Saturday, November 10, 2018

12 Monkeys (1995)

Director: Terry Gilliam
Notable Cast: Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeline Stowe, Christopher Plummer, David Morse, Jon Seda, Christopher Meloni, Frank Gorshin, Vernon Campbell, Lisa Gay Hamilton

Time travel movies can, in a broader sense, be sticky. More often than not for them to work, the film either has to completely disregard trying to make sense and just plow through with its gimmicks or it has to make any plot holes irrelevant to the narrative. When it comes to a film like 12 Monkeys, it’s the sense of style and strange quirkiness to its proceedings that allows it to move above and beyond the normal trappings of the time travel focused science fiction flick. This late 90’s cult classic from the iconic Terry Gilliam is able to find that right balance between artistry and consumption, humor and horror, and the line between tongue-in-cheek and dramatic heft. Quite frankly, despite being one of the last (only?) true studio productions for the British director, it inherently features all of his style, but in a more packaged and easier to swallow product. It’s an effective combination. On top of being a brilliant film, this latest Blu Ray release for 12 Monkeys is a welcome upgrade for fans. It’s packed with features to add even more commentary and substance to the off beat and unique film and its context.

As the tagline indicates, the future might be history, but 12 Monkeys is, at this point, a culmination of both. To try and distill the entire plot would be slightly maddening and it would dilute most of the impact of experiencing its narrative unfold for the uninitiated viewer, but regardless, here’s the basics. 12 Monkeys tells the story of a man from the future, Cole played with a relatively subdued but not sleepwalking yet performance from Bruce Willis, who is sent to the past to investigate a terrorist organization known as the 12 Monkeys that future leaders believe to be the culprits behind unleashing a world ending virus. The film is told in spurts, often crisscrossing its own time lines (some to devastating effect and some in strangely humorous ways), to unveil the narrative of a man that is seeing both the future and the past at essentially the same time. He meets a psychiatrist (Stowe) and the son of a wealthy businessman (Brad Pitt) and their interactions will help shape the future that Cole knows, but hardly understands.

What makes this time leaping narrative more effective now is that its future starts in our already distant past of 1996, which almost adds to the Gilliam-esque dark humor to its tale. The plot points of terrorism, misunderstanding the identity of the true villains, and how one’s actions in the past may affect the future in unseen ways are all relevant themes that work, if not better, in a world that becomes increasingly discombobulated and blurry. Gilliam’s ability to blend the fantastical with a sense of belief in the events is the core to how it works, despite its continually spiraling narrative. The future is as foreign to us in concept in design as the logic of the past is to Cole’s character, who continually just praises the air he breaths and weeps at being able to hear music. This duality is effective in creating a fairy tale like tone, where the morals of the narrative are connected with the realizations that both Cole and the audience experience as the film unfolds. It never fully adheres to any one true genre, although it’s often referred to as science fiction, and it doesn’t hesitate to add in romantic subtext, dark humor, and fantasy. This tonality is a Gilliam specialty and 12 Monkeys has it in spades, even if the film has an intentionally subdued hand in bombarding its audience with the deigns and oddities of its story.

Despite being a film that very effectively fits into the strange genre blending most of Gilliam’s filmography, 12 Monkeys is also a film that retains a decidedly mainstream feel for the director. Most of this has to do with the casting in the film. As mentioned above, Bruce Willis takes a wild turn away from the action hero he had become through most of the late 80s and 90s and plays a broken man, fairly impressively might I add, and the great supporting cast adds to it. While Stowe adds a lot of nuance to the film, essentially playing the main narrative connection for the audience as she learns the plot and falls into Cole’s story, it’s ultimately Brad Pitt that steals most of this film. Of the three “main” characters, his is the least relevant to the overall narrative, but, man, does he steal this film. With his manic energy, wandering eye, and anti-Brad Pitt performance, he makes a stunning secondary character devour scenery and his performance only adds to the tone of the film. Even with this, this kind of casting adds to its mainstream appeal and does push the film in that direction.

As an icing on the proverbial cake, this latest Arrow Video release of 12 Monkeys is – at this point – the definitive release of the film. The Blu Ray contains a lot of previously released material, along with a feature length documentary and an audio commentary by Gilliam, but the new 4K scan is perhaps the best part. This is a huge step up from the other Blu Ray release. The film has a soft dreamlike feel to a lot of it, which does tend to play against the detailing of a 4K release, but nonetheless the film looks spectacular.

Although Terry Gilliam has produced a slew of cult classics (and well-regarded wholesale cinematic masterpieces) in his filmography, 12 Monkeys remains one of his more overlooked films by fans due to its slightly more mainstream approach. However, the fact remains that he still crafted one of the iconic genre films of the 90s in this science fiction genre bender that maximizes the use of its cast and its tone. While the time travel aspect does certainly have its nuances that many may pick apart, the fantastical tone and morality of its plotting and narrative handedly make up for some of its flaws. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and experience the future and the past with this film. It’s well worth it.


  • Brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original negative by Arrow Films, approved by director Terry Gilliam
  • Optional DTS 5.1 Master Audio and 2.0 stereo soundtracks
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Audio commentary by Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven
  • The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, feature-length making-of documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (Lost in La Mancha)
  • The Film Exchange with Terry Gilliam, a 1996 interview with Gilliam and critic Jonathan Romney, recorded at the London Film Festival
  • Brand-new appreciation by Ian Christie, author of Gilliam on Gilliam
  • The Twelve Monkeys Archives
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Nathan Rabin and archive materials

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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