***½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer
screenplay by David Webb Peoples & Janet Peoples, inspired by the film La Jetée written by Chris Marker
directed by Terry Gilliam
by Bryant Frazer Twelve Monkeys is a movie about a moment. Yes, sure, it's a decades-spanning science-fiction tale about time travel, the illusion of free will, and a romance at the end of the world. Yet its defining facet is its repeated, soulful depiction of a few terrible minutes in the life of a young boy who witnesses an event that's tragic in ways he can't comprehend. That's how the story starts and how it ends, the first thing we see and also the last--a child's eyes, open wide, as he is exposed to the spectacle of death, probably for the first time. Although Twelve Monkeys deals with the destruction of human civilization by a lethal contagion, and the plague's aftermath, less of the action centres on the plague itself than on this little boy. Mostly, it's concerned with a man named James Cole (Bruce Willis), who believes he's a time-travelling agent sent back from the 2030s, after a small number of survivors retreat to the safety of underground caves. Liberated from a prison cell for the mission to contemporary Philadelphia (ground zero for the virus release), Cole is trying to discover information about its origins that can be used, decades hence, to help make the earth's ruined surface safe for human habitation. Success means redemption, since Cole would return to his future world a hero. But in an ironic twist, Cole is almost immediately institutionalized; only psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a specialist in "madness and apocalyptic visions," and fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who may be a nascent environmental terrorist, suspect Cole's references to upcoming cataclysmic events may be more than just delusional.
Good as Willis is in this, he's overshadowed by Pitt, who embraces the opportunity to deliver an unpredictable, tic-laden performance brimming with irrational kinetic energy. Scenes between Willis and Pitt almost appear to have been stitched together from two different films, so dissimilar are their approaches. Of all the characters in the film, Pitt's Goines is the most alive, alert, and infatuated with possibility. It helps that, when he waves his hands and wiggles his fingers towards the camera, Gilliam's trademark wide-angle lenses amplify the gesture. Since the film's success is ultimately based in misdirection, it's important the audience believe Pitt is capable of everything Cole and Railly come to suspect he's guilty of, i.e., leading a group calling itself the Army of the 12 Monkeys to steal a dangerous toxin from his father's scientific laboratory, and then jet-hopping from city to city to poison the world's populace. Pitt, a charming devil, delivers. While Stowe's role is a lot less showy, she holds the film together in important ways, including serving as an audience surrogate. In her final scene, the camera stays on her face as she turns in an incredible, silent-movie-worthy performance, running through a devastating spectrum of emotions. (It's critical; if her performance in that scene weren't pitch-perfect, it would have undermined the whole film.)
Aside from the aforementioned lens choices, Gilliam's auteurist stamp is most clearly evident in the film's few scenes set in the future, envisioned as a haughty bureaucracy running on ramshackle retro-futurist technology in the mode of Brazil. One remarkable set consists of a chair that slides upwards before locking into position high on the wall, in front of an orb mounted on a mechanical arm and covered in video screens (watchful faces, or just single eyeballs, are visible on several of them, as is Cole's own face, staring back at them). Gilliam made an indelible image by putting Cole in the chair, the metal ball intruding on his personal space like a curious xenomorph drooling over Ellen Ripley. (He was later successfully sued by the late artist and architect Lebbeus Woods, who claimed the design had been cribbed from his quite similar illustration "Neomechanical Tower (upper) chamber.") The idea of surveillance introduced here is echoed later in the film, when Cole and Railly turn away from a passing police car and pretend to be window shopping. Peering into the shop window, they're shocked to see that their faces are displayed in a 10-foot-high close-up on a stack of CRTs facing the street. Much of the time, the film's production design incorporates real locations, as the production couldn't afford to build out all of the interiors that would be required. For example, when Cole arrives in Philadelphia, he's admitted to a psychiatric hospital. These scenes were shot at the Eastern State Penitentiary, originally opened in 1829. Gilliam presents the place as a disturbing, frightening purgatory populated with an encyclopedia of mental-illness clichés. He gets away with these stereotypes, barely, not just because Pitt has such fun chewing the scenery, but also because it's clear the film does not mean to be unkind or stir rancour. These are just men and women behaving in superficially bizarre and sometimes comic ways, subject to influences and urges they don't understand and can't resist. For Gilliam, the whole world is like this.
