It is bizarre to think about nowadays, when Terry Gilliam's name is practically a byword for stubborn, cultishly adored filmmaking that exists (barely) in defiance of commercial filmmaking norms, but there was a brief moment in the 1990s, when he was still making a movies at less than a once-in-a-generation rate, where it briefly looked like he might be turning into quite a blockbuster filmmaker: after The Fisher King came along and made itself a nice stack of money in 1991, Gilliam's next movie, 1995's 12 Monkeys, did even better, and still reigns as the highest-grossing film of his career, not adjusted for inflation (these are two of the three films Gilliam directed in which he didn't receive a writing credit, incidentally). The latter of these is still, almost certainly, the most widely-seen of all his movies, for no reason I can put my finger on. Sometimes these things click and sometimes they don't.

12 Monkeys is, at any rate, a pretty good 'un, maybe the most completely effective Gilliam film outside of Brazil, and one of the best early examples of the puzzle-box storytelling that has become so popular in the subsequent decade and a half, in the hand of the Christopher Nolans and Richard Kellys of the world, though only rarely does a film of this style come along where the puzzle, however ingenious and internally coherent, is sort of beside the point: as befits a script written by David Peoples of Blade Runner fame, and his wife Janet, 12 Monkeys uses genre trappings more as a way of investigating psychological issues rather than narrative ones. In this case, it's the old chestnut of a protagonist who can't tell whether he's sane or not becoming increasingly confused as to what is "real" or not, given an extra twist in that the audience has been given fairly clear indication that everything we see is factually correct (this is a debated subject, although there's no reason to assume that the film is tricking us, beyond "it's that kind of movie"), and the question of the film is thus less one of "what is reality" than "why would a person start to doubt reality?". The answer being, in this case, "too much time travel", which doesn't have very much real-world applicability, but the point remains: it is ultimately the story of a man who keeps being told, "you're not sane", and deciding at a certain point that he'd be happier if everybody else was right.

This is because that man, James Cole (Bruce Willis), comes from a future in which the meager remants of humanity have been pushed underground by a viral outbreak that happened in 1996, killing virtually the entirety of humanity but leaving all non-human animals alive. Cole is a prisoner forced to "volunteer" for fact-finding missions: first to the surface and the ruined city of Philadelphia, PA, to find anything he can that will help the scientists left behind find a way to fight the still-raging virus and return to the surface; having successfully proven his mettle thus, Cole is then sent back in time, right before the outbreak itself, to investigate the source of the virus in the hopes that, back in the future, it will be possible to track back towards its origin in hopes of curing it. The problem being that the time travel technology that has been developed is buggy and unreliable, and instead of depositing Cole intact in 1996, it leaves him a drooling, incoherent mess in 1990, where he is promptly taken into an insane asylum under the care of Dr. Kathryn Rially (Madeleine Stowe).

I won't spoil the rest of the plot, since that's the fun part - "fun" having a variable definition in a film about madness, the death of most of humanity, and the inevitability of fate, particularly one shot in the aggressive, ugly style that Gilliam and cinematographer Roger Pratt had previously used in Brazil, focused on unpleasant, industrial colors and flattening everything into one plane, squashed and widened (but without the distortion of a wide-angle lens). Since that probably makes it sound awful, I need to immediately qualify: this is exactly the right look for the movie, and for much the same reason as it was in Brazil: in both cases, the point is to depict a world that has been dehumanised by an over-reliance on technology and mechanics, and in both cases, the cinematography serves to strip the feeling and warmth - the humanity - out of the images, its 2-D depth of field making the human actors merge into their environments. If anything, it's even more effective in 12 Monkeys, where there are "real world" settings made grotesque by the style, for a huge part of what the film is doing is suggesting that the ungainly, wonderfully-designed nightmare of the future scenes is nothing but an exaggeration of what life in 1996 - that is to say, 1995, when the film was released - already looks and behaves like, and visually linking them through the camera is a keen way of underlining that without ever having to say it.

The film is a remake, sort of, of Chris Marker's 1962 short film La jetée, though considering the level of specific detail shared between the two projects, it's shocking how little they have in common: 12 Monkeys has none of La jetée's commentary on Fascism or analysis of film form, while La jetée in no way even touches on the themes of psychiatry, self-delusion, and mis-communication that are at the heart of Gilliam's film (mis-communication, now there's something I should have already brought up: the way the story twists at the end, and where it most becomes a "follow the clues" puzzle narrative, is directly a result of how the Peopleses and Gilliam treat the idea that the more mass communication we get, the less we have to say to each other: another way that, in this case, following the twisty plot is very much less important to the whole than what the twisty plot is saying about life in the modern world). All the two share is their fatalism, and even that isn't played the same way: La jetée doesn't have the space or, necessarily, the inclination to dabble in the thriller film mechanics that 12 Monkeys uses so well at the end, one of cinema's all-time best expressions of the hoary old time-travel cliché that attempts to change the past end up ensuring the present future. Again, this is a theme of limited utility, but the idea that we are the architects of our own fate, and that we typically do this accidentally and against our conscious desire, certainly isn't and that message gets quite a rewarding, entertaining workout in 12 Monkeys.

Beyond its narrative qualities, and its unabashed embrace of sometimes hokey sci-fi clichés, what 12 Monkeys does best is evoke a sense of tired doom: Gilliam crams the film full of overtly symbolic imagery of end-times predictions past and present (the only part of the film I don't care for: symbolic movie imagery rests ill with me, and this is Gilliam's most symbolic movie by far) that, combined with the ratty design of the future and the eerie sight of a post-apocalyptic Philadelphia, and with the sense of inevitability communicated in the script, gives the movie an overall sense of hopelessness and foreboding. The actors, all of them giving more or less broad performances, fit this sense well: the interplay between Willis and Stowe always accentuates fear and confusion rather than chemistry, and Brad Pitt, in the first really exceptional performance of his career, plays an amazing force of inhuman, antisocial energy, obviously but not ineffectively set off by Gilliam's habit of contrasting him with old MGM cartoons. The capstone to all of it is the hugely effective use of a snippet of neoclassical tango music from Ástor Piazzolla's 1982 Suite Punta del Este as a recurring motif on the soundtrack, sounding like carnival music from hell, and adding just right not of dark comedy to an otherwise mirthless film.

The whole thing is all a bit cultish and genre-ey, but all the things it does, it does very well. It is perhaps the only example of Gilliam making a film without any compromises or interference, and if it's not up to his absolute best work - it never feels personal in a way that his '80s films do - it is still pleasing to see the work of such an uncompromising auteur win out. And it's one of the best-looking and smartest sci-fi films of the modern era, anxious to do its world-building and mind-fucking in service of something a bit more complex than put popcorn in teenage laps.