In my humble estimation, Terry Gilliam is one of the most misunderstood directors of our time. He's a true visionary, often limited by Hollywood-budget constraints imposed by executives who fail to see or admire his daring delusions turned into reality (I'm thinking here of 'Lost In La Mancha'). Although his wildly inventive imagination has produced extraordinary pieces of cinema ('Brazil'), most, if not all, of his films are a bit tough for general public consumption. Outside of the Monty Python films and 'Time Bandits', '12 Monkeys,' his sci-fi thriller about a future dystopia, is his most easily recognized commercial success (and not by much). This a surreal and inspired film that makes intelligent use of the time travel theme to comment on modernity --- a feverishly rambling tale about consumerism and technology. It's a grim and chaotic vision exploring a fine line between madness and sanity, determinism, self-destruction, and the lack of communication.
In 1996, a deadly epidemic kills 99% of the human population, forcing the remaining one percent to take refuge underground. In 2035, the convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) becomes a reluctant volunteer for an experiment to travel back in time. His mission is to gather information about the origins of the lethal virus and a group known as "The Army of the 12 Monkeys" believed to be responsible for its release. Arriving at the wrong time, Cole is imprisoned and institutionalized. There, he meets Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), and shares many of his warnings about the future. Eventually returning to his present time, Cole is given another chance to locate the terrorist group and the virus in its pure form. In a race against time, he and a now-convinced Kathryn try to stop the revolutionists. But Cole is already questioning his sanity at this point and must try to figure out if the real world is a product of his imagination.
With so many deep underlying questions on the bleak outcomes of our technological advancements, Gilliam does an impressive job of keeping it all together in an entertaining and coherent manner. Typical of his other work, ideas are expressed visually, taking a straightforward plot and turning it into a more fantastical, cryptic, and maddening exploration into the relationship of power and the individual. Look at how the scientists of Cole's present time are contrasted with scenes of him in the past interrogated by psychologists at the institution. While the methods of communication have become more perverse in the future, their disciplinary effects remain the same. Cole is kept at a distance from them, always reminded of being the "other", whether criminally or mentally divergent. On television, cartoons and animal testing are shown in the asylum and the Woody Woodpecker "time tunnel" episode comes on in the motel. Gilliam also depicts a past that looks just as dilapidated as the future, and makes references to Hitchcock's 'Vertigo', which also involves questions of time and memory.
If there are any drawbacks to this excellent psychodrama, it is in a script that seems to hold back from taking its delusions full force, keeping in check its scrutiny of modern civilization just below the point of attack. To be sure, the story by David Webb Peoples (the mind behind 'Unforgiven' and co-writer of 'Blade Runner') and Janet Peoples is well written and conveys much to think about, but seems to only touch on the surface of its ideas. Inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 short film, 'La jetée', the dialogue, especially Jeffrey Goines' comments on society, is thought-provoking and suggestive, but delivered as disjointed Foucauldian thoughts that could've delved deeper. However, it could just as easily be argued that the randomness is deliberate and adds to the film's mind-puzzling narrative. Nevertheless, the script's strongest feature is the shocking denouement, giving way to a concern in determinism, where an individual is aware of her/his condition but incapable of doing anything about it.
In spite of these minor flaws, Gilliam delivers a nicely-crafted sci-fi flick which appeals to the intelligence of its audience. Brad Pitt gives one of his most fierce and disturbing performances, earning him his first Oscar nomination and providing the film with its black-comedy element. Bruce Willis offers also a convincing portrayal of a dejected man on the brink of insanity, caught in a life that is endlessly replayed. '12 Monkeys' strives beyond a cautionary tale about technology gone astray or the affects of time travel. It's a haunting series of images and ideas which prompt discussion and numerous viewings. Or as Cole says, "Every time you see it's different, because you're different."
Previously released on HD DVD back in the early days of the format war, '12 Monkeys' arrived with a hi-def presentation that was less than impressive. On Blu-ray, this 1080p/VC-1 transfer (1.85:1) appears to be identical, carrying over many of the same inconsistencies and average video.
Compared to its DVD counterpart, there is an improvement in clarity and resolution, with strong, stable blacks and an overall sharper image, especially in close-ups. But being an intentionally stylized film with heavy use of diffusion filters, the picture is much softer and hazy than anyone would expect from the format. Contrast wavers between average and overblown, like the dream sequences, but whites are fairly clean and crisp. The color palette is deliberately bleak but accurate, and flesh tones are slightly on the red side with a lack in texture. Unfortunately, details are lost in the murk on more than a few occasions and interiors show a heavier grain structure. There are times when the picture quality looks terrific and other times when it's no better than an upconverted DVD. Besides receiving a nice face-lift, fans will be hard-pressed to find a clear upgrade.
On the audio side, the upgrade on this lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is much more noticeable and appreciated, even when compared to the Dolby Digital Plus track found on the HD DVD.
From the moment the main titles move across the screen, the mix exhibits an improved aural presence and clarity, though most of it is front-heavy. Dialogue also sounds better and is well-rendered for the most part, but there are a few times when quieter conversations lose impact with the rest of the action. Rear activity is quite active with discrete effects generating some nice moments of atmosphere. Separation and movement between the channels is a pleasant welcome, extending the soundfield into the background convincingly. Dynamic range is surprisingly clean and smooth, providing plenty of intelligible detail. The LFE channel receives the biggest boost, adding a more extensive weight to the musical score and on-screen action than before. Overall, this an entertaining track sure to please fans.
This Blu-ray edition of '12 Monkeys' mirrors the same bonus features found on its HD DVD equivalent. While it isn't much, and a few retrospective docs would have been nice, the package still offers plenty of enjoyment after the film is over. The material is presented in standard definition and arrives with one exclusive.
With Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt offering some of their best performances, Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys' remains just as entertaining and thought-provoking as ever, thanks to a complex plot that seems to change with each viewing. The average picture quality of the Blu-ray disc is accompanied by a nicely improved lossless track and a decent supplement package. Fans might be satisfied with the release; for everyone else, the film comes very much recommended.
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