Case Number 16939: Small Claims Court


Universal // 1995 // 130 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 31st, 2009

The Charge

The Future is History.

The Case

12 Monkeys is really a perfect storm of a movie. It has an established star looking to break out of a rut (Bruce Willis), an up-and-coming actor trying to make a name for himself (Brad Pitt), and a notoriously profligate director (Terry Gilliam) coming off the surprise hit The Fisher King and working for the same major studio (Universal) that had so royally screwed him over Brazil a decade ago. The film is a sci-fi-ish excursion into time travel, fate, and humanity based on an idea gleaned from an experimental French filmmaker. It gets better: the film was actually a small hit, making back almost double its budget in U.S. receipts alone. Although I'm continually challenged by Terry Gilliam's vast imagination, I'm not sure even he can compete with the weirdness that sometimes springs forth from Hollywood.

For those just joining the show, 12 Monkeys (Blu-ray) focuses on James Cole (Bruce Willis, Die Hard) in the post-apocalyptic near future. As a prisoner, he's offered a reward if he will go back in time to stop the plague that has ravaged the Earth. He agrees, but he's so stunned by Earth's past (which is roughly contemporary with our reality) that he ends up in a mental institution, where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, Fight Club). As with many time travel narratives, things get rather hazy, but Cole must unravel a plot that involves Jeffrey and a group of ecological terrorists to save humanity's future.

Truth be told, 12 Monkeys is a weird little film, and, unlike most mainstream Hollywood fare, prompts multiple viewings to truly see how well all the narrative bases are covered. It's also a typical Terry Gilliam feature in any number of ways. We have a lone everyman who must try to understand himself and a world which he has little actual control over. We also get Gilliam's typically skewed sense of set design, with intricate machines and odd locations. Finally, the contrast between Cole and Goines seems to embody the split in Gilliam's films and personality. Goines represents the rapid, intuitive, somewhat innocent side that just wants to tell stories and change the world, while Cole represents the tough, economical, driven side of Gilliam that pushes him to strive for perfection in the face of impossible odds.

Although the film is certainly remarkable, I don't think it's Gilliam's best. Unlike some of his other films, it wears its darkness a little too openly, which can be too obvious. Unlike films like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, where the dark, nasty truths of life are only hinted at, 12 Monkeys seems more apocalyptic and more insistently prophetic, and the lack of subtlety I think hurts the film to a certain extent.

This is the fourth release of 12 Monkeys on home video disc, and appears to keep the extras from the Special Edition DVD and the transfer from the HD-DVD. It's very hard to know what to make of the video of this release. Certainly it is a marked improvement in detail to the DVD, but it's still overly soft, smeary, and damaged in some places. Without a Criterion-style Gilliam signature on the case, it's hard to know if this is laziness on Universal's part in cleaning up the negative, or a faithful reproduction of the director's often messy settings and cinematography. The audio, however, is a marked improvement, with the DTS-HD surround track providing a decent amount of directionality couple with clarity in dialogue, effects, and music.

Short of a Chris Marker/Terry Gilliam mashup by Criterion, these extras are about as good as we can ever expect for 12 Monkeys. Gilliam and his producer Charles Roven offer a commentary that includes Gilliam's usual insightful commentary and sly humor, while "The Hamster Factor & Other Tales of 12 Monkeys" offers a very comprehensive look at the making of the film. Finally, we're treated to some art in the "12 Monkeys Archive" and the film's trailer.

12 Monkeys is a film undoubtedly worth owning for fans of weird cinema or Terry Gilliam; however, whether or not to upgrade to Blu-ray on this title is going to depend entirely on a desire for completeness. Owners of the HD-DVD are getting nothing new, and the audiovisual improvement isn't great enough for me to unequivocally recommend an upgrade for owners of the Special Edition DVD. A rental to check the upgrade yourself is probably the safest option.

The Verdict

For providing another fascinating look at our culture, Terry Gilliam and 12 Monkeys are not guilty.

Review content copyright © 2009 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile
Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)

Audio Formats:
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French, Canadian)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish, Castillian)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish, LA)

* English (SDH)
* Danish
* Dutch
* Finnish
* French (Canadian)
* Greek
* Korean
* Mandarin
* Norwegian
* Portuguese
* Spanish (Castilian)
* Spanish (LA)
* Swedish

Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* Commentary
* Documentary
* Art Gallery
* Trailer

* IMDb