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Despite the uniqueness of Terry Gilliam’s cinematic vision, the most startling aspect of his latest film, 12 Monkeys, is the fact that Brad Pitt is actually forced to act in it. Cast against type as a character whose looks are not his defining characteristic, Pitt does a credible job as a man whose psychosis is kept precariously and only intermittently under control. Monkeys is unexpectedly riddled with major stars—in addition to Pitt, Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe play the other two leads—but the film’s un-Hollywood weirdness is powerful enough to neutralize their insufferability. There is a sort of extreme physicality to the film’s acting; Willis and Pitt, in particular, twitch, rant, and rage for much of Monkeys, and in true Gilliam style, it’s seldom that either isn’t dripping some viscous liquid.

As always, the director’s future turns out to be a shabby place. Where stereotypical cinematic visions of the 21st century are generally sterile and streamlined images of triumphant technology, Gilliam’s are decidedly makeshift, if not downright seedy. Monkeys’ retro-future is reminiscent of Brazil’s, but this film’s scenario is a bit more traditional; it represents only the second time a Gilliam film was not also scripted by the director. The complication-heavy plot intermingles biological terrorism, animal rights, time travel, and the parameters of sanity. (The screenplay by David Peoples—who co-scripted Blade Runner—and Janet Peoples was inspired by La Jetée, a 1962 short by French filmmaker Chris Marker.) Its story is set in motion by a deadly virus, but Monkeys is a far cry from Outbreak; here, biological meddling is responsible for unleashing the plague, but science is powerless to stop it.

The year is 2035, the location far beneath what was bustling downtown Philadelphia until a 1996 plague killed off most of the earth’s population and made human life on the planet’s surface an impossibility. A team of scientists select recalcitrant prison inmate James Cole (Willis) to go above ground and collect the organic specimens they are using to trace the origin of the deadly virus. Completing this assignment, Cole is then made to travel back in time and attempt to piece together the chain of events that led to the spread of the virus. Though the time machine malfunctions and Cole twice arrives earlier than planned, he nonetheless meets two of the doomsday scenario’s key players: psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Stowe), who counsels him after he lands in a mental institution, and fellow asylum inmate Jeffrey Goines (Pitt), the deranged animal-activist son of a prominent virologist.

The plot may seem convoluted, but it’s also incidental; the film’s visuals take precedence over most everything else. (For this, cinematographer Roger Pratt—who also did Brazil and Tim Burton’s Batman—production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, and set decorator Crispian Sallis deserve ample credit.) The future in Monkeys has a cobbled-together quality that somehow makes it at once more convincing and more forbidding. For instance, when Cole wanders through an empty, snow-covered city in plastic suiting that encases him like an amniotic sac, the outfit itself resembles something fashioned at home with Saran Wrap and a glue gun, while the interior has what appear to be Christmas tree minilights strung inside. The 21st century, it seems, will be low-tech.

Because it provides more room for improvisation, Gilliam’s post-apocalyptic world is much more interesting to look at than his 1996. His futuristic gadgetry is sinister indeed: Particularly menacing is the large multiscreen video orb that swoops and hovers around Cole’s head as he is indoctrinated by the scientific team. An obvious reflection of Gilliam’s hatred of television, the blaring globe and its transmission of simultaneous and often distorted images is the mechanized embodiment of media overload. Other editorial comments make their way into the film: Not everyone’s apocalyptic vision, for example, is so often sited in department stores. A meticulous attention to detail characterizes the film’s futuristic props. Part of the time-travel machine, for instance, is fashioned from that most menacing of raw materials, antique dental chairs.

The film’s thematic messages are less compelling than its visual impact, but they are not wholly ineffectual. The most overt is the role-reversal of the film’s sane and insane characters. When Cole initially meets Railly, she does her best to convince him that his certainty about having arrived from the future to save mankind is delusional. She eventually sees the error of her ways, but by that time she has Cole convinced, and it is his turn to persuade her that he’s crazy. Several of Cole’s behaviors, such as personalizing messages from the mass media, are typically schizophrenic. Yet Cole’s reaction to the world around him isn’t an appropriate one. In true R.D. Laing fashion, the film’s sympathies are with the asylum inmates: For one thing, graphic footage of animal testing is showing on the rec-room TV, the patients’ link to the outside world. (For another, sanitarium director Dr. Fletcher is played by Frank Gorshin, the Riddler from TV’s Batman.)

Gilliam’s films are typically visually opulent, but Monkeys is often nearly tactile as well. The director is adept at creating an explicit and revolting synesthesia when it most suits his purposes. At the very least, he conveys a strong sense of his characters’ physical reality, as when Cole, having returned from a venture above ground, is placed naked in a carwash-style device and scrubbed with long-handled industrial brooms. Another time, he lifts a long-legged spider into his mouth and swallows it when he finds himself without sample containers. In one particularly effective flourish, a man in the background vigorously prods his ear with a Q-Tip as a character in the foreground talks on the phone. This action, at once dismissive and repulsive, dictates the timbre of the scene. As if to underscore tactile contrast, the director often juxtaposes flesh and edifice. Some examples are only mentioned, as when animal activists are said to have released 100 snakes in the Senate. Others are depicted on screen, such as the herd of giraffes that gallops through an urban cityscape and the grimy vagrants who nest inside the ruin of a once-opulent opera house.

The film takes its title from the name of Goines’ renegade animal rights group. The issue is one that permeates the film, often in unexpected ways. Cole, for example, is housed in a futuristic prison that resembles a cluster of commercial poultry pens. When he is initially summoned by the scientists, the prisoner is lifted out of his cage from above like a pet by what looks like a large meat hook. A living thing treated like merchandise, Cole has bar codes printed on either side of his head. In fact, to the overactive imagination, his time-travel device even looks a bit like a basting tray. It’s little wonder that the film’s pictorial climax occurs when all of the animals are released from a city zoo, a flock of pink flamingos blotting out a backdrop of slate-colored skyscrapers. Yet the film’s most memorably beautiful sequence occurs early on, when Cole encounters a grizzly bear in a deserted, snowy cityscape. It’s no accident that animals are the only beautiful things in this determinedly unattractive film: Gilliam’s bear can be interpreted as a warning that the impending annihilation of the world’s mammals will be very specific indeed.CP