Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Universal, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French DD 5.1, subtitles: Spanish, French, single side-dual layer, 44 chapters, rated R, 130 min., $34.98, street date 3/31/98.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Supporting Actor-Brad Pitt, Best Costume Design, 1996.
Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer.
James Cole arrives at a mental hospital, claiming to be a time traveler from the year 2035. His mission: to save humanity from a killer virus that will devastate the future world population. A beautiful psychiatrist initially classifies Cole as delusional, but she soon joins him in an adventure that will take them to the limits of human comprehension. As they race to unravel the secret of the 12 Monkeys, their paths cross with a one-card-short-of-a-full-deck mental patient and a renowned scientist. Before long, Cole begins to question his own sanity in a chaotic world that offers many quesitons, but few answers. With unforgettable performances and imaginative special effects, 12 Monkeys is a modern-day classic laced with director Terry Gilliam's trademark wit and dazzling style.
One nice thing about special edition DVDs is the unusual information you can glean from them. Take the case of Terry Gilliam's 1995 hit, 12 Monkeys. Based on a viewing of this film, you'd think it was a Gilliam project all the way. After all, it shares a lot in common with his previous efforts, especially in its connection with 1985's Brazil; in many ways, 12 Monkeys comes across as almost a remake of that effort. (Okay, it's actually quite different, but I still felt that the same theme and spirit were at work.)
And yet, it turns out that Gilliam was just "part of the team" for 12 Monkeys. Unlike most of his prior films, Gilliam came on as a "hired hand" for this film and wasn't involved in the writing of it. He's just interpreting other people's work and not getting himself involved.
Or so he'd have you believe. Gilliam is far too original and distinctive an artist to ever be a sidehand in the way he describes. Whatever he does, no matter the origin, he will put his stamp on it, and 12 Monkeys is no exception. Despite its formation by others, it's now a Terry Gilliam work, and that's all there is to it.
And it's a pretty good one, too, though I felt the vague disappointment that seems to greet me at the end of every Gilliam film save Brazil. Gilliam's problem is that he's so talented he can never quite live up to expectations. Also, he shoots so high and tosses so much into the mix that inevitably something won't work well and the overall project will suffer.
Still, better to have a film that's mainly excellent with some rough spots than one that's consistently mediocre. 12 Monkeys is a solid and intriguing film and one that definitely invites rescreenings.
12 Monkeys also showcases two of the more adventurous big name actors in Hollywood, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Willis is an easy target, with his tough guy image and his hotcha ex-wife and his Planet Hollywood link, so it's easy to forget how many risks he takes. The man easily could have done an Arnie and simply repeated the same performance again and again, but he hasn't done so; he's appeared in a wide variety of films, even though the public tends only to notice the ones like Armageddon or Die Hard. It'll be curious to see if the amazing success of The Sixth Sense does anything to change that, especially since it's the highest grossing film in which he's appeared.
Although he plays something of an action hero in 12 Monkeys, the role definitely counts as a departure from Willis's stereotypical image. For one, his James Cole drools a lot more than the average Willis creation. Pitt also goes off in a different way as nutbag Jeffrey Goines, though a study of his credits reveals something interesting. Before I wrote this article, I felt that Willis had been less daring in his roles than had Pitt, but that turns out not to be true; Pitt hasn't gone out on as many limbs as I believed. Granted, some of this may be due to the fact Willis has made a lot more movies since he became a star, but even so, Pitt's risk factor seems lower than I thought.
Still, I have to give him credit for getting into movies like 12 Monkeys and Fight Club; the man easily could have settled for a stultifying career of hunky roles. 12 Monkeys provides his showiest part, and also the one for which he's received the most critical attention; Pitt got an Oscar nomination for it. Unfortunately, I don't think it's an especially fine performance. Pitt goes way over the top and becomes a mass of mannerisms; it's an act, but it ain't acting. To see Pitt actually thoroughly inhabit a role and bring it to life, you'd have to see Seven; that's the film for which he should have been nominated.
