Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: David Peoples, Janet Peoples
Based on a Film by: Chris Marker
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, David Morse, Christopher Plummer
Running Time: 129 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Terry Gilliam had a difficult introduction into the Hollywood studio system in 1985 with Brazil. He regularly argued with the money men and the film was butchered from his intended vision (later to be restored at festivals and on home video). With his second studio picture, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, he fared no better, with the film escalating way over budget and hitting numerous production problems. The film bombed, so Gilliam decided to keep things simple (at least by his standards) for his follow up, The Fisher King. He also decided to make sure he was a self-proclaimed ‘director-for-hire’ on this project, taking on someone else’s script rather than directing his own, to relieve the stress of seeing his baby warp and deteriorate as the production process moved on. The Fisher King proved to be a relative success, bringing in an Oscar win and several nominations (though none for Gilliam) as well as more than making its money back at the box office. This seemed to refresh Gilliam, although he still wanted to avoid grand, potentially expensive adaptations of his own material, so once again became ‘director-for-hire’ for Twelve Monkeys, a sci-fi film largely set in the present with a minimal core cast. With a couple of big stars headlining though it was set to be possibly Gilliam’s most mainstream film, albeit with the director’s usual strange twist on proceedings.
The film ended up being Gilliam’s biggest hit (and I believe it still is). Perhaps this is down to the billing of then mega-star Bruce Willis and the up-and-comer at the time, Brad Pitt, but I personally feel it’s one of Gilliam’s best films. It came out at a time when I was getting more seriously interested in films and it was a favourite of mine back then, helped by my love of time-travel movies, so it’s long held a special place in my heart. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it though, so I was keen to give it another watch with a more mature pair of eyes. This superb new Blu-Ray package from Arrow Video was just the trick.
Twelve Monkeys opens (after a brief flashback) in the year 2035, when most of the world’s population has been wiped out by a virus started in 1996, supposedly by a terrorist group. Scientists have unlocked the secret of time travel though and send ‘volunteers’ from prison to gather information from the past to try and get hold of a pure version of the virus before it’s unleashed, so they can cure it and move out from the underground existence they currently endure.
One of these ‘volunteers’ is James Cole (Bruce Willis), who is mistakenly sent first to 1990 where he ends up in a mental institute. There however, he meets fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), one of the future ringleaders of the Twelve Monkeys, a terrorist group believed to be behind the spreading of the virus. He also meets a psychologist named Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) who is one of the few doctors to treat him with respect.
Cole soon ends up back in his own time though, before being sent back to 1996 as originally intended, where he kidnaps Railly and tracks down Goines to try to complete his mission. Meanwhile though, he starts to doubt his own sanity and believes that maybe he started the apocalypse. As Railly begins to believe Cole is actually from the future and grows fonder of him, she tries to keep him lucid and focussed on his important quest.
In the special features on this set, Gilliam says how he likes to watch and make films you don’t just watch once – you can watch them again and again and find new things, and indeed, there was much more to Twelve Monkeys than I remembered. When I was a teenager I loved the time-travel aspect and futurescape. Now I can dig deeper and see some interesting commentary on the idea of insanity and the importance to listen to those who might seem ‘crazy’. Not only might they be saying something important, but communicating with them will help their mental state. There’s also a damning message about the state of the world and how it’s doomed for destruction if it carries on the way it is, which casts a grim, bleak shadow over the film.
The production design is unique and amazing as is to be expected from a Gilliam film. The dystopian future Gilliam portrays has a cyberpunk feel with a hint of steampunk in the use of found materials and industrial pipes and cogs. Gilliam’s unusual angles and perspectives are present too, though the film is a little more down-to-Earth in style compared to many of his films, despite the sci-fi angle. I loved the music too, particularly the memorable theme, which is actually an older piece by Astor Piazzollo.
Plot-wise, the jumps in time in the first half are nicely disorientating, but I found the plot made more sense than some wilder time-travel stories. I do love the way it all comes together in the end too. Viewers not knowing what to expect might be a little lost early on though.
