Thanks to David and Janet Peoples' script, Terry Gilliam's most mature film to date demands rigorous analysis from the viewer. Add to this the director's grotesquely comic hallmarks, and the resulting film is a complex and rewarding fantasy.
In 1996, a virus kills five billion people. 40 years later, the underground survivors 'volunteer' convict James Cole (Willis) to travel back and study it. Time travel is no exact science and he's initially sent back to 1990, where he's certified insane, then to the trenches of the First World War.
By the time they get it right, he's already met two key figures: psychiatrist Dr Railly (Stowe) and fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Pitt). Son of a prominent biochemist, Goines is suspect number one for spreading the disease, whilst Railly is the only person remotely sympathetic to Cole's delusional paranoia.
When Gilliam invites comparisons with Hitchcock by having the protagonists seek refuge in a screening of "Vertigo", it's apparent that Willis and Stowe are no James Stewart and Kim Novak. Nevertheless, the film is just as beguiling as Hitchcock's study of obsession.
A touching examination of madness compensates for the reprehensible "Cuckoo's Nest" cliché of the sanatorium. Pitt foreshadows his edgy performance in "Fight Club" with his hyperactive activist, but it's Willis who surprises as the ambiguous hero desperate to escape the horrors of destiny.
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