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Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys is that rarest of cinematic beasts: a science fiction film of ideas, where plotting and logic and characterization are more important than special effects and production design. Which is not to say that the film is without those elements--indeed, it has a distinctive look and style, and uses a surprising amount of CGI to bring that world seamlessly to life. But it's not about that stuff, not at all. It's about an ordinary man and his desperate journey, his encounters with madness, and his (perhaps futile) attempts to prevent a catastrophe. And it is about the paradoxes of time travel, which continue to provide fruitful stories for thoughtful filmmakers.
The film begins in the mid-21st century, long after a virus has forced the surviving members of the human race to live underground. Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a convict who is sent to 1996, immediately before the virus' release, on a fact-finding mission. Time-travel technology is apparently not quite perfect, however; he lands in 1990 and ends up in a mental hospital, where he is subjected to the ramblings of fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). He tries to explain his mission to Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe); she doubts him, of course, but his ability to predict future events and seemingly hop around in time eventually convince her that he might be telling that truth, and that they must try to stop the oncoming plague.
The screenplay, by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) and his wife Janet Peoples (inspired by Chris Marker's La Jetée), is tight as a drum; compact and efficient, it doesn't waste a word, unfolding with a nightmarish precision and unfaltering logic. It also manages to traffic in the fascinating concepts of time travel, and the rules and dangers therein, but to do so without breaking the film's considerably fast pace--too often, time travel films stop cold in their tracks while a scientist or philosopher or some other egghead explains the butterfly theory to our hero, using small, easy words. As with all of the expositional information in 12 Monkeys, its notions about changing the future and the Möbius strip of time are imparted as we go, on a need-to-know basis.
But the writers also understand that cool ideas and a time-hopping storyline don't amount to much more than narrative glitter if the audience doesn't have compelling characters to latch on to. James Cole is a genuinely interesting creation--we know little about him (not even why he's in that caged-up prison to begin with), but we care about him; Gilliam directs Bruce Willis in a way that both trades on our preconceived notions of his heroic screen personality, and subverts them. This film was a bold and potentially risky play for the actor (even following his first toe-dipping into the waters of independent cinema with Pulp Fiction the year before), but his gamble pays off--he's seldom been better in a picture. Free of vanity and his usual bag of actor's tricks, his performance is simultaneously controlled and unpredictable, and imbued with a startling sensitivity; watch the look on his face as he pleads with Dr. Railly to turn up her car radio ("Can you turn this up? Can you make this louder?") and listens to a recording of "Blueberry Hill" with sheer pleasure.
Madeline Stowe is an actor I've never harbored much enthusiasm for (her interesting film work is pretty much encompassed by this film and Short Cuts), but she's very good here, projecting her intellectual resistance, and ultimate yielding, to Cole's story (seizing and playing the intermediate beats between). Here, again, the ingenious script shines through--watch the clever way it flip-flops their motivations, to a point near the end where she not only believes Cole, but is trying to talk him into believing all of the things that he had to convince her of. As fast-talking Jeffrey, Pitt comes on like gangbusters; 1995 was the year he set out to subvert the pretty-boy presence he'd established in A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall, first by chopping his golden locks and appearing in the Fincher's neo-nihilist opus Seven, then slapping in some creepy contacts and seemingly channeling Dennis Hopper (specifically in Apocalypse Now) for his inspired, scene-stealing supporting role, which nabbed him an Oscar nomination.
