Memory and Mayhem Drive Gilliam's 'Twelve Monkeys'

'Twelve Monkeys," the new extravaganza by Terry Gilliam, is a science-fiction epic with tentacles reaching toward the future and the past.

It's futuristic because it takes place in 2035, portraying a society that little resembles any we know today. It also uses the notion of time travel as a launching pad for its wild, sometimes violent plot.

Yet devoted science-fiction fans will find themselves remembering 1962, when French filmmaker Chris Marker completed "La Jetee," one of the genre's most celebrated movies. Although it's only about 30 minutes long and is told almost completely through still photographs, this gem of fantastic cinema has earned a near-legendary reputation for its innovative style and story.

"Twelve Monkeys" takes not only its time-twisting premise from Marker's masterpiece, but also much of its mood and some of its visual ideas. It's as if Gilliam were haunted by the earlier film and couldn't get it out of his mind until he'd somehow relived it in his own life.

This would give him much in common with the heroes of both "La Jetee" and his own movie - men chosen for a time-traveling mission because they have memories of a past that's as important to understand as it is hard to recapture.

The hero of "Twelve Monkeys" is named Cole, and as the story begins he's hardly a conventional good guy. He's a convict, in fact, held prisoner in an underground nation driven off the surface of the Earth by an epidemic that's wiped out 99 percent of humanity.

In this dystopian world, the only way out of jail is to volunteer for an assignment so dangerous it's probably impossible to pull off: journeying into the past, in search of the epidemic's cause and cure. Cole is eager to try it. Arriving in 1996, he meets two people: a psychiatrist who slowly realizes his time-travel chatter isn't as crazy as it sounds, and an animal-rights activist who's driven less by ethical concerns than by hostility toward his father, an amoral scientist.

Braving many dangers, some of them etched on screen with creepy forcefulness, Cole tracks down a bizarre political group that may hold the key to the future. He also closes in on a long-held memory that drives him on.

"Twelve Monkeys" can't be called a remake of "La Jetee," even though it borrows directly from it. "La Jetee" is less a sci-fi adventure than a visual essay with a philosophical bent. By contrast, the new picture - written by David Peoples and Janet Peoples - is as rambunctious as the title suggests, spicing its plot with mind-bending action and Hollywood-style violence.

Its blend of provocative ideas and lightning-quick storytelling could strike box-office gold. Or it could prove too raffish and unrefined for art-film admirers, too complex and surrealistic for casual movie fans.

Then again, sheer star power could pull it through. Bruce Willis is bruisingly good as Cole, a character with more depth than he displays at first, and Brad Pitt is marvelously manic as the activist who keeps popping into his path. Madeleine Stowe does her most energetic acting to date as the skeptical psychiatrist. Christopher Plummer and David Morse contribute suitably weird touches as the famed scientist and his sinister assistant.

In the end, though, this is very much a Gilliam production, plunging the gifted director back into near-delirious terrain he's explored in films ranging from the hilarious "Time Bandits" through more problematic outings like "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and "The Fisher King," not to mention the brilliant "Brazil," still his finest achievement.

Almost every frame of "Twelve Monkeys" seems on the verge of either flying to pieces or collapsing under its own craziness - and while neither happens, the resulting sensation of utter precariousness is well-suited to the story and its themes. "Twelve Monkeys" is not for every taste, but it reconfirms Gilliam as a master imagemaker of our time.

*"Twelve Monkeys" has an R rating. It contains much violence and vulgarity.

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