12 Monkeys: Special Edition
Running Time: 130 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: French and Spanish
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1; French– Dolby Digital 5.1
May 10th, 2005
Director Terry Gilliam’s (formerly of Monty Python) 12 Monkeys, which is based on a short film entitled La Jétte, is a tantalizing and challenging cinematic experience! The story begins in the year 2035, by which point a deadly virus has contaminated Earth’s atmosphere and forced human survivors to dwell underground. As we join the story, we meet a prisoner named James Cole (Bruce Willis), who is “volunteered” to travel back in time to the year 1996, when the virus is believed to have been unleashed by a radical group known as The Army of the 12 Monkeys. It is the hope of those sending Cole on the mission to the past that he can obtain a sample of the original strain of the virus and return it safely to 2035, so that a remedy can be produced.
Unfortunately, despite the tremendous advances in technology, time travel still proves to be an inexact science, so Mr. Cole is erroneously transported to the year 1990, where the statements he makes cause him to be locked away in a mental institution. You would think all hope would be lost here, but once inside the facility, James encounters and befriends a bizarre individual named Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). At first Goines appears to be harmless, but soon Cole learns that he is the offspring of a famous scientist (Christopher Plummer), and that he also may be connected to the Army of the 12 Monkeys.
We also see things from the perspective of psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), who initially diagnoses James to be delusional, but gradually comes to the realization that he may be on to something. More precisely, as time passes, Mr. Cole makes a believer of the good doctor (while becoming more uncertain of his own mental well being), and she even begins to help him try and find an answer to the riddle of the 12 Monkeys. Unfortunately for our heroes, however, the past proves to be a very difficult thing to alter, and it remains extremely unclear whether or not their efforts will have any effect on Cole’s present day (2035).
The above is a very vague description of the plot, and honestly, after seeing this film several times, I am not sure I could do much better, even if I wasn’t purposely trying to minimize the use of spoilers. Why? Well, Terry Gilliam’s films are tough nuts to crack, as he packs them chock full of interesting and fatalistic concepts, such as time travel, the fragility of the human mind, and the dangers of meddling with nature through science. Those of you who have seen Gilliam’s other works, specifically the under-appreciated The Fisher King, or his masterwork Brazil, will notice this great filmmaker’s fondness for tackling such challenging and difficult subjects.
To make things simple, let’s just say that 12 Monkeys is an extremely multi-faceted film that demands active participation by viewers and cannot be completely digested in a single viewing. As I pointed out, I have watched 12 Monkeys several times, and still am not quite sure I have unlocked all of its secrets. Come to think of it, since the story leaves Cole’s mental state open to various interpretations, maybe I never will!
Another reason the film may be difficult to follow is that not only does James Cole leap through time on several occasions, but the narrative also intermingles recurring memories from Cole’s childhood to go along with these shifts in time. Interestingly, however, the multiple jumps through time add another wrinkle to the story, as James begins to question the soundness of his own mind, and wonders whether Dr. Railly’s initial diagnosis of him as delusional was the correct one. Of course, these shifts in time make keeping the pieces of this film neatly organized within the mind a complex task, but one which I believe makes the film a greater pleasure, as it is rare to see “mainstream” films that challenge viewers so much these days.
If the complexities of 12 Monkeys do not turn you away, you will find several things to really like about the film. The first of these is the extremely stylized and downright nightmarish future created by Terry Gilliam, which is comparable to the world he depicts in his earlier film, Brazil. Really, Gilliam’s bleak near future has an ethereal, otherworldly, and yet still very real quality to it, and his version of our recent past is every bit as bizarre, thanks to the employment of clever framing techniques and carefully planned color schemes. The director also wrung some terrific performances out his actors, particularly Brad Pitt, which will be discussed in further detail presently.
At the risk of stating the obvious, stars Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeline Stowe do absolutely amazing work in 12 Monkeys. Bruce Willis’ turn is particularly surprising, because he went completely away from the tough-guy image he created in his Die Hard films and The Last Boy Scout. Here plays Cole, a convict with an unusually strong attachment to an incident from his childhood with tremendous versatility, coupling his physicality with a vulnerability and expressiveness that foreshadows the work he would go on to do in complex roles like his turn as Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense.
Madeleine Stowe, who portrays Cole’s shrink, Dr. Kathryn Railly, sinks her teeth into her role as well, and comes across just about as well as Bruce Willis does. The most significant element of her performance for me was how she was able to smoothly shift between the changes in the relationship that occur between Cole and Dr. Railly over the course of the film, without missing a beat.
Now as good as Willis and Stowe were, Brad Pitt absolutely owns the role of Jeffrey Goines, the mental patient that may hold the key to the demise of billions of human beings. Here, he turns in a performance that is deeper, and definitely creepier than his excellent turn in Seven.
There is no question that Terry Gilliam is a unique talent, and the demands that his films place on viewers may be off-putting to some of them. However, I really believe that those willing to make the investment in a film like 12 Monkeys, by watching it more than once to get a better appreciation of it, will be rewarded by a cinematic experience that is incredible on every level! Indeed, from the visionary direction to the superb acting from a great cast to the wonderful production design – this film simply comes together in all the right ways! Although the production had its share of conflicts (see the supplemental materials), everyone was undoubtedly committed to making a great film, and the end product offers ample evidence of that commitment.
