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For, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: You either love it or you hate it. That’s more or less the consensus for this sci-fi thriller that is both immensely thought provoking and at times utterly confusing, but given its rabid cult following, it seems quite logical that a boutique home-video company like Arrow would pick it up for a Blu-ray special edition, and such is now the case. My review, reprinted below, was published in the Deseret News on Jan. 9, 1996.

To be able to go with the very eccentric "Twelve Monkeys" one really needs to know up front that it is a film by former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, who had a big hit four years ago with "The Fisher King" … and before that, a big flop with "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen."

And as a more specific frame of reference, it helps to know that Gilliam's earlier directing efforts were the Orwellian sci-fi cult favorite "Brazil" and the dark time-travel comedy "Time Bandits."

If you have any familiarity with the latter two pictures, you may have some idea of just how weird and wonderful and bizarre and frustrating "Twelve Monkeys" is. In terms of plot, we're back in the pick-a-period time-travel territory of "Time Bandits," while the film's dark, dank, cluttered and visually arresting style owes more than a little to "Brazil."


           Bruce Willis, left, Brad Pitt, 'Twelve Monkeys'

Bruce Willis stars and is cast severely against type (though he pulls it off quite well) as a convict in the apocalyptic future of 2035, where people live underground to avoid a deadly above-ground plague that has wiped out most of mankind. Willis is chosen as a guinea pig for a dangerous experiment — he is to travel back into the past (our present-day) and find the source of the virus that has devastated the Earth's population.

But as fans of time-travel movies know, changing the past ain't easy. The first problem here is that the "time machine" equipment is far from perfect, and Willis occasionally ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The second is that without some kind of ally, it's difficult to fulfill your assignment in the past — you risk being thrown into an asylum.

Willis' character is far from the kind of hero he usually plays. With his head shaved and his countenance bowed — not to mention, mind-numbed — he genuinely wants to fulfill his charge. But fate and faulty equipment aren't much help.

His reluctant ally comes in the form of a psychiatrist (Madeleine Stowe) who at first thinks he's delusional. And when he finds himself in a sanitarium, he is linked with the paranoid, psychotic son (Brad Pitt) of a famous scientist, who figures in the mystery here. (But watch out for those red herrings.)


Gilliam does not tell his story in a linear fashion, but instead jumps back and forth in time and offers occasional hints about where it will all end up. If you stay with it and follow the clues, you'll have no problem. But if you step into the lobby for a Coke, you'll likely return to find yourself lost for the rest of the film.

Aside from his trademark visual style, Gilliam generally handles the chaos he depicts quite well, and he's come up with a marvelous cast. Willis is very good as a troubled, reluctant hero who becomes something of a foreboding prophet. And Stowe is terrific as the pillar of sanity who tries to save him, at first by treating him for delusions and ultimately by helping him in his mission.

But the real surprise here is Pitt. If Bruce Willis is cast against type, who would have thought of Brad Pitt as this hilarious hyper-neurotic, who initially seems to deserve his padded cell, but whose paranoia is eventually revealed to be justified. If there is a scene-stealer here, it's Pitt.

"Twelve Monkeys" is rated R for violence, nudity (Willis), profanity and vulgarity.