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The year is 2035, and humanity subsists in a desolate netherworld after the eradication of 99 percent of the Earth's population, a holocaust which left the planet's surface uninhabitable, and the destiny of humanity uncertain. A desperate group of scientists secure a reluctant volunteer, Cole, for a dangerous assignment: he will time travel to the year 1996, where they hope he can help unravel the mystery of the apocalypse and save the future.
For more about 12 Monkeys and the 12 Monkeys Blu-ray release, see 12 Monkeys Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on July 13, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: David Peoples, Janet Peoples
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse, Jon Seda
» See full cast & crew
12 Monkeys Blu-ray Review
One of Gilliam's best finally arrives on Blu-ray...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, July 13, 2009
Of all the films, of all the genres, of all the silver screen treats I've ingested in my lifetime, nothing has satisfied my insatiable cinematic appetites as readily and completely as the future-dystopian masterworks I've encountered over the years. Blade Runner, A Clockwork Orange, Children of Men, The Matrix, Akira, V for Vendetta, The City of Lost Children, Strange Days, Dark City, Battle Royale, Serenity and, of course, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, just to name a few. Visionary director Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King and the upcoming Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) is responsible for two more personal favorites... arguably two of the finest sci-fi stunners of all time: Brazil and 12 Monkeys. The former is a stark, surrealist nightmare; the culmination of the director's darkest whimsy and most scathing satire. The latter teeters in the same bleak reaches of Gilliam's mind, but presents a perpetual dystopia that simultaneously exists in the past, present, and future; an inescapable labyrinth of desperation, predestination, and doom in the guise of a grim cautionary tale.
The year is 1997. A devastating global pandemic kills the vast majority of the world's population, leaving survivors with little choice but to forge an existence deep underground. 2035. Every attempt to produce a cure has failed, scientists remain baffled by the deadly virus' persistence, and hope is fading fast. That is until a prisoner named James Cole (Bruce Willis) discovers a crucial piece of evidence during a "volunteer" mission on the planet's surface: the name of a terrorist organization that may have been responsible for spreading the virus. Agreeing to travel back in time to 1996 to track down the so-called "Army of the Twelve Monkeys," Cole is accidentally sent to 1990, some six years before the organization's inception. Worse still, he's arrested and thrown into a mental institution, unable to communicate with his superiors. During his stay, Cole meets Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), an attending psychiatrist, and Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), an unstable patient brimming with conspiracy theories and paranoid delusions. Neither Railly nor Goines thinks of the steely-eyed madman as anything but... well, a madman, until he miraculously escapes his restraints and vanishes from a padded room.
2035. A panel of leering scientists chide Cole for his failure, but ultimately allow him to give his mission another try. Landing squarely in 1996 (after a slight time-hopping detour), Cole becomes more aggressive in his efforts, intensifying his search and preparing to take whatever action is necessary to achieve his goals. After kidnapping Dr. Railly, he discovers that his old pal Jeffrey is involved in, you guessed it, an organization called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Rushing to find Goines and cobble together the pieces of an ever-fragmented puzzle, Cole has to convince Kathryn of the truth, unravel the meaning of a slew of recurring memories from his childhood, overcome self-doubt and the nagging feeling that he's insane, and find a way to stop the vicious virus from ever being released. Along the way, he has to decide where his allegiances lie, and deal with the incessant interference of his meddlesome superiors.
Loosely based on La Jetée, a disquieting French short film, 12 Monkeys is pure, unadulterated Gilliam. Everything -- its billowing storylines, ghoulish future-tech imagery, rapidfire dialogue, densely packed themes, and mind-numbing conundrums -- is instantly, immediately identifiable as a product of Gilliam's staggering imagination. Even the most inane details are inexplicably his. However, unlike his other films (based largely in fantasy or exaggerated delusion), the visual trickery and madness on tap in 12 Monkeys serves the viewers' understanding of a character, rather than their understanding of the world that character inhabits. Until the third act begins to come together, it's difficult to discern whether Cole is insane or in the process of going insane; whether he's a madman plagued by nightmares of a deadly virus and a doomed underground metropolis, or a genuine time-traveler losing his mind in the time-stream. At times, it seems he's telling the truth... at others, it seems as if he's on the verge of realizing the extents of his own mental illness, questioning the demonic visages issuing his orders, doubting the nature of his travels, and scrambling to regain control of his mind.
To that end, 12 Monkeys is a testament to Gilliam's ability to assemble an unforgettable cast. Like Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the acclaimed director takes chances at every turn, using one of Hollywood's go-to everyman-action heroes to play a befuddled headcase, and one of the industry's premiere pretty boys to tackle a raving lunatic (with a lazy eye for good measure). To their great credit, both Willis and Pitt deliver performances of a lifetime, cleverly leaning and reeling with Gilliam's every pull and prod. And while I'd love to keep my mouth shut when it comes to the subject of David and Janet Peoples' screenplay -- I'd hate to spoil a single twist and turn of their exquisitely crafted mind-bender -- I simply can't praise Willis and Pitt's astonishing performances without paying my respects to the script that started it all. Combined with Gilliam's mad-hatter sensibilities, the story leaps off the page and onto the screen, spilling from one scene to the next with a spontaneity found only in the most meticulously designed works of fiction. Every time it feels as if 12 Monkeys is about to derail, the characters and story crystallize, revealing the cohesive vision dictating the direction and momentum of the entire film.
