DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

12 Monkeys, Blu-ray (1995/2009)

Willis and Pitt shine in this dark apocalyptic sci-fi mystery/thriller/romance/tragedy.

Published on July 26, 2009

12 Monkeys, Blu-ray (1995/2009)

12 Monkeys, Blu-ray (1995/2009)

Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeleine Stowe, Christopher Plummer
Studio: Universal 6110389 [Release date: July 28, 09]

Video: 1.85:1 for 16:9 1080p HD
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French Canadian, Castilian Spanish, LA Spanish, Italian DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, French Canadian, Italian, Castilian Spanish, LA Spanish, Korean, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, Greek, Traditional Mandarin
Extras: (all 480p & DD 2.0) Commentary track with Terry Gilliam and Producer Charles Roven, “The Hamster Factor & Other Tales of 12 Monkeys.” 12 Monkeys Archives, BD Live
Length: 2 hours 10 minutes
Rating: *****

While somewhat depressing with its dystopian environments in both the future and the past, 12 Monkeys is probably second only to Gilliam’s sci-fi masterpiece Brazil as a great and highly original sci-fi movie. (Of course Fisher King was also a hit though not sci-fi.) It is somehow surprising that he bought into the Hollywood scene at Universal for this one after his terrible earlier experience with Brazil. The basic script for provided by the studio. It was inspired by the classic Chris Marker B&W short La Jetée – expanding it into a whole universe made possible by the $29 million studio investment (although the documentary includes complaints about the difficulties of achieving Gilliam’s imaginative vision on such a limited budget). I was surprised the extras failed to include La Jetée, which would have seemed a natural for the Blu-ray edition. (It’s available from Criterion Collection.)

There was a terrible viral epidemic in 1996 which wiped out most of earth’s population except for a few who live a squalid underground existence in 2035, trying to send volunteers back in time to 1996 to discover exactly how the virus was distributed, to find a cure for it so life can return to the surface of the earth again. The gadgets of the interrogation room and other equipment of the future world share some of the design of technology used in Brazil – being a weird combination of Victorian-era clockwork and tiny B&W video tubes. Willis’ character is a supposedly violent criminal who is promised a pardon if he is successful getting a pure sample of the original virus. The future world’s Rube Goldbergish time machine is rather haphazard and the first time he is sent to 1990 instead of 1996, and the second time suffers a bullet wound in his leg in a WWI battle in l918 on his way to the proper month just before the virus in l996. He has a relationship with a female psychiatrist who at first believes him delusional but if finally convinced he is from the future and that they met before.

His first foray to the past gets him quickly incarcerated in a mental hospital due to his ranting about the upcoming apocalypse – the organization behind it hasn’t even appeared as yet because he is six years too early. In the hospital he is befriended by the completely wacky son of a famous medical researcher who works with monkeys and from whom the actual deadly virus is stolen. Brad Pitt was nominated for an Oscar for his very believable role (which probably primed him for a similar but only-slightly-more-sane role in the recent Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading). But Willis may offer the best dramatization of his career as his character. He is fighting the drugs he is given in the hospital and the effects of his time travel, and eventually convinces himself that he really is mentally ill as the doctors insisted, and the time travel and apocalypse danger is all in his head.  (The focus on the division between sanity and madness is also a theme in The Fisher King.)

One of the many snafus Gilliam (originally the animator and only American member of Monty Python) suffered in making Brazil was that the studio insisted on editing the film with a happy ending – against all logic and sense. Well, with 12 Monkeys I always had the impression it also had a tragic ending, with Willis not being able to avert the virus being released. He’s not able – but in the documentary in the extras Gilliam explains that the final scene in the film – showing the actual lab assistant who distributes the virus sitting on a plane next to the doctor from the future underground world – indicates that she will obtain the pure virus, take it to 2035 and find a cure so that life can again return to the surface of the earth. I was wondering how in the world she will do that, since she has no protective plastic suit as Willis did when he time-traveled, and the warnings given before that trip were that if the suit was compromised on the return of the volunteers, they would not be re-admitted to the underground world. There is also an earlier scene of the lab person opening one of the virus vials as demanded at airport security, and neither he nor the guard appear affected in any way.  Perhaps the stringencies of working with an insufficient budget caused corners to be cut in the concluding portions of the film.

The transfer looks great, though it’s unfortunate the interesting documentary on the making of the film is just in standard resolution. The commentary track by Gilliam and his producers is said to be very informative, though I frankly hadn’t time to view the whole film again with it.

 - John Sunier




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