Since that film came out the same year, it prevents 12 Monkeys from even being the best Pitt movie of 1995, but it's still a very good picture. Terry Gilliam may be incapable of making a dull movie (though I haven't seen Fear and Loathing, so I can't say for certain), and 12 Monkeys is one of his better efforts. It ain't Brazil, but what is?
12 Monkeys appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the picture looks completely adequate but not terrific in any way.
Sharpness seems consistently pretty good throughout the movie; I wouldn't call it "razor sharp," but it doesn't appear soft either. Some slight examples of jagged edges show up from time to time, but these are very minor and seem negligible. The print used for the transfer looks reasonably good; I saw occasional speckles and spots, but not many.
Going for a rather glum view of the world as he does, one wouldn't expect Gilliam to populate 12 Monkeys with many bright colors, and one would be correct in that assumption. Hues are quite subdued but them seem largely accurate and stable. Black levels appear good, and shadow detail looks fine. The film provides a perfectly acceptable but rather "ho-hum" image; I could find little reason to give it a grade lower than a "B", but I nonetheless felt sort of like I was overrating it.
12 Monkeys features a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Overall, it's pretty good, though also not spectacular. Quality seems fairly solid, with clear, intelligible dialogue and smooth music. Effects generally sound clean and natural, but some distortion tends to creep into the mix on louder occasions; actually, the dialogue even crackles a small amount at times.
The movie provides a very strong forward soundstage. The front channels offer some nice stereo separation and seem appropriately broad and localized. Not a lot of panning occurs between the speakers, but when it does, it sounds decent. The rear channels tend to provide more ambient audio and don't usually feature a lot of action, though there are some instances when important information - even some dialogue - comes from the rears. The audio mix for 12 Monkeys seems perfectly solid and acceptable.
The 12 Monkeys Collector's Edition DVD actually started its life as a $130 laserdisc production that came out back in 1997. It appears that this product duplicates all of that package's supplements, and quite a collection it is!
First up is a terrific 86 minute documentary called "The Hamster Factor & Other Tales of 12 Monkeys". Gilliam is a filmmaker who finds it almost impossible to act fake or phony, and this piece follows in that mold. It's a "warts and all" program that doesn't shy away from showing the conflict that accompanies the making of a film (especially when someone as proudly stubborn as Gilliam helms it). While the documentary could have offered a broader outlook - we hear many interviews from participants but virtually none from the actors - I still found it to be a fantastically compelling piece of work.
Also very intriguing is the running audio commentary from Gilliam and producer Charles Roven. Gilliam again brings his outspoken and forceful self to this track, though Roven surprisingly holds his own. (Actually, it's not as surprising once you've seen Roven in the documentary; he seems able to hold his own.) It's an excellent commentary that provides a great deal of interesting information in an efficient and entertaining manner. Gilliam is an awfully entertaining speaker, and Roven brings a lot to the table as well; I really expected Gilliam to completely dominate, but that's not the case. 12 Monkeys isn't his best film, but this may be Gilliam's best commentary.
One expansive feature is called the "12 Monkeys Archive". This still-frame piece offers about 235 frames of material. We find logo designs, costume drawings, production photos, continuity photos (Polaroids taken on the set to ensure the actors' appearance remains consistent), storyboards, poster designs, and some location scouting snapshots. It's a little awkwardly presented and can be somewhat difficult to access at times, but the wealth of information is quite comprehensive and interesting.
12 Monkeys offers two sets of production notes. One text appears on the DVD itself and provides many screens worth of information that mainly focusses on the sets and locations and other technical details. Briefer notes can be found in the booklet; these are more general in nature. Both sets feature some good information and are worth a look.
Finally, two DVD standbys appear on 12 Monkeys. We get the film's theatrical trailer and also find biographies for the four main actors (Willis, Stowe, Pitt and Christopher Plummer); these listings are basic and mildly worthwhile.
Is there any reason not to buy a copy of the 12 Monkeys DVD? I can't think of any. It's a very compelling and provocative film that's presented with very good picture and sound. The supplements are quite wonderful and something of a steal considering the original price of this set on laserdisc. 12 Monkeys is a slam-dunk; add this one to your collection.
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