With his previous film The Fisher King, as well as here with Twelve Monkeys, it can be observed that Terry Gilliam usually works better when operating from a script by somebody else rather than one he has had a hand in. Both The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys are much more focused as scripts, less all over the place and dominated by extravagant set-pieces as earlier Gilliam-scripted efforts such as Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen were oft wont to do. Terry Gilliam also has the good luck in these cases to be serviced by exceptional scriptwriters in the case of The Fisher King, Richard LaGravanese, an Oscar nominee who has crafted works like The Bridges of Madison County (1995), A Little Princess (1995), Beloved (1998), The Horse Whisperer (1998) and, in the case of Twelve Monkeys, David Webb Peoples, who co-wrote Blade Runner (1982) and had then just come from his Oscar-winning work on Clint Eastwoods breathtakingly nihilistic anti-Western Unforgiven (1992).
On the other hand, Twelve Monkeys, also like The Fisher King, is not an easily likeable film. Terry Gilliam seems to film with a wilful emphasis on ugliness camera angles are often distorted, the lighting schemes unattractive and washed out, and Gilliam has his big name star Bruce Willis made up as a virtual derelict. However, for both films, to bear with Terry Gilliams vision is ultimately rewarding. First of all in Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam has created here a deeply shocking vision of the end of the 20th Century an image of a society that has totally fractured at the edges and fallen into a decay that seems beyond any hope.
As a time travel film, Twelve Monkeys is almost the complete antithesis of anything like The Terminator (1984) or Back to the Future (1985). It is like a Terminator film gone to Hell imagine The Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)s long intensive night of struggle without the guarantee of either films triumph of humanism at the end. Bruce Williss hero is about as far away from Michael J. Foxs skateboarding, hiply culture-quoting Marty McFly in the Back to the Future films as possible he is not a hero, he spends most of the time running about naked or locked up as a psychiatric patient and seems to lack even the most elementary skills necessary to survive in the past. Furthermore, the stress of surviving in two temporal eras creates insanity in one startling turnabout, he decides that he is mentally ill and the future he comes from is a delusion. Unlike the heroes of The Terminator and Back to the Future, he has not come to save the future, for the future is fixed and unchangeable, which leads to a beautifully fatalistic ending. The bleakness of this vision is startling.
What makes Twelve Monkeys exceptional is not just the bleakness of its vision but the intellectual game that Terry Gilliam and David Peoples play. The time travel story plays like an interlocking jigsaw of teasing clues and tiny puzzles throwaway pieces like the graffiti on the wall, the cryptic messages on the answer-phone, the list of plague destinations. Each maps over onto a later piece of the film, all culminating in a time-paradox ending that is mesmerizing in its gradually unfolding revelations and surprises.
Twelve Monkeys is a remake of Chris Markers little seen experimental short La Jetee (1962). That said, Twelve Monkeys is less a remake of La Jetee than it is a variation on a similar plot. Twelve Monkeys keeps essentially the same plot structure but trims some aspects of La Jetee like the trip into the future and gives far greater substance in other areas like the reasons for the trip into the past plus fills out the romance and the background of the future. It also draws La Jetees plot out into a more dramatically structured film and extends the twist ending. Both are equally impressive films, although Twelve Monkeys is far better as a science-fiction film. La Jetee is construed as a languid, dreamy romance, wistful for an unattainable past; Twelve Monkeys adopts more of a thriller structure its plot centres more around the paradoxes of time travel and the travellers plight in the past and is not interested in the romance. Despite its short 30-minute length, La Jetee has a slower pace, while Twelve Monkeys feels more tight and concise despite its greater length. Nevertheless, both, while essentially the same story, are equally unique and impressive films.
Bruce Willis takes a decidedly non-commercial part here his humour and he-man persona is completely buried in the dirtiness and confusion of his character and he spends almost the entire film walking about in bewildered fractured confusion. Brad Pitt goes completely over-the-top and plays the twitchy nervous psycho to end all twitchy psychos. The performance has its amusements but Pitt overacts totally how such a visibly mentally unbalanced character could manage to unite and organize an activist campaign is beyond the films stretch of credibility. Why the Academy of Motion Pictures ended up nominating Pitt for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year in the part is frankly bizarre.
The Syfy Channel remade the film as tv series 12 Monkeys (2014 ) featuring Aaron Stanford in the Bruce Willis role.