The movie is a fever dream right from the opening shot of the eyes of a young boy, seeing someone get shot. This turns out to be a dream of James Cole (Bruce Willis), who lives in what's possibly a prison in a dystopian underground future. But soon he's back in 1990, and shortly ends up under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). And it's a very long time before you have any certainty if the future Cole thinks he comes from might be real. But if it is, Cole knows that 5 billion people will die of a virus released in 1996 - he believes he's helping to track down that virus.
It includes a number of very Gilliamesque elements, but most notable are the surreal images and the distorted faces of the "scientists." But where this movie succeeds - and some of his other movies have failed - is in drawing you into the world of the protagonist. Willis was known for "Die Hard" at the time, and doing an unstable character like Cole was a massive change for him - he carries it well. And Brad Pitt was similarly doing a radically different character than he'd ever played before, playing the completely off-the-cams Jeffry Goins (brilliantly, I might add). Stowe is very good too. And the combination with Gilliam's eternally feverish imagery is something that will take you to a horrible dystopia that's probably your own world and leave you stunned, trying to figure out what happened.
Gilliam claims in the director's commentary that they created the "Inspired By" header: at the beginning of the movie, it says "Inspired by Chris Marker's 'La Jetée.'" It's a phrase I've come to loathe as it often means "bears no relationship to." But in this case, I totally get it: Gilliam pushed the studio to include it when they weren't going to put in any reference at all. Which would be a shame, as this movie was definitely inspired by "La Jetée," and I hope that others will end up doing as I did and watching the original, which is both incredibly strange and deeply affecting.
Gilliam's best work, and a fantastic movie.