Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #173
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt
I used to have my head so far up Terry Gilliam's ass I could see through his eyeballs, and excluding his work with the Monty Python gang (oddly, the only work of his that really holds up for me today), 1995's 12 Monkeys was my gateway. I worked my way through about half of a totally arbitrary online Top 100 Cult Movies list when I was in 8th grade, and this film placed very highly. I watched it, was enamored by it, and quickly became a huge Terry Gilliam fan and set out to watch all of his movies. Today, I'm not so fond of Gilliam or of this film – I think he's guilty of making every frame so visually interesting (erm, "interesting," I actually hate his visual identity) that the actual plot content of at least half of his scenes becomes utterly uninteresting. He's guiltier of that in fare like Brazil and the still-fairly-charming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it exists here, too. Fortunately, Brad Pitt's towering mid-'90s screen presence (Not in stature, but in total dominance of every frame he's a part of – this guy was a star even before he was the great actor he is today.) makes most of the film easy to stomach. But is this a great film? Maybe with a more restrained director at the helm, but not in its existing form.
The plot depicts a futuristic sci-fi dystopia where a deadly virus has forced humanity to live underground. The film explores the realms of mental illness, totalitarianism, corporate interests causing society's downfall, secret societies, conspiracy, and, most questionably and yet most importantly, time travel. All of this stuff intrigued me when I was fourteen, but now I've come to realize it's just kind of a mess. Here Gilliam not only made his scenery too cluttered but also his storytelling, and a final scene that should have packed some emotional punch along with its "a-ha!" realization (like a Christopher Nolan ending, for example), it's just an opportunity for Gilliam to put yet another level of sci-fi intrigue into his muddled plot. I know it's kind of a stretch, but I recently wrote about Back to the Future, a film that makes time travel its principle endeavor. That movie works because it only requires us to think about one thing, and that thing happens to be somewhat complex. 12 Monkeys throws an extremely complex concept at us in the midst of everything else that's already going on, and it doesn't add anything to the film. It just makes it more unnecessarily complicated in an attempt to be almost condescendingly clever.
It's not a totally worthless film, though. As I mentioned earlier, Brad Pitt starring in damn near anything in the 1990s is worth a gander because of the way his young face just lit up a screen. His performance as anti-corporatist animal rights activist mental patient Jeffrey Goines is no exception. But 12 Monkeys is still a rental copy at best. (Do people still say that when they recommend movies? Should I instead say "Put it toward the bottom of your queue"? I'm so
The Good: Pitt's performance.
The Bad: Terry Gilliam making a Terry Gilliam movie. Sorry, Terry Gilliam fans.
The Skinny: I wouldn't put it anywhere near the Top 250.