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Bleak outlook hurts Gilliam's 12 Monkeys


Directed by Terry Gilliam.

Written by David Peoples and Janet Peoples.

Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt.

Sony Cheri.

By Scott C. Deskin

Terry Gilliam's work has finally received the respect it deserves: This ex-Monty Python member has centered his career around distinctive visuals and convoluted storylines with confidence and style. And while not all of his films have been successful on the order of Time Bandits, ambitious works like Brazil and The Fisher King are filled with wit and pathos, proving that his animated sequences in the original Monty Python series only provided a base outlet for his imagination sense of narrative coherence (at least from the protagonist's viewpoint).

In Gilliam's latest feature, Twelve Monkeys, his visual style complements the story quite well. We're introduced to a dystopian future in which the human race has been driven underground after a worldwide plague wipes out most of the population in 1997. Scientists and technocrats determined to get the human race "back on top" embark on a program to send "volunteers" - jailed convicts - back in time to gather evidence on how the deadly virus was spread. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is one of these volunteers, to be promised a full pardon for his crimes if he carries out his mission. His only clues are to start in the city where the virus broke out, Philadelphia, and uncover all the information possible on a group known only as The Army of the Twelve Monkeys.

So, Cole is sent back in time, but to the wrong year - 1990, a full six years before the apocalypse. When he spouts his story to the authorities, they naturally place him in a mental institution. There he meets a sympathetic doctor (Madeleine Stowe) and a defective inmate (Brad Pitt) who both try to understand him. The doctor thinks his mind has fabricated an alternate, though altogether convincing, reality in his head - though she can't shake the feeling that she's met him somewhere before; the inmate thinks that Cole wants to escape, although he's not totally sure what to make of Cole's apocalyptic babbling. Visually, this presents an interesting dilemma deciding which fate is worse: suffering in the cramped cages and stale underground air in the prison of the future or the insane, uncertain environment and drug-induced haze in the asylum of the past.

A lot of the development in the film stems from Cole's numerous jumps back and forth through time, so it wouldn't be fair to reveal every jaunt he makes in the story. But as the film progresses, we get the sense that his fate has already been sealed. Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, James Cole has no control over where he's tripping next. Unlike Pilgrim, Cole's life seems trapped in an infinite loop; he's haunted by an image from his childhood, and once we see what this means for his mission, we pity the character even more.

But once we buy into the central time-travel gimmick and all of its by-laws, we're left with an incredibly bleak picture. Gilliam directs with characteristic flair, and the actors are generally competent. In particular, Brad Pitt provides some comic relief in the scenes at the mental institution, and he dwarfs Willis and Stowe for sheer nutball gratification. But the film gets bogged down in the second half, once it falls on track toward an inevitable conclusion and the relationship between Willis and Stowe reaches romantic proportions that seem out of place. The film is certainly great to look at, and Gilliam deserves points for trying his hand at humanizing a dirty, technology-driven future. But a message of redemption is lacking in the script, and the film amounts to little more than cinematic junk food that may leaving you groaning by the final frames.