The future, alas, isn’t what it used to be. The future according to Hollywood, that is. While science-fiction movies once took the flying-car idealism of the 1939 World’s Fair as their blueprint, things haven’t been the same since the early ’80s, when Blade Runner and The Road Warrior popularized the Future as Living Hell. That detritus-festooned concept was quickly picked up by Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, James Cameron’s The Terminator, and countless straight-to-video knockoffs, and the cycle is in no danger of winding down. More recently, renters have been treated to Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and the new-to-tape 12 Monkeys, Gilliam’s latest splattery action painting.
What all of these movies ignore — have to ignore, really, if they want to hold any narrative or philosophical weight — is that the future often looks distressingly mundane when it arrives. (Incidentally, if the virtual-reality headsets of Strange Days were to catch on by 1999, Sony would have had to start cranking them out last year.) And pity poor oldies like the British Things to Come (1936) or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972): Their futures have come and gone, looking decidedly recherche.
12 Monkeys has it comparatively easy: Since much of the movie takes place in 1996 (a mere year after its theatrical release), Gilliam doesn’t have to worry about foofy costumes. And while prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) travels to the present from the mid-21st century — in order to find the source of a disease that will eventually kill off 99 percent of the earth’s population — the dark, crammed underground world of the post-viral future isn’t too demanding a visual stretch (picture Brazil with fewer ducts).
The movie replaces the haunting chill of its inspiration — the dreamlike 1964 French short film La Jetee — with a squalling pack-rat fervor that loses some impact on small, unforgiving TV screens. Cole initially lands in 1990 and gets quickly institutionalized, whereupon he meets the psychiatrist who will come to believe him (Madeleine Stowe) and the nutjob who may be responsible for the viral outbreak (Brad Pitt in a dithery Oscar-nominated lark of a performance). The madhouse scenes are so relentlessly bonkers that you’re afraid 12 Monkeys will devolve into another variation on Gilliam’s favorite theme: insanity as the only proper response to an insane society. But the movie rises above that trite level on the strength of a near-fractal script by David and Janet Peoples, Willis’ achingly battered performance, and its own pell-mell momentum. There’s an emotional urgency, too, that comes straight from La Jetee: the sense of a man desperately trying to stave off the future and live forever in the present. Most sci-fi movies show heroes marching bravely into time’s slipstream, and that may be why they get the details wrong. In 12 Monkeys, James Cole will do anything to put the future behind him. He’s a fly yearning for the amber. 12 Monkeys: B+