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
Aside from the film, of course, the real attention getter on this new Special Edition of 12 Monkeys is the brand new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer by the folks at Universal Home Video. Honestly, although the previous disc contained a good-looking (and also anamorphically enhanced) transfer, this new transfer kicks things up a notch, and makes the film look better than it ever has on home video!
To begin with, although there is still a nominal amount of grain and a bit of debris visible, the print seems to be quite a bit cleaner than its predecessor. Colors are rendered more precisely as well, particularly the characters’ skin tones and the subdued shades of both Cole’s subterranean world and the mental hospital. More importantly, colors are not plagued by distractions like dot crawl or chroma noise. Whites are also clean and noise-free, and shadow detail is excellent, allowing all of the detail in the dreary subterranean world James Cole is trying to save to come to the forefront.
Really, about the only thing I can ding the visual presentation for is a bit of edge enhancement. In all honesty, however, this issue never detracts from the image to a great degree, and the film really looks extremely good otherwise.
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Though it is missing the superb DTS track that was available on the old “DTS edition” of this film, the Dolby Digital surround mix (from the “Collector’s Edition” DVD) is almost everything I could hope for, and reproduces this film’s atmospherics beautifully. More specifically, the mix is rich and spacious, with dialogue being easily discernable throughout the feature. The eerie score is also rendered nicely, thanks to the soundtrack’s excellent fidelity and a tangible sense of instrument separation.
The surround channels are also used liberally, to immerse the viewer in the dreary world that James Cole is trying to save. Dragging out my old DTS Edition for comparison, I found that imaging was slightly less precise with the Dolby version, and that bass response was not quite as defined, but again, the Dolby mix is no slouch. I guess you just have to decide if the improvements in image quality are worth your coin or not.
The audio commentary for 12 Monkeys is by director Terry Gilliam and Charles Rowe, who enthusiastically discuss the film and the process of bringing the story to the screen. To be more specific, you can expect to hear:
--- Discussions about the effort put into the performances by the three lead actors (Brad Pitt, Madeline Stowe, and Bruce Willis) and the casting process.
--- Interesting and frank commentary on the process of conducting test screenings of the film.
--- Anecdotes from on-set, and discussions about the contributions of various members of the film crew.
I had heard it before a long time ago, but in the interests of being thorough, I gave this track another listen in its entirety, and let me tell you, it still ranks among the best commentaries I have ever heard! At the very least, it is well worth a listen, if not two, especially for those who want a more complete understanding of the film!
The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys
At 90 minutes, “The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys” is the easily one of the best, most complete documentaries on the production of a feature film that I have seen! Indeed, no stone is left unturned, as the documentary tracks 12 Monkeys from its infancy through its theatrical release, gives viewers a candid look at the conflicts that arose during production, and offers an intriguing look at Terry Gilliam, who is a fascinating and complex individual.
Even if you do not like this film, I urge you to watch this documentary if you have access to the disc. It really is an interesting look at the creation of this artistic and challenging film, not to mention a reminder of just how fluffy and worthless a lot of the other so-called “documentaries” that accompany many films on DVD are! Great stuff!
The theatrical trailer for 12 Monkeys is available.
A total of 13 pages of production notes are included, which cover everything from the film’s inspiration (a 1962 short entitled La JéTee) to shooting on location in the “City of Brotherly Love”.
The “archives” contain well over 200 photos, sketches, storyboards, and logo ideas.
The disc kicks off with trailers for the upcoming DVD releases Casino and White Noise.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
It is hard to believe, but 12 Monkeys has been available on DVD for a long, long time. In fact, the “Collector’s Edition”, which contained all of the features available on this release, and a separate disc with DTS audio were released way back in 1998. Since it has been 7 years, why not a double dip? There are many other films that have been re-released on DVD after being available for much less time.
Of course, this is only my opinion, but here is why I do not think this “Special Edition” of 12 Monkeys is not quite as special as it should have been. Quite simply, aside from an improved image transfer, the disc has nothing new to offer, a lack of originality that resulted in me rating it only three ½ stars, instead of the four ½ it deserved otherwise. Unfortunately, the superb DTS soundtrack is missing in action, the Dolby Digital track (though very good) seems to be the same one available before, and there are NO new extras. I am not knocking the extras that are included, as the commentary and documentary are both outstanding, but to simply slap them on here again and call this a “special” edition smacks of laziness.
So, what is the answer to the $50,000 question? Do you buy this disc or don’t you? Well, if you only own the DTS version of 12 Monkeys, or just really like the film, I think I have to recommend a purchase, as the image quality is improved and all of the wonderful extras that were previously available on the “Collector’s Edition” have been retained. Personally, I would have preferred a 2-disc set with a DTS soundtrack and even a few new bonus features, but at a low street price, this title is a pretty good buy. I just hope that future “special edition” releases of titles already available on DVD are given more special treatment...