Simply put, 12 Monkeys is a paralyzing tour de force that commands attention and awe at every turn. Gilliam delivers an evocative future-dystopian night-terror, an exciting cast of talented risk-takers, a remarkably precise screenplay, and a disturbing glimpse into the realities of our own fragile existence. If you've never taken the time to experience this sprawling bit of cinematic perfection, there's no time like the present. If you've seen it a thousand times before, you can never be too familiar with its every seedy shadow. A true classic in every sense of the term, 12 Monkeys should have a comfortable and permanent home in your collection.
12 Monkeys Blu-ray, Video Quality
Let me get this out of the way right up front: 12 Monkeys will never be as sharp, as dazzling, or as striking as other notable catalog releases... regardless of how extensive a restoration it receives. Not only did Gilliam shoot the majority of his scenes with diffusion filters (to submerge the image in an unsettling, dreamlike haze), he relied on clashing light and shadow, jarring shifts in perspective and focus, and intermittent bursts of clarity and softness to keep his audience continually questioning Cole's sanity and motivations. As a result, some viewers will write off Universal's faithful 1080p/VC-1 transfer as an underwhelming fluke; a mismanaged presentation that doesn't boast the high definition swagger required to stand alongside the best catalog releases on the market. However, judging the Blu-ray edition's transfer too quickly would be a mistake. Roger Pratt's palette, drab and dreary as it often is, can be quite striking, particularly during Cole's high-contrast flashbacks. Likewise, black levels, while a bit dusty for their own good, are satisfying, leaving little doubt that Gilliam is more comfortable in the dark confines of his underground city than in the light. More importantly, detail -- as inconsistent and unpredictable as every object, edge, and texture is -- contributes to Gilliam's desired effect, and effectively enhances his increasingly surreal atmosphere.
That being said, there's still plenty of room for improvement in Universal's technical presentation. Contrast is a bit dull throughout the film, depth is wholly unconvincing, and print damage is a persistent (albeit minor) issue. Moreover, edge enhancement is a constant distraction, faint artifacting invades the proceedings on occasion, and some errant source noise manages to find its way into the intermittently grainy picture. In fact, rather than giving the film its just due, it appears as if the studio simply ported its problematic HD DVD transfer to a BD-50 disc, warts and all. Ultimately, while 12 Monkeys will never boast the snazziest catalog transfer on the block, a suitably fresh (yet faithful) overhaul would properly induct Gilliam's disquieting masterpiece into the 21st century.
12 Monkeys Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Universal's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track improves matters, but not as much as I expected. LFE output has undergone the most dramatic makeover, finally matching Gilliam's bizarre imagery with legitimate weight and presence. From the first ear-splitting bah-duhm of the film's off-kilter score to the resonant roar of dreamscape gunfire, 12 Monkeys offers a series of powerful, oft-times thundering bass tones. Rear speaker activity is aggressive as well, shooting bursts of steam through underground tunnels, overwhelming a war-torn battlefield with sudden screams and shocking explosions, and packing the streets of Baltimore with the sort of pulpy, chaotic ambience Marylanders will appreciate. Moreover, directionality is precise and pans are fittingly abrupt, creating an immersive soundfield that draws the listener into Cole's ravaged world and tattered mind. Unfortunately, dialogue hasn't made an easy transition. While the majority of lines are clean and well-prioritized, a few key pieces of information are lost in the mix, overshadowed by other more bombastic elements in the soundscape. It certainly doesn't spoil the experience, but it is a frequent frustration that could have been eliminated with some further polish. Ah well, it's tough to complain. 12 Monkeys has, quite simply, never sounded better.
12 Monkeys Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
There may only be three supplemental bullet points on the back cover of 12 Monkeys, but don't be fooled by Universal's modesty. This BD-50 disc includes a fantastic audio commentary with director Terry Gilliam, an 87-minute all-access documentary, and a treasure trove of production stills, concept art, and storyboards. Yes, the video content is presented in fugly standard definition (circa 1997... ouch) and, yes, it would have been nice to see some retrospective interviews or newly-minted featurettes, but the substance of the material on hand far outweighs the shortcomings of its age and dated technical presentation.
12 Monkeys Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I could bore you with more rampant praise of Gilliam's time-hopping masterpiece, but I'll just say this: 12 Monkeys is, without a doubt, one of the best science fiction films of the last twenty years and, depending on your particular tastes, one of the finest films of all time as well. The Blu-ray edition stumbles a bit with a dated (albeit fairly faithful) transfer, but its solid DTS-HD Master Audio track and high-quality supplemental package makes this release worth some serious consideration.
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12 Monkeys Blu-ray, News and Updates
• 12 Monkeys: Season One Blu-ray - February 26, 2015
The UK branch of Universal Studios has revealed that it plans to bring to Blu-ray 12 Monkeys: Season One. The three-disc set is scheduled to arrive on the market on May 25.
• Extended Trailer for SyFy's 12 Monkeys - October 30, 2014
Syfy has released an extended trailer for its upcoming TV series 12 Monkeys, starring Aaron Stanford (Nikita), Amanda Schull (Pretty Little Liars), Noah Bean (Damages), and Kirk Acevedo (Fringe). The pilot for the show, which is set to premiere in January 2015, ...
• First Look at Syfy's 12 Monkeys TV Series - July 16, 2014
Syfy has released the first official trailer for its upcoming TV series 12 Monkeys, starring Aaron Stanford (Nikita), Amanda Schull (Pretty Little Liars), Noah Bean (Damages), and Kirk Acevedo (Fringe). The pilot for the show, which is set to premiere in January ...
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