12 Monkeys (1995)

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By Scott Ross

Terry Gilliam is, pace Steven Spielberg, the most gifted and audacious fantasist working in movies today. Among other wonders, his movies fulfill the basic requirement for successful flights of fancy, as Harlan Ellison once defined it: They take you to a place you’ve never been, and show you things you’ve never seen.

With 12 Monkeys, Gilliam and his screenwriters, David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, posit a frighteningly conceivable future precipitated by a “Hot Zone”-like epidemic. Hoping to retroactively avert the worldwide disaster that has made the outside world uninhabitable, scientists from the future attempt to send a hapless convict (Bruce Willis) back to our present but keep over-, and under-, shooting their mark. And that’s just the beginning.

The dazzling juxtaposition of past and present, the enigmatic dream sequences, the recurrent use of the haunting, eerie Astor Piazzola tango on the soundtrack, and the riveting Willis performance make this a stunning exercise on every level. Lost on home viewing, however, is Gilliam’s brilliant, multi-layered sound design, which in the theater seemed to not merely surround the viewer, but to float from back to front and side-to-side.

Watch this, in tandem with Gilliam’s great, sad, wildly funny meditation on a different (but equally fascistic) future, Brazil, and marvel at this former Python’s manifold and completely original brilliance as a fantasist.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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