Our review of 12 Monkeys (Blu-Ray), published July 31st, 2009, is also available.
Monkey business kills five billion people in 1996, and the future is history.
Anyone who is into film knows of Terry Gilliam, comedian (of Monty Python fame) turned director. With films such as Brazil, The Fisher King, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam has proven himself to be, in my humble opinion, a tremendously talented director, bringing to film some of the best material of this last decade of the 20th century. In the 1995 film, 12 Monkeys, Gilliam spins a tale of viral apocalypse and time travel, and adds another brick to his edifice of wonderful works.
The story begins in the future, a future where the human race lives underground, forced there to avoid a viral plague that, in 1996, wiped out almost the entire human race. Now they live on borrowed time, failing technology, and in fear of contamination. They send 'volunteers' from the jails out into the world to collect samples to attempt to isolate the virus and find a cure. One of these volunteers is James Cole, played by Bruce Willis (Diehard—parts One to Infinity, The Fifth Element, Pulp Fiction, Armageddon), who proves himself tough and talented. So Cole is recruited to take part in an advanced project where the scientists are sending people back to the past to get samples of the original virus, before it mutated and turned into a holocaust.
Of course, showing up in the past naked and ranting about a viral epidemic tends to land one in a padded room, and Cole is no exception. He finds out that, not only is he in a mental institution and being given Elvis sized doses of tranquilizers, but that his scientist friends have overshot the runway and dropped him in 6 years too early. As someone says, "Science isn't exactly an exact science with these bozos." While in the institute, Cole meets two people, Doctor Railey and Jeffrey Goines. Railey, played by Madeline Stowe (Short Cuts, China Moon, The Last of the Mohicans), is a psychiatrist who specializes in cases who claim to have a knowledge of the future but who are not believed. Goines, played by Brad Pitt (Fight Club, Meet Joe Black), is the son of a famous virologist and is definitely not rowing with all his oars.
What follows is a wonderfully told variation on a pretty classic Sci-Fi tale of "coming unstuck in time" and all of the contradictions that that entails. Cole bounces back and forth in time, as the scientists pull him back to the future, then send him back to the past to continue his work in locating the "Army of the 12 Monkeys," who they believe to be responsible for the viral epidemic. As the plot thickens, Cole begins to believe more and more that he is mad, and Railey more and more that he is telling the truth. Together they attempt to hunt down and stop the Army of the 12 Monkeys. But past and future become looped together in a confused cycle, with cause and effect chasing its own tail until it gets dizzying.
Personally, I think that this is one of the best films every made within the Hollywood system. Only someone like Terry Gilliam could get the bean counters to lay out big bucks to make such an intelligent and beautiful piece of work. Though I'm sure that Gilliam made concessions, it does not pander or hand hold, instead it allows the viewer to figure out what is going on and how the pieces fit together. The story is extremely well done, based very loosely on the small art film La Jetee but much expanded, and has some chilling moments where the past and present unsteadily lurch into sync. Going back and watching it for this review, probably my fifth time, I was still sucked into it without effort and still greatly affected.
One of the greatest feats of directorial daring involved getting superb performances out of Bruce Wills and Brad Pitt, two actors more know for blowin up stuff real good and lookin real perty. Pitt's simulation of a mental patient is both funny and pretty realistic. With a do it yourself hacked up hairdo, and lots of high energy tangential commentary, I think that this is probably his best work. Bruce Willis, long the tough guy, takes on a role at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, and does it well. Madeline Stowe is great as Doctor Railey. Her descent from doctoral condescension to co-conspirator is completely believable.
Visually this film is stunning. The 1.85 anamorphic transfer, on my system at least, is absolutely gorgeous. Though the colors in the sets seem to be purposefully muted, can't have too much fun after the apocalypse and all, they are rendered excellently. Once in a while a little softness enters in, but its a side effect I think of the purposeful overexposure used in some of the dreamier sequences. Gilliam's vision is never too limited by reality, and the underground future sets are quite unique looking and massive. They were filmed in an abandoned power plant.
Though this is not an action film, it does have a 5.1 Dolby Digital track and its used pretty subtly. The vocal content is well recorded and easy to understand.
In the area of extras, this disc contains a pretty extensive behind the scenes documentary about the making of the film. Its a pretty frank look at the madness that is filmmaking. I saw it as a slightly less mad version of the Coppola documentary, Heart of Darkness. The primary thing one comes away with is that Hollywood is completely clueless about true visionary work, subjecting it to a taste test sort of pollster's scrutiny better left to the soft drink wars. There is also a full length commentary by Gilliam and the producer. It wasn't the best I've ever heard but hardly the worst.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have almost nothing bad to say about this disc. The sound track could have been a little more aggressive perhaps. My only complaint about the commentary track is that it occasionally meandered into the politics of the making of the film instead of sticking more with the characters and plot. I much prefer a commentary to delve into the background of the characters, how the actors worked them out, et cetera…
And, there were a couple too many contractually obligatory male butt shots, but whaddya expect with both Willis and Pitt in the same film? Good thing Charlie Sheen was too busy at Heidi's to get a role.
Once again, Terry Gilliam proves that he can deliver a stunning product, even when just working for hire on someone else's script. If you are a science fiction/fantasy fan or liked Gilliam's other work, you owe it to yourself to see this film. Its intelligent story telling, set against the kind of impressive visuals that only Hollywood's bucks can provide, so its a somewhat rare bird. If you want to see Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt doing some really great acting, its also a bit of a rare bird. This is definitely the kind of stuff that reminds me why I buy home theater equipment.
Acquitted with extreme prejudice…get the indirect reference by way of Heart of Darkness, hint hint. Gosh I'm witty sometimes.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary with Director Terry Gilliam and Producer Charles Roven
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