By 1995, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt were among the biggest stars in Hollywood. Willis had been in three Die Hard films plus Pulp Fiction while Pitt was in epics like Legends of the Fall and Interview with the Vampire. They were leading men in bankable film genres. But neither one had done anything like 12 Monkeys. It’s a time travel movie with a protagonist who travels back in the past and to different periods. It’s also a Dystopian film with a setting in 2035 and where most of the global population is wiped out leaving big cities empty. (Philadelphia in this case).
The narrative begins with a dream-like sequence and then goes underground to an inmate named James (Bruce Willis). Along with countless others, he’s stacked in a cage and being prepared for an experiment (a mechanical claw is lowered to pick him up). Time travel has been invented and scientists would like him to go back to 1996 and find clues regarding a protest group known as the 12 Monkeys. It’s believed that they are responsible for the release of a virus that has wiped out most of humanity on the surface. Perhaps a cure can be learned from their operations. Although the narrative proceeds like an investigation, the film emphasises the maddening of the situation. Jame’s mental state is fatigued due to the frequency of time travel; he goes back and forth several times and the time machine malfunctions, sending him to the wrong year. Brad Pitt as Jeffrey also contributes to the films lunacy as he tends to rant about abuses of scientific animal experiments. It’s an unhinged performance. There are also ominous theories from the psychiatrist doctor Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe) who becomes Jame’s friend. From a screenplay by David and Janet Peoples, and based on a short film called La Jetee by Chris Maker, 12 Monkeys is directed by Terry Gilliam with a quirky tone of impending doom. The occasional distinct tango music is a contrast to its melancholy undercurrent. But the film provides viewers with fresh sights and there’s a twist that may need repeated viewings to put everything into perspective.