Most of it still holds up well. It hasn’t been that long, but back when it came out, this kind of bleak, apocalyptic film was not quite as prominent as it is today: well, there was Mad Max, Blade Runner, Terminator, Clockwork Orange, Escape From New York, A Boy and His Dog, Soylent Green, and Planet of the Apes, most of which hung out at the edges of the mainstream (Terminator 2 is a big exception) Then, the Matrix came out, 4 years after 12 Monkeys. Now, we are inundated with the pending apocalypse at the movies. (It is compelling how many of the films in this Wikipedia list of post-apocalyptic sci-fi films are either recent or in production). But in 1995, Terry Gilliam was stepping out on a limb (surprise, surprise!) with a downer of a movie that was widely released, and which contained some pretty big-name actors.
The future is not looking bright in 12 Monkeys. Much of the tension in this movie comes from unanswered questions about the origin and purpose of the army of the 12 Monkeys. These questions remain unanswered until the very final moments of the film, which is satisfying in terms of its plot-driven emphasis. This story follows the fiction writer’s rule very religiously: after the climax of the story, go to “The End” as fast as you possibly can; Once you hit the climactic moment of the film, get out.
The acting here is often overly self-conscious – Brad Pitt is mostly fun to watch; he hits many colorful and wild and awkward notes. Bruce Willis (and everyone else for that matter) has a rough script to work with. His character is meant to seem very child-like, and yet his lines are a bit too calculated to believe in his quirky, innocent perspective. By the same token, other lines are plucky while his appearance and manner are both numb and tortured. It is an inconsistent, disconnected mix. Bruce Willis is much more fascinating to watch than he is to listen to. Much of the time, he seems like a drugged-up psyche patient trying to sound like someone from X-files.
The film does a great job of keeping us guessing about how many of the events in the story exist only in Bruce Willis’ head, or whether all of it is the unfolding of a very bleak plot. Is this a story of a dellusional man and his inner turmoil, or is this a story about the end of the world? Either story would be compelling on its own, and both of them are woven together fascinatingly, with Terry Gilliam’s stylistic stamp on just about every scene.