 10