As it hurtles toward its seemingly inevitable conclusion, Gilliam compliments the considerable narrative momentum with Hitchcock lifts (and an homage shot) before landing at his tremendously successful airport climax, which is so skillful, it even manages to pull off that old chestnut of the gradually-revealed flashback. This could very well be Gilliam's finest work to date, better even than Brazil (which is magnificent, yes, but also overblown and overcooked and, sorry, a little too damned long). As with The Fisher King, Gilliam worked on 12 Monkeys as a hired gun, and it seems that when he works with material he hasn't penned himself, he's less likely to go overboard with his little indulgences. Which is not to say that it doesn't still look and feel like a Gilliam picture; it's visually arresting, with an ugly, cluttered future (reminiscent of Brazil), and he trots out Dutch angles, wide-angle lenses, herky-jerky camera moves, blown-out light levels, and busy, crowded frames en masse. But 12 Monkeys is all of a piece in a way that his films sometimes fail to be--with a strong cast and a whiz-bang screenplay to augment his distinctive visual style, this is looking and more and more like Gilliam's masterpiece.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Universal's 50GB Blu-ray presents 12 Monkeys in full 1080p utilizing the VC-1 codec. The disc appears to utilize the same transfer as the 2006 HD-DVD--somewhat flawed, but more than acceptable. The film was never intended to blow viewers away with its intense saturation and razor-sharp images--Gilliam and cinematographer Roger Pratt use a drab color palatte and diffused lenses to create a hazy, uncertain atmosphere. Therefore, some of the shots here are noticeably soft, and it doesn't have the visual pop that Blu buyers are frequently looking for. It also suffers from occasional dirt and specks (most clearly seen against the pure white snow in the opening scenes), and the black levels are occasionally muddy and noisy (particularly in the second act's dark car scenes). But those flaws are fleeting, while contrast and detail work throughout (particularly the chipped paint of the walls and bars at the mental institution) is impeccable.
12 Monkeys boasts an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that is superb--hushed and mysterious but never inaudible in quiet scenes, vivid and immersive in more active environments (such as a jail scene, the noisy institution, and a wholly unexpected WWI battle sequence). Directional effects are strong throughout, especially during a brief scene at a zoo, while the startling crack of an important (and repeated) gunshot is modulated to just the right shock volume.
Viewers can also choose from Spanish, French, Italian, and Castilian Spanish 5.1 mixes, as well as no less than 14 subtitle options.
Universal has fortunately ported over all of the excellent extras from the previous standard-def and HD-DVD versions of 12 Monkeys. First up is an Audio Commentary by director Gilliam and producer Charles Roven. Gilliam's commentaries are always a treat, and this one is no exception; funny and informative, the track allows his considerable passion for filmmaking (and skill at telling a good, wry story) to shine through, while Roven acts as a fine counterpoint and occasional foil.
The pièce de résistance, however, is "The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys" (1:27:35), a feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who later made Lost in La Mancha, the fascinating doc detailing the slow-motion car-wreck production of Gilliam's aborted The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (that film was originally intended to be, like this one, a mere DVD supplement). Shot on grubby, handheld, full-frame video, "The Hamster Factor" is an exhaustively detailed and thoroughly entertaining all-access supplement that begins during Gilliam's promo tour and then jumps back to the start of production in 1994. It explains Gilliam's run-up to the film and hesitations about taking it on (he fought a notoriously public fight with the film's studio, Universal, a decade earlier over Brazil) before showing read-throughs, rehearsals, and footage of all phases of production. There's some great footage of Pitt doing research by developing his character's speech patterns with a doctor, while we get to see some wonderful on-set byplay between Willis and the director. We also follow the film through post-production and fine-tuning, including marketing and test screenings (there's a very funny piece where Gilliam is reading the survey, and horrifying footage of a moron focus group being polled), right up to the release. Fulton and Pepe's cameras captured some wonderfully candid moments and came up with one of the best portraits this reviewer has ever seen of exactly how a film is made in today's studio system.
Next is the film's original Theatrical Trailer (2:25). It's a skillful, effective teaser--you can see how Universal managed to sell such a potentially uncommercial film. "12 Monkeys Archive" is an odd gallery of barely explained images (design sketches, location photos, storyboards, and the like), and while there's some good stuff there, it's an oddly dry presentation (there's no music or narration) with, unfortunately, no active navigation options. The chapter skip and shuttle forward buttons are disabled, so if you start the thing, you just have to sit all the way through it. That little glitch is one area that certainly could have benefitted with a fix for this new edition.
The disc is also BD-Live Enabled, though the only BD-Live content available at the time of this writing were trailers for other Uni releases.
I saw 12 Monkeys in its first weekend of wide release back in January of 1996 and have viewed it countless times since; even with a more critical eye, on this most recent viewing I still can't find a single thing wrong with it. Gilliam's cockeyed vision of a dystopian future and a present careening towards insanity remains riveting, essential viewing, and while the image quality is less than perfect, this is still a catalog Blu that's well worth picking up.
Jason lives in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.