In 12 MONKEYS (Universal, R), the director Terry Gilliam, for the first time since Brazil (1985), indulges his crackpot imagination at full throttle. This may not please everyone, but for those who loved Brazil, who gloried in every teeming nook and cranny of its Orwell-meets-Blade Runner-meets-Monty Python dreamscape, the return of Gilliam the demented visionary is cause for celebration. (In The Fisher King, he seemed to be sleeping on a park bench under a copy of Variety.) 12 Monkeys is another one of Gilliam's futuristic head trips, but this time he plays down the madcap japery. The new movie is apocalyptic sci-fi, a virus-paranoia thriller that turns into a labyrinthine time-travel thriller.
The year is 2035. Humanity, or what's left of it, has been driven underground by a plague that wiped out most of the earth's population in 1997. Stray jungle beasts now prowl the marble ruins of civilization. But beneath the ghost city of Philadelphia, life is stirring: A group of scientists, at work in a catacomb laboratory, strap a convicted criminal, James Cole (Bruce Willis), into a time machine and send him back to the pre-plague days so that he can learn how the deadly germ came to spread. As Cole goes skipping through time, first to 1990, then back to the future, then to the pivotal year of 1996, he thinks he's losing his sanity. Actually, his head is just spinning -- he doesn't know where he is, or who he is. The pleasure of 12 Monkeys lies in the way Terry Gilliam plugs us so deeply into the moods he creates that we find ourselves making the same hallucinatory leaps that Cole does. The movie gets our heads spinning, too.
It's easy to see how the script, an elaborate jumble of Tinkertoy by David and Janet Peoples, might have served as the basis for a sleek high-tech thriller. But Gilliam, a poet of decay, will have none of that. For him, the world is rotting, and the rot is feverishly alive. When Cole is sent on a recon mission to the earth's garbagy surface, he dons layers of plastic, each one adding to the anxiety of how little separates him from death. In 12 Monkeys, Gilliam taps into the dark heart of AIDS paranoia; his vision of a junky, noxious retro-future -- a society literally ruled by disease -- lends a galvanizing dread to everything that happens. Even the most familiar sci-fi gimmickry in 12 Monkeys feels unprecedented and a little off center, like the time machine that looks as if it had been taped together out of old convertible tops. And when Cole ends up in an insane asylum in the early '90s, it's the loopiest, most fungoid snake pit you've ever seen, with the camera practically crawling the walls along with the inmates.
I have a theory about Bruce Willis: In a hairpiece, he's a movie star, but bald, he's a great actor. (He loses his vanity.) In a strange way, the most powerful grunge effect in 12 Monkeys is Willis himself. Eyes druggy and lost, his white, shaved dome flecked with scabs, he's playing a guy who has had the very soul beat out of him, and it's enthralling to see him gradually recover it. There's a scene in which Cole hears a rock & roll song for the first time in eons, and Willis plays the moment in tears, as if the music were mother's milk itself. No other macho icon can let down his guard so simply. In the asylum, Cole meets a psychiatrist (Madeleine Stowe) who thinks he's crazy but trusts him anyway; she becomes his accomplice in trying to save the world. Conventional stuff, to be sure, but Stowe and Willis match up nicely -- they have a complementary sense of urgency.
The plot is a welter of conspiracies and temporal leaps that tie together structurally but don't always make sense. 12 Monkeys is based on Chris Marker's 1962 sci-fi short La Jetee, a movie in which the past comes to seem hauntingly alive in the present. This isn't enough for Gilliam: He piles on voices that speak to Cole like ghosts, allusions to the double-identity theme of Vertigo, and, ultimately, the Army of the Twelve Monkeys -- a guerrilla animal-rights group that may have launched the plague. In the end, the movie grows a little top-heavy with events. Still, presenting a crew of ''compassionate'' hippie leftists as doomsday terrorists is a good, nasty joke. It's fused by Brad Pitt's performance as Jeffrey Goines, a jabbering psychotic who may just be more dangerous than he looks. Pitt does a hammy, bug-eyed turn, but his manic reaction time and rabid, get-a-load-of-me deviousness work for the character, and for the film's central mystery: Looking at Jeffrey, we can't tell where the fanatic leaves off and the put-on artist begins. Something similar might be said of Gilliam, who, in 12 Monkeys, turns a world falling apart into a funky, dizzying spectacle. B+