Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys" (adapted from Chris Marker's short film, "La jetee", by David and Janet Peoples) is perhaps more popular now than during its 1995 release, and that's not to say it failed to win favor at its advent. Both fans and critics granted it praise; co-star Brad Pitt was nominated for a best-supporting actor Oscar. It also furthered Bruce Willis as a steadfast box-office draw and proved that offbeat time-travel tales could rake in the big bucks.
Additionally, "12 Monkeys" has been discovered and revisited by viewers over time (enough so now to have spawned a Syi Fyi Channel series). It's not an upbeat film, but because of its interesting complexities, it joins the ranks of "Planet of the Apes ('68)" and "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" as thought-provoking, cataclysmic entertainment.
The time traveler, in this case, is James Cole (Willis), a temperamental convict, who is transported from 2035 (a desolate time where humans are few and only animals roam without protective gear), back to the '90s, to see if he can detect the early phase of a disease that caused a five-billion-death plague. The problem is, the time-propulsion methods are quirky, and Cole's jaunts rarely precise.
For example, he's to travel to Philadelphia '96, but lands instead in '90. During another jaunt, he's dropped into the French trenches of World War I, only to be extracted and finally delivered to his intended '96 post, but once there, what's he to do? Finding the cause of tragedy isn't an easy task, and so he flounders about, connecting the disease's release to a perceived terrorist group, the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, which spreads its insignia throughout the city.
The group is led by Jeffrey Goines (Pitt): a fidgety guy who Cole initially meets at an asylum, where the two are kept for observation. Unlike Cole, however, who's labeled insane due to his time-travel claims, Goines' real affliction is his excitable, philosophical bents and persistent rebelliousness: reactions to the moral stance of his father (Christopher Plummer), a renowned virology expert.
Cole is befriended by Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), part of a psychology team at the asylum (which includes Frank Gorshin as one of its prominent staff). Railly feels an ineffable connection to Cole, finding his claims strange but compelling. (Spotting his likeness in a WWI photo reinforces her faith in his claims). She adds the love interest to the story, but the couple's bond never distracts from the turmoil.
Cole's mission is further complicated by his memories and dreams, particularly one of an airport scene, where he envisions a harrowing shootout (an element that will figure strongly into events). This reverie, along with unraveling the Twelve Monkeys' actual intent (and yes, there is a twist to it) motives his pursuit (as well as Railly's).
Another character, Dr. Peters (David Morse), an assistant to the elder Goines, also impacts the plot, though his actual purpose isn't exposed until the end.
With some time-travel tales, the implementations lead to changes in once established events (and not always with positive results), such as in Ray Bradbury's "Sound of Thunder"; at other times, such act as a predestined ingredients, as inferred by "Star Trek: Tomorrow is Yesterday". "12 Monkeys" plays upon the latter, but sprinkles it with struggle and despair. In this regard, Gilliam's film isn't so much an essay on time travel (the consequences of trying to alter that which may not be altered), but is rather a study of how many of us try to impact (too often in vain) humankind's progression.
Willis, under Gilliam's somber execution, does an excellent job of invoking empathy and whether our hero succeeds or fails doesn't really matter. That he simply tries to survive his mission makes "12 Monkeys" memorable. It twists the tale with tension, intrigue and above all, forces one to consider one's place in the perplexing configuration of life: a component that many films aspire to attain, but few actually achieve.