12 Monkeys Review

Even though he’s a U.S native, I like to see Terry Gilliam as being an English eccentric who happens to have been born in Minneapolis. Not that the inhabitants of Minnesota don’t include worthy idiosyncratic artists by the bucketload, to be sure, but there’s something about Gilliam’s madcap ingenuity, his dark humour and ability to pick out humdrum detail in the midst of colossal visions, that puts him, in my estimation, in a line of very British nuts that includes Douglas Adams, Michael Powell and Gerald Scarfe. Gainsayers note, he has taken British citizenship...

Geographical musings aside, Gilliam is a brilliant iconoclast and something of a hero for individualists of any background. In a film-making environment that conspires to crush every ounce of unpredictability and uncertainty out of the films it produces, his work is consistently unorthodox, imaginative and challenging, weaving complex narratives, eschewing traditional plot devices and frequently leaving the viewer with an ending that is either depressingly downbeat or bracingly cynical, depending on your point of view. This approach has yielded a string of fantastic, darkly comic films including ‘Time Bandits’, ‘The Fisher King’ and his masterpiece ‘Brazil’ (the latter got him into big trouble with the studio, Universal, as anyone who has seen the Criterion documentary ‘The Battle of Brazil’ will know). Would that the stars had aligned and he’d been allowed to direct the first of the ‘Harry Potter’ films, as J. K. Rowling is alleged to have wanted. Sigh.

‘12 Monkeys’ sees Gilliam tackling time travel, complex paranoiac fantasies, secret terrorist organisations and global destruction … all run of the mill stuff then.

2035. Earth. A deadly virus has killed almost all of humanity. The survivors shelter underground and make occasional forays to the surface to try and discover more about the fatal global pandemic. One such ‘volunteer’ is James Cole (Willis), whose skill at retrieving data leads to him being selected by the authorities for a special mission: to go back in time to the year 1996 – when the virus struck – and discover where it came from. However, Cole is sent back to 1990 by mistake and ends up in a psychiatric hospital assigned to sympathetic doctor Kathryn Railly (Stowe) and listening to the counterculture ravings of lunatic inmate Jeffrey Goines (Pitt).

Snatched back to 2035, Cole reports to the scientific authorities, who send him back to the past primed with information about a mysterious renegade organisation called the Army of the 12 Monkeys, which they believe may be the source of the killer virus. In 1996, Cole kidnaps Railly and forces her to accompany him to the headquarters of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, which turns out to be an animal rights organisation led by Goines, whose father is the distinguished virologist Dr Goines (Plummer). As Cole continues leaping back and forth through time, Railly becomes convinced that he is telling the truth and joins him in a desperate struggle to save the human race…

Having already established the fact that I love Gilliam and view him as little less than a visionary genius and anti-establishment icon to be revered for all time, I can safely confess that I didn’t like ‘12 Monkeys’ very much when I first saw it. It’s frankly beyond me how it went on to become the most commercially successful of his films, as its plot is extremely complex, with jarring time distortions and huge narrative leaps, and it offers little in the way of reassurance. Was it Willis’ star power? An audience eager to see their semi-conscious fears of infection actualised in the ‘safe’ form of a bizarre sci-fi drama (‘Outbreak’ came out the same year)? Or is it simply that, as I’ve come to realise upon watching it a second and third time for this review, it’s a brilliantly made, compulsively watchable film that rattles along at a furious pace and never lets up for a minute of its two hour plus running time? Who knows. At any rate, I’m grateful it was successful as it allowed Gilliam to continue working and that can only be a good thing (although, as ‘Lost in La Mancha’ proved, the film-making process has not got any easier for him). One awaits the coming ‘The Brothers Grimm’ with baited breath.

The sheer volume of detail in Gilliam’s work means that his films always require repeated viewings and ‘12 Monkeys’ is no exception. From its opening title, a hypnotic mandala of swirling red monkeys rotating endlessly like blood pulsing down a vein, the movie abounds in unsettling and striking images that seem to have leapt directly from Gilliam’s addled imagination. Angels hoisted aloft in a shopping centre. Bums cavorting around fires in the bowels of an abandoned theatre. Giraffes galloping down a freeway. It’s testament to the quality of the team that Gilliam works with that the extraordinarily diverse palette of impressions in ‘12 Monkeys’ always comes across as being composite parts of a unified whole and not simply an attractive mess. Credit must go to writers David and Janet Peoples, who took Chris Marker’s 1962 nouvelle vague photo movie ‘La Jetée’ as the inspirational seed for their screenplay. Regular Gilliam cohort Roger Pratt does a terrific job of bringing his twisted visions crisply to the screen. Production designer Jeffrey Beecroft has to be singled out for creating a superb series of environments – the futuristic post-apocalyptic subterranean dwelling place of humanity in ‘12 Monkeys’ reminded me of another famous sci-fi film of recent times; looking at the prevalence of crinkling synthetic material, the gaunt, pale faces and the ubiquitous video monitors, it’s hard to believe that certain key personnel on ‘The Matrix’ weren’t heavily influenced by the terrific design work on ‘12 Monkeys’. The only aspect of the production that didn’t quite gel for me was the use of Astor Piazzolla as the film’s title theme. Argentine tango as the musical frontspiece to a time-travelling sci-fi epic? A bridge too far, I feel.

