12 Monkeys, page 2

That's essential, because the tale woven by screenwriters David and Janet Peoples is complex enough to demand absolute clarity. "12 Monkeys" commences in the year 2035, after a deadly virus has decimated the world population and what remains of humanity has abandoned the earth's surface to the animal kingdom. The scientists of the future, hunting for clues to the disaster, have begun sending "volunteers" into the past to study the plague's genesis in 1996. These time travelers can't change what happened, apparently, but they can export useful evidence into the future.

All this carries echoes of "The Terminator" and an explicit debt to experimental filmmaker Chris Marker's haunting 1964 landmark, "La Jetée." But "12 Monkeys" is surprisingly uninterested in the pretzel logic of the classic time-travel yarn. Its focus is rather on the psychological state of its time-jumping protagonist, James Cole (Bruce Willis). Cole begins as a brute -- a violent criminal whose mind is plagued by flashback memories -- but gradually evolves toward heroism.

First he meets a compassionate shrink (Madeleine Stowe) who thinks he's delusional but not despicable. Then he's befriended by a madcap manic (Brad Pitt) who waves his arms like he's directing traffic or speed-talking in sign language. As Cole scouts the world of 1996 for the shadowy animal-rights group -- "The Army of the 12 Monkeys" -- suspected of unleashing the mutant virus, he comes to wonder whether he's nuts himself.

"12 Monkeys" asks the same question we've heard countless times before, in belovedly cliched films like "King of Hearts" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest": who's really crazy, anyway?

The joke here is that so many other distinctions start to fall apart that that one hardly matters. Maybe the animal rights activists aren't the viral villains. Maybe the animals deserve to take back the rotten cityscape. Maybe the scientists of Cole's future, with their squints, their tics and their odd assortment of optometrists' glasses, are lunatics themselves. They do a hospital-bed-side chorus line at one point, in a direct homage to Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective."

Shaven-headed, tattooed and drooling, Willis cuts a blunt swath through "12 Monkeys": he's not subtle or daring or showy (the way, say, Pitt is here), but he's got just the right slow-burn desperation to hold our attention and sympathy through the film's vertiginous twists and turns. (Hitchcock's "Vertigo" -- which Cole watches at one point -- is another of the film's spiritual predecessors.)

Hollywood has been churning out lots of global-disaster scenarios lately -- from "Waterworld" to "Strange Days." But the nightmares Gilliam obsesses over in "12 Monkeys" -- "Hot Zone"-style depopulation, biological terrorism -- never take the form of mass-suffering tableaux. This isn't really a disaster movie at all; it's Cole's personal tragedy, set within a vaster, almost incidental apocalypse.

That, more than Gilliam's cockeyed visuals or his Swiftian comedy, may be why "12 Monkeys" feels so different from -- and so much more consequential than -- most movies in release today. We're used to futuristic thrillers and action movies; genuine tragedy in a science-fiction context feels positively otherworldly.

"Blade Runner," which was co-written by "12 Monkeys'" David Peoples, aspired to such a state, but "12 Monkeys" really nails it. When Cole finally closes the circle between past, present and future, it turns out to be haunted with his own memories -- and laced with his own mortality.