No one ever said there’s something wrong with making a film that forces the viewer to think. Leaving the theater or popping the disc out of a DVD player, it can’t hurt for discussion to ensue about what was viewed. For 12 Monkeys, you’ll need some time to take it all in. Whether or not it makes any sense depends on what you get out of it.
The typical oddball direction and visions of Terry Gilliam make this 1995 piece stand out. Anyone who has delved into Gilliam’s prior offerings like Brazil will instantly know who was behind the camera for this one. The story structure goes awry, even if it’s gripping until the final frames.
The basics are straightforward. A virus has wiped out nearly all mankind, forcing survivors to live underground in a strict, controlled, dim, future. Bruce Willis plays James Cole, sent back in time to find the virus before it spreads with the mission to bring it back to the future so it can be studied, letting humans live on the surface once again.
As with any time travel plot device, much of 12 Monkeys is left up to the viewer. Glaring plot holes are evident regardless of how you take the movie as a whole, and the ending doesn’t help matters. It’s depressing to know the truth, yet the spread of the virus is never the true focus of the story. This is a character study of Cole and his fate.
There are too many questions left, however. You simply have to wonder how the beaten down human race is able to create a machine capable of time travel given the conditions of the futuristic Earth. Other concerns, including whether or not the life of Cole is repeated or he’s able to escape are unclear. The time travel rules are never fully established, leaving critical plot points a mystery open to multiple interpretations.
12 Monkeys is still superb sci-fi, engrossing to the end. There’s a wonderful twist in characters as Cole begins to believe he’s crazy and his psychiatrist has to convince him he’s right. Brad Pitt was nominated for an Oscar for his stand-out portrayal of a mental patient.
Those looking for a standard apocalyptic sci-fi thriller will come away wondering how anyone can appreciate 12 Monkeys. It’s a complete break from the standard scenario, with no politics or scenes of disaster. It’s a one-man fight for the fate of the entire human civilization. Regardless if it makes sense to you, the material here is powerful and unforgettable.
Presented in HD, you’ll need to recheck your equipment and then the disc to make sure this is an upgrade over the standard DVD. This is a muted, ugly mess. Film grain and dirt are constantly high, while detail is non-existent. Aside from the lack of glaringly noticeable compression artifacts, this barely justifies a HD release, let alone one that's considered an improvement over SD DVD.
Most of the surround audio comes from the Paul Buckmaster soundtrack. It’s wonderfully enveloping. Some atmospheric moments are noticeable, including wind billowing in multiple channels, and some nice opportunities for front speaker separation as well. It’s hardly a mind-blowing, deafening Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 presentation, but it uses what’s available effectively.
Carried over from the laserdisc release, the documentary The Hamster Factor & Other Tales of 12 Monkeys is a classic example of how to tell the story about the making of a film. At feature length (90 minutes), this deserves a full review by itself. The amount of on set material is staggering. It’s a shame the video quality is abysmal, matching its original laserdisc release.
A commentary with Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven doesn’t cover new material when compared to the documentary. It’s a shame they don’t dive deeper into the storyline to finally clear up questions as well. Finally, the 12 Monkeys Archives is 40 minutes of stills, pre-vis, and mock-ups. Like the documentary, these are a direct lift from the laserdisc release without any added resolution. Some of them are barely discernible.
It’s tough to critique a movie like this without handing out spoilers. Needless to say, 12 Monkeys is very much a film that you’ll need to see for yourself. You’ll make a personal choice as to whether or not it makes enough sense to be considered a classic.