What also becomes clearer on seeing the film several times is the strength of the performances. The emotional core of the film is in Cole and Railly’s flight across the US. The bizarre plotline demands the actors sustain a manic balancing act between tragedy and comedy for virtually the entire second half of the film and it’s to the credit of Stowe and Willis that they pull it off. Willis in particular is remarkably affecting. In one scene where Cole is overcome with feeling on hearing a song on the radio he betrays a kind of ecstatic abandon that I honestly didn’t think was in him. Stowe, a tragically underused actress, could scarcely be more perfect for the part, her almost forbidding patrician beauty masking a keen intelligence and great reserves of empathy. Pitt gets to have great fun as the raving Jeffrey, a role that in some ways seems like a dress rehearsal for his similarly driven, although less maniacal turn as Tyler Durden. Of course, it’s typical of Gilliam’s counter-intuitive genius to cast the swoonsome, ‘sexiest man alive’ Brad Pitt as a hyperactive gibbering psychotic and smirking action hero Bruce Willis as a haunted, maudlin loner. Their scenes together are extremely strong in the film, precisely because Willis plays the straight man to Pitt’s lunatic fireworks instead of competing with him. Pitt garnered his only nom from the Academy (thus far) for his work in ‘12 Monkeys’ and snaffled a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor while Willis, unfairly I thought, got zip. Ah, such is the life of a megastar.

Special Features
The Special Features are made up of the Commentary, the documentary 'The Hampster Factor', 12 Monkeys archives, Production Notes and the Theatrical Trailer.

The commentary with Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven is excellent. There’s the usual mix of amiable banter and tales from filming (as an April Fool's prank, Gilliam and Pitt pretended to have a massive on-set fight, which turned out a little more authentic than Pitt had expected) as well as the – apparently inevitable, with Gilliam – struggles with the studio. At times it falls into an impromptu interview between Rove and Gilliam, with the producer asking the director about his film-making style and the director comparing the differing way directors and cinematographers work together on either side of the Atlantic. Gilliam’s unusually wide frame of reference and the obvious rapport between the two men make this a consistently entertaining and informative track.

The big extra on this disk, however, is the hour and half long ‘making of’ documentary ‘The Hampster Factor and other tales of 12 Monkeys’. Gilliam wanted someone to make a Hi-8 documentary of the making of ‘12 Monkeys’ and the job fell to Philadelphia film school students Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. It’s a fascinating look at the creation of the film, which, like all Gilliam projects, turns out very different in the end to how it was initially imagined. Gilliam’s work method encourages a non-hierarchical, collaborative approach; he’s extremely receptive to ideas from actors or pretty much anyone, it seems (or as he puts it in the commentary “I say yes or no to everyone’s ideas and in the end take credit for all of them!”). With such a dynamic, intuitive filmmaker, the creative process is always going to be interesting and Fulton and Pepe were granted more or less unrestricted access to the film’s construction.

It begins with a brief summation of Gilliam’s latter career – the ‘Brazil’ wrangle, the success of ‘The Fisher King’ and so forth – done in the kind of scissors-and-paste style graphics that Gilliam himself produced during the Python years and then follows the film’s evolution, from casting, set construction and filming through to editing, the agonising testing (the movie didn’t do well in screenings) and its eventual multimillion dollar triumph. The documentary's title is co-producer Lloyd Phillips’s term for Gilliam’s occasional habit of focusing obsessively on a minor artistic detail to the exclusion of all else. It’s evinced by a particular episode during the filming of ‘12 Monkeys’ when he took an entire day to shoot a minor covering shot because a barely visible hamster wasn’t trundling along his wheel. While a near-naked Bruce Willis grew steadily colder and more unhappy, Gilliam demanded shot after shot until the artfully lit little fellow trundled in just the right way. The final shot is in the movie for approximately two seconds. Clearly Fulton and Pepe must have done something right, as they went on to make ‘Lost in La Mancha’, the story of Gilliam’s aborted attempt at making his version of the Don Quixote story.

The Special Features are rounded off by 12 Monkeys Archives of production photos, production notes which is text-only EPK fluff and the Theatrical Trailer.

There is apparently a bare bones R1 of '12 Monkeys' with DTS. Obviously it would have been nice to have the beefier soundtrack as an option but the 5.1 DD that comes with this disk (there's also a 5.1 French dub) was a powerful, complex soundtrack that I thought served the film very well. There’s actually a lot going on in the ’12 Monkeys’ sound environment and this soundtrack provides clarity and precision. The only bit which I didn’t think worked was the rather gratuitous panning of the disembodied voice that haunts Cole during some of his recovery scenes. That and the lack of sub-bass were the only drawbacks to what is otherwise a fine, involving soundtrack.

The only difference between this Special Edition and the 'Collector's Edition' released a couple of years ago is the 'all-new digitally remastered picture', promoted as such on the case. Not having another copy of the film, I can't make a direct comparison myself, although the general consensus seems to be that the image on the new disk is warmer and brighter than its predecessors, although lacking a tiny bit of screen information on one side. My non-expert opinion? I was really impressed by this 1:85:1 anamorphic transfer. The overall tone of the picture is clear and sharp, the level of detail is generally very good, the colours are well balanced and the blacks appeared solid. The overexposed ‘dream’ sequences obviously display a softness, and the brighter image means that some minor background details get whitened out completely, but this isn't going to spoil your enjoyment of the film.

Railing against institutions and siding with the guerrillas, turning out his warped, expressionistic visions full of bizarre ambiguities, Gilliam remains one of English-speaking cinema’s prickliest individualists and this DVD (available for under £8 online) is a terrific record of one of his most commercially successful and ambitious films. True Monkeyheads may want to track down the Japanese 2-disk effort which apparently comes with a book and more extras. Watching this version, however, increased my liking for the film and reaffirmed my respect for Gilliam. Long may he continue to torment us with his wide angle nightmares.

8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10



out of 10

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