I enjoy movies that are designed like puzzles, although most of the time the fun evaporates once the puzzle's solved. 12 Monkeys is like one of those puzzles that actually doesn't have a solution — it's there mostly to see how long you bother to try and solve it. Like Predestination, it uses a time-travel paradox as a central plot element, if only to first give hope to both its characters and the audience, and then to cruelly yank it away. But the sheer anarchic vigor of the whole thing, courtesy director Terry Gilliam, kept me interested all the way through. Yes, even when I suspected the movie had a false bottom, with nothing underneath.
12 Monkeys opens in the year 2035, some forty years after a virus killed most of the human race and left the survivors to fend for themselves in grotty underground warrens. Cole (Bruce Willis) lives in one of these dungeons as a prisoner, where he's sent out to the surface in a hazmat suit to collect specimens. He's been chosen by the scientists who run the place to go back in time and try to find more information about the virus. If he's good, he might get a reduction in his sentence, assuming the trip doesn't kill him outright.
Cole materializes in 1990, disoriented and agitated, and ends up being thrown in a barbaric psychiatric hospital that's not much of an improvement from his previous confinement. The plans supplied to him by the scientists to contact them are unworkable. One of the fellow patients, Goines (Brad Pitt), cozzens up to him and tantalizes him with plans of escape. The plans fail, but then Cole vanishes from the room where he's in restraints — he's been summoned back to the future — and leaves everyone scratching their heads, in particular Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who's convinced she's met Cole before somehow.
The scientists send Cole back yet again, this time closer to the year of the viral outbreak, where he accosts Railly again and heads to Philadelpha to find Goines again, as he is (was?) the leader of an activist group responsible for the viral outbreak. This is where the story begins to aggressively double back on itself, as it suggests Cole might have seeded the idea for the viral outbreak in Goines's mind — or, conversely, thanks to Railly, that Cole suspects his trips through time are in fact a delusion. And likewise, Railly's own grip on reality spirals away from her, as more clues mount up to indicate Cole is not delusional, just terrified. At one point he begs her, "I want the future to be unknown," something most of us would probably want if we knew all too well what we were bound for.
I doubt 12 Monkeys would have been the commercial success it was without Willis and Pitt attached to it. This is not a black mark on the film itself; if anything, it's a sign of how attractive the material was to such name talent. Willis was at the height of his fame; Pitt, a relative newcomer. But both were welcoming riskier and more interesting roles. In Pitt's case, he was trying to shed the pretty-boy image he'd been stuck with, and films like this (and SE7EN and Fight Club) helped. His Goines behaves like a watch with a kink in its mainspring. Willis's Cole alternates between sweaty fear and moon-eyed adoration for the relatively unspoiled world Railly takes for granted. The former mode we know from all his action roles; the latter is a reminder that Willis was once such a sprightly and endearing actor (remember Moonlighting?), not a mumbling presence in countless throwaway direct-to-video projects.
Movies like this are theory factories for their audiences. Aside from the obvious interpretation — time is a closed loop — another possibility is that Cole is a mentally ill man living in the present day, and that the future, the viral outbreak, etc. are all themselves projections of his madness. I'm not fond of this, if only because it means the vast majority of the story is bunk. Yet another possibility is that Cole lived through the viral apocalypse as an adult, that he now survives in the underground decades later, and his "time trips" are in fact a kind of hypnotic regression induced by his captors to probe his memory and find clues.
Most artists of stature seem in thrall to a few foundational conceits. In Gilliam's case it's been madness versus sanity — how the collective madness of mankind is a greater crime than the madness of any one man, or even any group of people. The problem is he hasn't been able to do much with it except restate it in different ways, or (worse) fall into all the romanticized and outdated clichés about mental illness. (The Fisher King was an especially egregious example.) Here, he does a little better, since the dichotomy is in the service of a larger agenda. He also lets it serve the drama better by making us take on face value that Cole's "madness" is in fact prophecy, and by allowing us to believe the weight of what he knows would drive far greater men mad.
I also suspect any attempt to make sense of a story this inherently and intentionally jumbled is a trap. It is not about a plot but a state of mind. Where it is science fiction, it is only in the sense that it has the accoutrements and paradoxes of a time travel story — and even then it's not about altering the flow of time, but simply mining the truth from what has happened and what cannot change anyway. Outside of that, its main subject is the inability to be sure of anything except the present moment: the past is memory, the future is speculation. It's a worldview I happen to agree with. But the way it's expressed here is unremittingly bleak: everything is preordained, all personal and even collective effort is futile, and the only certain thing is suffering. The first time I saw the film, I wasn't sure what all the screaming was about; it just felt like everything cancelled out everything else. and it left me feeling more drained than exhilarated. Now I see there's more, but I still feel drained.
Postscript: One other implication of assuming the events of the story are as the film depicts them occurred to me while writing this. If Cole did indeed witness everything at the airport as a child, then he was also exposed to the virus when it was originally unleashed, and the mere fact he survived means he had a natural immunity of some kind. Something his captors would have benefited from if they had ever bothered to look for it.
Addendum 2023-05-14: An earlier version of this review used insensitive language in reference to Willis's presence in his direct-to-video roles.