A couple of aspects of the film didn’t live up to my memory though. I remember loving Brad Pitt’s performance here and supposedly he did a lot of research and spent a long time preparing for the role. He ended up getting an Oscar nomination for it too. However, this time around I felt he was a bit too over the top. His wild mannerisms and rapid-fire dialogue delivery don’t form the most sensitive portrayal of mental illness on screen. Saying that, the performance does seem to fit the film’s world which is often larger than life. The bright red hair and yellow jacket of David Morse is a bit of a blatant lead to the character’s significance too that didn’t settle well this time around.
Willis is somewhere in between. He’s much quieter and more subtle than Pitt for the most part, but has regular outbursts and some moments when he’s drugged up are a bit big, particularly when it comes to drool. His violent outbursts are brutal too, but these moments add depth to his character. We don’t know if he’s really such a ‘good’ guy we should be rooting for, due to his history and tendency to snap when rubbed up the wrong way.
There’s an interesting relationship between him and Stowe too (who delivers a strong, nuanced and grounding performance here). Railly goes from pitying Cole, to being fearful of him, to forging a strange love for him whilst they both question their sanity at different points throughout the film. It’s a rich character study that might have seemed questionable in the wrong hands, but Gilliam pulls it off.
As well as my uncertainty about the quality of Pitt’s performance, I was a little put off by a ridiculous co-incidence in the film in the latter stages. We are expected to believe someone managed to take a photo of Cole and his comrade during the brief time he was cast into the middle of a battlefield during WWI, and said photo shows up in Railly’s collection for a study she did. I can accept time-travel in a film, but this pushed things a bit too far.
This is a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent film though. Largely it lived up to my fond memory. Cleverly constructed without getting too complicated or messy, it feels tighter and less hole-ridden than many time travel movies. It has a troubling dark edge and intensity too. I appreciated the messages being made about listening to those we think have nothing ‘sensible’ to say, as well as statements about where we’re headed as a species. These messages are nicely set in the story too, rather than rammed down your throat in lofty speeches or clunky symbolism. It’s a film I don’t feel is talked about much anymore, so hopefully this handsome new release will help it gain a new lease of life.
Twelve Monkeys is out on 15th October on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Video. I watched the Blu-Ray version and it looks and sounds fantastic, with rich colours, detailed textures and a natural grain.
There are tonnes of special features included in the set too. Here’s the list:
BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
– Brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original negative by Arrow Films, approved by director Terry Gilliam
– DTS 5.1 Master Audio
– 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)
– Brand-new appreciation by Ian Christie, author of Gilliam on Gilliam - The Film Exchange with Terry Gilliam, a 1996 interview with Gilliam and critic Jonathan Romney, recorded at the London Film Festival
– Extensive image gallery
– 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
The commentary is excellent. Gilliam and Roven are refreshingly honest and there’s little downtime as they describe the production process in great detail. They often about Gilliam’s collaborative style too, which can be surprising given the fact he’s often seen as a clear auteur.
The Film Exchange interview is fantastic too and takes a warts and all look at Gilliam’s career in general as well as Twelve Monkeys. Ian Christie’s piece is fairly short, but dense and valuable.
The real star of the package though is The Hamster Factor. It may have shown up on previous packages, but any release of Twelve Monkeys without it would be far worse off. Directed by Fulton and Pepe, who would later document Gilliam’s disastrous first attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, it’s one of the best making-of documentaries out there. It’s brutally frank, showing how the shoot was far from smooth sailing, despite it seeming like a rare trouble-free process for Gilliam, in comparison with some of his other films. It’s feature-length so covers most aspects of the production in great detail. The film is largely fly-on-the-wall, with interviews taken throughout the process, rather than after the fact, which makes for more tense and open contributions, particularly from Gilliam. It’s a shame I wrote my list of ‘The Greatest Special Features of All Time’ already, as this would easily make the cut. If I can be bothered, I might slot it in there actually as it’s well up there.