If 12 monkeys sat in a room, pounding randomly on a word processor, it's doubtful they'd come up with anything as mixed up as Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys."
An odd, futuristic mishmash, it blends the violence and pounding rhythms of late-edition, big-budget movie thrillers with the more stately and overproduced visual stylings of director Gilliam, who is famous for "Brazil" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," among other things. It's a somewhat uncomfortable fit.
The movie, inspired by a 1962 short French film titled "La Jetee," also seems to have borrowed much from James Cameron's "Terminator," of 1984, which is entirely appropriate, since Cameron borrowed much of his movie from an "Outer Limits" episode written by Harlan Ellison. Ellison sued and is now formally recognized on "Terminator's" credits; will he sue Gilliam?
Same setup: In a post-apocalyptic future that nevertheless harbors a sophisticated scientific culture, a warrior (named Cole, played by a bald Bruce Willis) is sent back through time to our age to prevent the apocalypse from happening, or at least learn why it does, so that, back in his awful period, health improvements can be made. While back in our time, he bonds with a strong woman (Madeleine Stowe) who comes eventually to believe in him and assist him in his quest, against the conventions of society.
Differences: Not bombs but bugs. A plague, generated by germs stolen from a high-tech lab and evidently released by a radical animal-rights group calling itself "The Army of the 12 Monkeys," produces 3 billion deaths in a couple of years, turning the world to rust, dust and emptiness.
The film is also more internalized, taking psychological dysfunction as its subtext. Besides scenes located precisely in a mental institution and the presence of a major character who is clearly insane, even Willis himself is uncertain of his sanity and yearns to believe what his helpful interlocutors keep telling him: that he's dreamed it all up. His analogue in "The Terminator" (Michael Biehn) suffered no doubts whatsoever; confidence is what made him so interesting and is possibly why Willis doesn't reach the same condition of empathy.
Other differences seem whimsical: the time-travel machinery that fascinates Gilliam, for example, is comically clanking and inefficient, almost like a giant slingshot, and so sometimes it misses. Once it dumps Cole in the middle of World War I, where he picks up a bullet that will puzzle the Philadelphia police when they recover it back in 1996. At other times, it flings him into 1991, then to 1996. Additionally, other time soldiers can go back, and sometimes they're there to help him and sometimes they're not, depending on how tight a fix in which the hero finds himself. XTC In fact, not only the stars, but most of the cast, are constantly bouncing like pinballs across the game of time, looking for little holes into which to disappear.
That's not good, that's bad. "12 Monkeys" suffers from a murkiness of storytelling and plot-point-making that prevents it from building any real momentum. It's as though the story is glimpsed through fog. Only toward the end, after what feels like close to a couple of hours of setup, does it begin to approach the kind of pulsating energy "The Terminator" sold from its first second.
But there is also good news. I never thought I'd write these words, but keep your eye on Brad Pitt, in a supporting role as a renowned scientist's disturbed son, who in his Oedipal angst essentially is the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Pitt, heretofore locked in a cocoon of narcissism, puts the face stuff aside and, liberated by the fat role of madman, offers up a deeply unsettling performance, all twitches and rogue neural impulses, a gibber of unreflective, unself-conscious pathology. He's very frightening.
The others merely offer standard work. Willis has been here, done this: It's his usual thing, weary, battered, cool guy, with a lot of facial makeup signifying trauma. Stowe, the psychiatrist who becomes his one true believer, is in familiar territory -- the smart woman a little unsure beneath her bravado. It's convincing but somehow completely unsurprising.
But what hurts the movie more than anything is the continual war of cross-purposes between Gilliam's visual tendencies and the story line. His workup of the future -- mostly shot in old power plants, including the one in Baltimore -- is full of elaborate vistas of rusting machinery, complete to a prison imagined as a retro-19th-century Reading Gaol run by brutes with assault weapons.
Even his now is then: He sets an early sequence in a Baltimore County mental facility, which he imagines as a 19th-century Bedlam, an old-style loony bin full of drooling, lobotomized, carbuncular zombies.
He got a very similar look in "Brazil," that '40s-projected-into-the-future thing, but that movie was about a society. Here the movie is about a story, but Gilliam appears to prefer looking at the scenery to telling it.
Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Released by Universal
Rated R (violence, profanity)
Sun score: **1/2