Plot: Decades after a pandemic eradicated nearly all human life on earth, the survivors live in dark, dank underground clusters, unable to find a cure and reclaim the above ground world, though efforts persist. In order to collect information, prisoners are forced to explore the ravaged world in protective suits and one of those prisoners has just found a crucial piece of evidence. James (Bruce Willis) seems to have uncovered the name of the terrorist operation responsible for unleashing the virus, so he is sent back in time to research the group known as the 12 Monkeys. But his mission is hampered from the start, as he is sent six years too far into the past, then he is locked up in a mental ward, where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a raving lunatic with a powerful father and some wild conspiracies. He also meets the kind Dr. Railly (Madeline Stowe), who tries to convince him that all of his worries are in his head, that the virus and time travel are hallucinations. Can James put the pieces together and do what needs to be done to save mankind, or is it all just part of his mental illness?
Entertainment Value: This movie has it all for fans of dystopian sci/fi fans who want to bask in a wild narrative, creative visuals, and impressive production values, as Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys is a masterful sci/fi thriller that has all of those elements and so much more. If you’ve seen Gilliam’s other work, you can see his fingerprints all over this one, as it just screams that it is one of his films, but it also remains fresh and even inventive throughout. The story has a lot going on, with a bleak future, time travel, mental health, and some effective twists thrown in, but the narrative isn’t jumbled or hard to follow. I tend to get lost in the visuals and world of Twelve Monkeys though, as there is so much to soak in and the world feels real and lived in, even in the time travel segments. I especially love all the strange tech of the future, as it has that rundown, improvised look and that suits the material so well. I can see how some might dislike how it all wraps up, but I think it is fine, if a little on the forgettable side, given how memorable much of the movie is. But even if you’re disappointed by the finale, the story is interesting, the visuals and production design elements are excellent, and the cast turns in some terrific work, so for fans of downbeat sci/fi, Twelve Monkeys is an easy recommendation.
The movie has an interesting lead, as red hot at the time Bruce Willis drops his action hero routine for a much different role. He handles the demands of the part well and delivers an effective performance, proving he has the chops when he wants to put in the effort. Of course, he would later begin to phone in his performances in a tidal wave of forgettable movies, but Willis is a good actor when he tries and Twelve Monkeys is more than proof of that. He is able to convey the mental turmoil and weariness needed, while also keeping his outbursts restrained and of course, the mild action scenes are no problem in the least. Willis is a good anchor for this movie and his performance is a testament to his skills, when he is interested. Brad Pitt also played against type here, as a lazy eyed lunatic and his performance is dialed up, so over the top somewhat, but not past an effective point. He comes off as unstable and impulsive, but not a cartoonish version of a delusional person. The cast also includes Madeline Stowe, Frank Gorshin, David Morse, and Christopher Plummer. So from top to bottom, Twelve Monkeys boasts an impressive ensemble.