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12 Monkeys is a time travel science fiction film from the fertile visual mind of Terry Gilliam, and one of his biggest box office hits. After a string of successes and an undeserved miss or two (most prominently The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) Gilliam scored big by sheer luck. 12 Monkeys producer Charles Roven signed co-star Brad Pitt just before the actor's career went ballistic with Interview with the Vampire. Having Pitt and the popular Bruce Willis on a marquee in 1995 guaranteed box office gold; it almost didn't matter what the movie was.
12 Monkeys is inspired by Chris Marker's fairly obscure 1963 classic La jetée, an incredibly compact, insightful art film / sci-fi / philosophical meditation composed mostly of still images. Future scientists send a man to the past to change an event in the past that led to nuclear war. Janet and David Webb Peoples utilize the basic idea and climactic confrontation from Marker's original as the framework for a Gilliam- friendly story about madness and commitment in the chaos of the modern world.
The new plotline takes a while to become clear. In the year 2035 a remnant of Earth's population lives underground, due to a deadly virus that broke back in 1996. Prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) is selected to be time-projected 41 years into the past to locate a group of terrorists believed to be responsible for the plague, and to bring back a sample of the original pure virus to allow scientists to effect a cure. The terrorists call themselves The 12 Monkeys. "Landing" six years too early, Cole is soon institutionalized for raving about the end of civilization. His psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) becomes intrigued because she thinks she's seen him elsewhere. Cole meets fellow asylum dweller Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a study in nervous, manic tics.
The scientists yank Cole back to 2035 and doubt his claim that he was sent to the wrong year. Another try sends him way back to a French battle trench in 1918, where he's wounded, and finally to the correct month in 1996 to intercept the 12 Monkey gang. Cole kidnaps Kathryn but slowly gains her confidence as she begins to realize that he really comes from the future. Cole also discovers that Jeffrey Goines, now a free man, is the son of Dr. Goines (Christopher Plummer), a bio-lab magnate. Jeffrey also happens to be a member of The 12 Monkeys. Cole and Kathryn, now wanted as fugitive murderers, must find a way to keep 12 Monkeys from wiping out humanity.
It's a good thing that the characters in 12 Monkeys are interesting because it's not much of a time travel story. James Cole flits around like The Time Bandits, or a passenger in Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine (Google it if you must). The coincidences outlined in the synopsis above are also rather convenient.
But any maker of a time travel movie has his work cut out for him. The Gale-Zemeckis Back to the Future movies effectively "used up" most of the best time travel ironies and self-contradictions in a comedy context, leaving few ideas for other dramatists to exploit. Chris Marker had already inspired Alain Resnais' 1968 J'taime, j'taime, a story of a time travel experiment in which Claude Rich goes back several years to attempt to prevent the accidental death of a lost sweetheart. The time warp is achieved in an Altered States- like plastic bubble, where Rich does little more than concentrate his memories. Not surprisingly, the fractured result of his experiment resembles Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad. 12 Monkeys benefits from the fact that most American viewers never heard of those previous French films.
Bruce Willis' Cole is saving the world, not an old girl friend, and his problems are more akin to those suffered by The Man Who Fell to Earth. When nobody believes him he's packed away in a nuthouse, high on meds. Cole becomes convinced that he really is insane, until Kathryn's love puts him back on track. Most of the movie deals with normal thriller situations of evading cops, thugs and creeps in the mean streets of the inner city, etc.
Brad Pitt's hyperactive Jeffrey Goines serves as amusing comic relief, provided if one can get past the feeling that he's simply imitating Dennis Hopper's gonzo photographer in Apocalypse Now. Maybe they consulted the same behavioral tutors. Christopher Plummer has a very small part as the suspicious bio-lab millionaire, while David Morse (Inside Moves) provides a key contribution not likely to be covered in most discussions of the film. Frank Gorshin rolls his eyes beautifully as a cynical asylum doctor.
Terry Gilliam films are always noted for their art direction. The relatively low budget Time Bandits scores with every new special effect. Wildly over-elaborated pictures like Munchausen and Brazil enrich our imagination because of Gilliam's taste and judgment: equally design-dense pictures by other directors often induce headaches. 12 Monkeys is actually light on innovations, as its futuristic 2035 is just more of the electronic/mechanical clutter familiar from earlier Gilliam pictures. Although the characters pretty much fall into clear-cut types, the actors mesh well and Gilliam shapes the performances through judicious editing. The sincerity of Madeleine Stowe takes the rough edges off of Bruce Willis' collection of odd behaviors -- his delight at being able to breathe "clean" 1996 air makes a strong impression. And of course Gilliam has fun with the peripheral characters when possible -- although stiff scientists and asylum personnel have their limitations.
When it finally comes down to solving the puzzle (no spoilers here), we can see that 12 Monkeys is withholding information. Cole's fragmented memory-premonitions of the murder in the airport just happen to withhold key information, like the specific identity of the participants ... you'll understand when you see it. Gilliam assigns a lot of importance to the idea of James Cole also being present as a child, played by Joseph Melito with wide-eyed wonder. The film aims for a warmer human presence than Terry Gilliam's pictures pre- The Fisher King and by and large succeeds.
Universal's handsome Blu-ray disc of 12 Monkeys faithfully reproduces the film's careful textures and color balances. The dull and depressing future is communicated without resort to high grain or desaturated color, timing tricks that are now easily accomplished. Audio is very clear, especially on all those snippets of 20th Century music that James Cole so obviously enjoys.
The lack of fancy new extras is not a problem, as the disc contains The Hamster Factor, the well-known insightful docu on the making of the picture. Gilliam explains early on that after his experiences on previous productions, he thought having a film record of what really happened might be a good idea. The Hamster Factor shows the director being charming but also wailing about his own indecisiveness and insecurities: the effects aren't working, everything's too expensive, the movie in his mind is not the one he seems to be filming. Gilliam openly admits that he's the kind of obsessive that pours on too much detail and then wonders why every scene looks like a 3-ring circus. The docu takes us through the replacement of a key actor and shows the travails of post-production, when the studio seems intent on forcing Gilliam into a cheap finish. Finally, a focus group session comes back with responses that suggest that the film is a total failure. Of course, it goes on to become a tremendous hit.
Producer Charles Roven and Gilliam reflect on the film during a feature commentary that's not bad either. An Archives menu choice leads to galleries of art and stills that don't take advantage of HD detail.
Apologies to swooning fans of Brad Pitt ... if you're among his loyal admirers your enjoyment of 12 Monkeys will surely be much higher.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
12 Monkeys Blu-ray rates:
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