Some other bits of business fit well with Gilliam's cynical whimsy--nearly 25 years later, I'm still taken in by the movie's striking visual effects, most notably its images of the empty city as a playground for wandering zoo animals--but he has a hard time selling the romantic relationship at the heart of the film. Despite the fact that Cole recruits Railly to help him by, essentially, kidnapping her, she is meant to become impressed by his determination and sympathetic to his helplessness in the face of his burden. Still, it's hard to see that level of affection rising so quickly to the level of romance. (There is a scene where Cole saves Railly from an explicit rape threat, and I suppose that's expected to have earned him chivalry points, but that attitude hasn't aged particularly well.) It's easier to imagine that Cole sees in Railly the redemptive light of a human connection he has so long been denied but, despite a ravishing moment stolen from Vertigo, Twelve Monkeys never manages to make it feel like actual love is in the air.
If you can power through any misgivings about the depth of Cole's and Railly's relationship, the rewards are ample. Part of the enduring appeal of Twelve Monkeys comes down to the intelligent construction of its time-travel scenario, with a number of finely-hewn, interlocking pieces fitting together just so as the story races towards a predetermined ending. The film is catnip for science-fiction fans in that it constitutes an explicit feature-length consideration of the temporal paradox--the apparent contradiction inherent in many time-travel stories. Audiences may expect Cole's investigative work to pay off as he identifies the perpetrator and prevents the spread of the virus, saving countless human lives and, just maybe, earning himself a happy ending in a society he helped save. (In an unsubtle touch, he's even given a saviour's initials.) But this conventional story would present a paradox: if the virus never spread, then Cole would never become a time traveller in the first place. Some SF writers have engaged with this kind of "consistency paradox" by positing multiple parallel universes that branch off in radically different directions at pivot points, including those dictated by the actions of time travellers. In this case, Earth could exist in at least two different universes, one wrecked by plague and the other, created when Cole manages to stop the virus, unscathed. Cole, however, is tasked with gathering information, not with saving the world, or any version of it. Twelve Monkeys makes this plain for those who are paying attention; Cole spills the beans barely 12 minutes in, when Railly asks him what he's looking for: "Won't help anyone. Won't change anything." His assessment is correct, and it is one dimension of the tragedy at the heart of Twelve Monkeys--the more optimistic Cole becomes about the future, the more inescapably his own destiny closes in around him.
The other, equally fatalistic conceit of the film is an even bigger spoiler, I suppose, so proceed into this final paragraph with caution. (It's a spoiler you'll be well aware of if you've seen La Jetée.) In short, the little boy we see at the beginning of the picture is a young James Cole; the man he sees killed, shot to death in an airport terminal, is himself as a time-travelling older man. The dream that has haunted Cole all his life is, in fact, a memory of the moment during his childhood in which he witnessed his own death. There are multiple levels to the metaphor. First, it has a sense of the lost childhood about it--that feeling we sometimes have that perhaps we grew up too fast. More to the point, though, we all learn about the facts of our own mortality at an early age. Once revealed to us, the inevitability of our death haunts us for the rest of our lives. And isn't it true that many of us learn much of what we know, or think we know, about death by witnessing it as it's portrayed on the screen? (The scene is shot in slow-motion, and the video screens showing airline departures and arrivals in the background generate a flickering effect that suggests a connection between young Cole and movie audiences.) In spotlighting that key memory from Cole's boyhood, and especially in making it the revelation that pays off a labyrinthine narrative journey, both La Jetée and Twelve Monkeys dramatize that awareness of death. With intelligence and grace, they establish it as a part of our shared humanity. It's a rare thing, and it packs an emotional wallop. That's what makes La Jetée a masterpiece in a poetic or avant-garde mode--and Twelve Monkeys something close to one in the mainstream Hollywood mode. It's an incredibly sad moment, and it sticks with you, at once recognizing and honouring the metaphysical horror at the heart of living.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Twelve Monkeys is never going to be the sharpest disc on your shelf, but Arrow Video's late-2018 reissue improves on Universal's already-serviceable 2009 Blu-ray release with its own brand-new 1.85:1, 1080p transfer, sourced from a recent 4K scan of the original negative and mastered with the approval of Gilliam himself. Cinematographer Roger Pratt, in his final collaboration with Gilliam, shot Twelve Monkeys with his favoured Cooke S3 lenses and is said to have used black Christian Dior stocking over the back of them for diffusion, notably softening the captured image. (You can make out the pattern of the netting in shots that feature bright light sources, like candles.) No surprise, then, that Arrow's results are only a smidge crisper in terms of picture detail than the previous edition. Still, film grain has also been resolved more accurately, giving the image a more natural feel. Contrast receives a boost, somewhat, allowing midrange detail to pop and brightening highlights without blowing out hot spots or crushing out shadow detail, despite a somewhat darker cast to the presentation overall. Finally, flesh tones feel notably more lifelike.
