I’m surprised that this is my first and only chance to talk about Terry Gilliam in this awards round-up. He has one of the best sf film resumes of any director this side of Spielberg and Cameron, and his body of work is far more diverse and surprising than theirs. He received Hugo nominations for Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1978, Time Bandits in 1982, Brazil in 1986, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1990, and 12 Monkeys in 1996. That’s one hell of a list of great sf movies, but none of them managed to win. At least 12 Monkeys picked up a Saturn, and this is one of those instances where Saturn’s pick is more exciting and original than Hugo’s (more on that in a week). Gilliam likes surrealist stories about mentally unstable people which he augments with unsteady, drunken camera-work. This film, alongside The Fisher King, probably represents his most commercial work, but it’s also perhaps his best.
12 Monkeys is based on an experimental French film called La Jetee, which is a surrealistic romance involving a time traveler from a post-apocalyptic world. Here, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is the post-apocalyptic survivor of a horrific plague in the year 1997. He’s part of a gritty underground society that sends expeditions to the surface (where we see New York City overrun by zoo animals) and back in time to understand the plague. But, we’re warned again and again that the past cannot be changed. Cole travels back to the 1990s where he meets a mental patient named Jeffery (Brad Pitt) who spouts revolutionary rhetoric and a sympathetic psychiatrist named Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). Cole and Railly are drawn to each other due to some mysterious memories, and they eventually begin to explore the origins of the virus, which they link back to Jeffrey and his 12 Monkeys group.
It’s a tightly plotted story with incredible visuals from Gilliam and some brilliant acting. This is the first film where Brad Pitt showed his range. Stowe is wonderful, and every time I see this film, I wish she’d had a more extensive career. Willis does pretty good for Bruce Willis. Its eerie atmosphere, great story, and exploration of destiny and apocalypse make it one of the best time travel films ever made.