James Cole (Bruce Willis) had that dream again, the one where he was a young boy and he saw a man being gunned down at the airport. Or did it really happen? The image has been haunting his thoughts for years now and sometimes he sees more than the last time. Talking of time, Cole is living in the future and there has been a worldwide catastrophe forty years before when a plague took hold which wiped out five billion of the world's citizens. But now there is the technology to put a human being back through the decades and find a cure before mankind is destroyed forever...
Twelve Monkeys takes the stance that if someone were to travel to the here and now from the future, he would be regarded as a madman and most likely be detained in a mental asylum, especially if he had a message about an impending apocalypse, always a favourite subject with the delusional. The film was based on the classic avant garde short La Jetée, a similarly time-obsessed work by Chris Marker, but here beefed up with, well, images that moved and a more expanded upon plotline; it gathered indifferent reviews when first released, but was a hit with the public, perhaps because it captured the pre-Millennial mood of the era.
The film is a curiously morose one, seeing the advances of technology that would make time travel possible as a curse, the curse of Cassandra, knowing what will happen before it does and having no way of stopping any upcoming disasters. The tension is sabotaged to an extent by the fact that we in the audience are in this position as well, and it's little surprise when the opening scene turns out to be both the beginning and the end of the story, a story which wraps itself up in a circular motion, emphasising the cruelty of the characters' situation, and by extension, we fellow people as well, trapped by both the onward march of events and our memories.
Adapted from the Marker film by David Webb Peoples, who scripted Blade Runner, and his wife Janet Peoples, Twelve Monkeys puts Willis through even more punishment than he had to endure in Die Hard. Not only does no one believe what he says back in 1990 where he accidentally arrives, but his bosses back in 2035 treat him like a guinea pig to do their bidding and trace a cure for the virus - after all, they cannot change the future of 1990, they can only make the future of 2035 better. However, what you take away from this is that they probably couldn't do much to alter their own fortunes either, and and efforts to help them out by delving into former lives are redundant at best.
For this reason the film isn't exactly the most optimistic of science fiction movies, with its view that we are like a hamster on a wheel, the illusion of progress the sole aspect of life that keeps us going, but director Terry Gilliam is not about to abandon all hope, for what there is to compensate is love. The intricately-fashioned script is well aware that when Cole kidnaps his psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), they will eventually fall in love, and makes us aware of it too when a cop points its likelihood out before it happens, but this is presented as a reassurance that there is something worth living for. Yet even that is prey to the film's cynicism, as although the leads are sympathetically treated, they might as well be running on tracks to their unavoidable destiny. Twelve Monkeys is strikingly filmed with excellent performances - Brad Pitt stands out as a pro-animals terrorist - but the dejection that bleeds through every development does not exactly make for an uplifting experience, no matter how well crafted it is. Music by Paul Buckmaster.