The movie's soundmix, presented in 5.1 DTS-HD MA, is pretty much the same as it ever was: rich with detail and directionality, filling the surround field from the film's very first moments, when a chilly wind can be heard blowing around the periphery. The multichannel soundstage is used throughout Twelve Monkeys to provide you-are-there ambience, like the pneumatic environs of the future underground society, the echoing corridors and high-ceilinged chambers of Philadelphia's grand architecture, or the bullet-riddled hellscape of the World War I battlefield to which Cole is briefly transported by mistake. The density of the sound design can have the effect of overwhelming some lines of spoken dialogue, though I suspect the chaos is by design. I sampled the included uncompressed LPCM 2.0 audio track, decoded for surround playback, and found it to be less finely detailed but still mostly pleasing to the ear.
The production and release of Twelve Monkeys has been well-trod ground since the original 1996 laserdisc release, which featured as an extra The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (88 mins.), a feature-length documentary covering the production from pre-production and planning to its release and reception. Both candid and comprehensive, the documentary has followed the film from format to format and makes its umpteenth appearance here. (Unfortunately, it was shot on DV, and though the picture quality hasn't gotten worse over time, it hasn't gotten any better, either. Nevertheless, it's more than watchable.) My favourite bit comes near the end, with a rare glimpse of the standard studio test-screening process. It's heartbreaking and a little maddening to watch shots of Gilliam exit a screening, giddy with the conviction that he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, intercut with footage from the confused, displeased focus group giving the picture low marks inside the theatre. To the studio's credit, Gilliam was allowed to release his version of the film without major changes despite these poor responses.
Also ported over from the original LD is a full-length audio commentary featuring Gilliam and producer Charles Roven. I remember griping about this at the time as I thought it was a step down from Gilliam's previous solo yak-tracks (all of which had been produced by the Criterion Collection), but it's unusually candid and informative by today's standards. The worst I can say about it is that many of the best anecdotes duplicate information from The Hamster Factor. It's interesting to hear Gilliam discuss the film's performances in great detail. He identifies a scene where Willis, preparing to depart the production in order to shoot pick-ups on a Die Hard sequel, unwittingly performed as John McClane rather than as James Cole (the performance was mostly fixed through a later re-shoot, but some of it remains in the film), and admits that he and Madeleine Stowe got so confused about the film's timeline at one point during production that they were (wrongly) convinced she had bungled part of her performance. Meanwhile, Gilliam provides a selection of biting asides, noting for instance that the film's use of brief snippets of animal laboratory tests proved to be decidedly audience-unfriendly. "They hate it," he says. "They gasp. But it's probably the only real thing in the film."
Arrow does bring a couple of new plates to the table. "The Film Exchange with Terry Gilliam" (24 mins.) is an edited interview conducted by critic Jonathan Romney at the 1996 London Film Festival. It's too short to get into much detail on any one subject, though Romney at least covers a lot of ground. Gilliam finds himself, as is par for the course, defending his performance on the troubled production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and lamenting the lack of credit he gets for the fiscal prudence and commercial success of The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys. And he addresses the release of The Hamster Factor directly, saying he authorized the warts-and-all approach because he "wanted people to see how fallible the process [of filmmaking] is." Fresh on this release as well is "12 Monkeys: Appreciation by Ian Christie" (16 mins.), in which Christie, a Gilliam confidante who edited the Faber & Faber volume Gilliam on Gilliam, puts the film in the context of Gilliam's career. "Terry was determined to be on his best behaviour" with The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys, Christie says. "He was learning, in a deep and serious way, how to be a very versatile Hollywood director."
Arrow additionally includes an original trailer in barely-watchable SD quality (2 mins.) and "The Twelve Monkeys Archives," a no-frills slideshow of hundreds of curiously lo-fi images related to the film, such as discarded designs for the logo of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, costume and production design sketches, location and production photography, storyboards, and marketing materials. Some of this material is valuable--I always enjoy looking at discarded poster designs and the like--but the stills used are very low resolution and marred by chroma noise, as though screen-captured from the original analog LaserDisc presentation. (Perhaps they were?) Presented in high-definition, with proper navigation options, this would be a treasure trove. As it stands, it's of little value.
The disc's first pressing is said to contain an illustrated collector's booklet with new writing by Nathan Rabin and other "archive materials;" it was not provided for review.
129 minutes; PG-13; 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, English LPCM 2.0 (Stereo); English subtitles; BD-50; Region A; Arrow