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Twelve Monkeys

(1995) **** R
130 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Terry Gilliam. Cast: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse.

/content/films/3487/3.jpgYesterday This Day's Madness did prepare;
To-morrow's Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.

--The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam

In the fourteen years since the release of Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, its relevance and potency have only grown. In 1995, urban apocalypse seemed like an interesting idea; these days it seems a likelihood. It's all relative, of course, an insight in which the film cheerily traffics. Are we doomed to destruction? Or have we already destroyed ourselves, through consumptive capitalism and delusional tunnel vision?

Inspired by Chris Marker's classic 1962 experimental short film La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys benefits from the marriage of visionary director Gilliam and two of the smartest screenwriters to work in post-studio-system Hollwyood: David Peoples (Unforgiven, Blade Runner) and Janet Peoples. They posit a world in which "5 billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997..." By 2035, the human race has moved underground, where an exaggerated version of the class system finds criminals used as "volunteers" (guinea pigs) by scientists hoping to develop a cure that will enable them to reclaim the surface from the animals who now roam decrepit ghost cities. Convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) proves so capable in surface missions that the scientists (Bill Raymond, Carol Florence, Ernest Abuba, Bob Adrian, H. Michael Walls, and everybody's favorite Arthur Dent, Simon Jones) select him to travel into the past in search of key details about the origin and nature of the virus. Through it all, Cole experiences a recurrent dream--or memory or vision--of a tragedy that traumatizes a beautiful woman and a little boy.

In 1990 Baltimore (six years off target), Cole is quickly picked up and clinically diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Pumped full of sedatives and anti-psychotics, the drooling time traveller makes an impression on Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). Locked in an institution, Cole meets Jeffrey Goines (Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt), a leapin' loony who helps his new friend to affect an escape. Pulled back to 2035, Cole regroups with the scientists, who send him to 1996. There, Cole reconnects with Railly, who--seemingly inspired by her encounter with Cole--is delivering a lecture called "Madness and Apocalyptic Visions" and looking down her nose at the mythological "plague-doomsday scenario." Cole kidnaps Railly and forces her to drive him to Philadelphia, where he plans to track down an animal-activist group that may be the cause of the virus' release into the population. "The Army of the Twelve Monkeys" is led by none other than Goines, prodigal son of scientist Dr. Leland Goines (Christopher Plummer).

/content/films/3487/5.jpgLost? It only gets more complicated, but the plot is purposefully delirious, keeping us--like Cole--too busy and too disoriented to solve the mystery before its time. It's a dazzling feat of storytelling that bristles with provocative ideas. The pointed use of economically depressed Baltimore and Philadelphia helps to establish the comparison of a city's rot to the mind's decay in a present-day nightmare world where no one seems to notice quite how bad things have gotten (this, too, is relative; Cole enthuses to Railly, "You live in a beautiful world, but you don't know it"). Too professional for her own good, Railly walks unfazed past raving patients manhandled by guards, but something in Cole breaks down her defenses. The story constantly poses and re-poses the question of what constitutes sanity or insanity, and challenges the conventional wisdom that the supposed advanced insight of academics and power-brokers is more valuable than the "public opinion" of the Everyman. for his part, Cole is a classical victim of "the Cassandra Complex": he knows the future, but no one will listen.

That Katherine eventually comes around makes her more than an ally; rather, she becomes James' soul mate in a head-spinning love story that realigns her reality. The climax of their romantic fervor comes in a movie theater, where the pair don disguises to begin a new, knowingly brief life together as Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak enact the same tale onscreen in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Railly once dismissed Cole's supposed delusion as "a meticulously constructed fantasy," but now she embraces the same as a sane response (perhaps the only one) to a world scheduled for execution. On one hand, the scene is the ironic fulfillment of an earlier suggestion that "madness" could be contagious; on the other, it's a beautiful expression of ultimate love as a shared reality. Even more emotional is Cole's deeply personal inability to take our fragile world--a loss he has temporarily regained--for granted (his grateful eyes gloss over with tears as he listens to Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" on the car radio)..

/content/films/3487/4.jpgIndeed, every scene in Twelve Monkeys carries some philosophical, political, or psychological import, whether it's a consideration of the fine line between humans and animals (and who deserves the planet more), the disturbing symbolism of Cole's Everyman sporting a bar-code tattoo, or the clock-face motif that reminds us of our mortal coil struggling against the oppressive omnipresence of ticking time. With the wide-angle support of production designer Jeffrey Beecroft and cinematographer Roger Pratt (who also shot Gilliam's masterwork Brazil), Twelve Monkeys is never less than visually and intellectually stimulating (the interrogation room alone, inspired by the work of Lebbeus Woods, is a stunning vision of the fractured reality created by modern technology). Gilliam's polarizing style is at its near-best, and though delicate sensibilities will be permanently off-put by the hysterical, edge-of-sanity tone, the film's generosity of ideas and emotions deserves attentive patience.

If nothing else, Twelve Monkeys offers three terrifically engaging performances. Willis has never been better, delivering here his least affected, most poignant performance. Besides being gorgeous and palpably intelligent, Madeleine Stowe brings a crucial soulfulness and credibility to what in lesser hands would seem an absurd romance. And filling the role of the cockeyed unholy fool, Pitt flings his fingers and spasmodically wrenches his head out of alignment in a simultaneous reunciation of stardom and celebration of acting. (Yet more embraceably creative work comes from supporting players Christopher Plummer, Frank Gorshin, David Morse, and Jon Seda.)

Absconding once again with investor dollars (and, amazingly, paying them back), Gilliam has enabled himself to build a better mousetrap. Along with everything else the film accomplishes through allegory, Twelve Monkeys is also a science-fiction what-if scenario about the cruel joke that would be time travel, by which even those who remember history are doomed to repeat it. This old chestnut inverted also works as allegory: like monkeys, we are creatures of habit; once "evolved," we're not so much left to our devices as doomed to them.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 7/28/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

At first glance, Universal's transfer of Twelve Monkeys might appear to be a disappointment. But those who saw the film in theaters fourteen years ago will recognize the picture's fidelity to the source material, which was purposely shot with diffused light for a hazy look. The image is certainly film-like and also undeniably an improvement in detail and color tone from the previous DVD issues. Don't expect the sharp digital sheen of a new film, and you'll get a highly rewarding presentation of the filmmaker's intentions. The robust DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix offers even more noticeable improvements, with plenty of use of the surround channels to give body to the film's memorable music and soundscape of effects.

Universal, bless it, has retained the previously issued bonus features, beginning with a feature commentary with director Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven. It's an awesome, no-holds-barred track, with Gilliam candidly recalling his latest round of struggles with suits to achieve his distincive vision; Roven also proves why he's a collaborator sought-after by smart filmmakers like Gilliam and Christopher Nolan.

Even better is Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's revealing feature-length documentary The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (1:27:35, SD).  The all-access documentary follows Gilliam around the production, marketing meetings, the first test screening, and the premiere, telling the story of the film's making from the director's perspective (it would have been interesting to see more of the actors, but you can't have everything). Participants include Gilliam, Roven, a seemingly guarded Willis, co-producer Lloyd Phillips, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, set decorator Crsipian Sallis, unit publicist Ernie Malik, Pitt, screenwriters Janet Peoples & David Peoples, first assistant director Mark Egerton, and editor Mick Audsley. (If you like this, check out the filmmakers' Lost in La Mancha, about Gilliam's failed first attempt at shooting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.)

The disc also includes "12 Monkeys Archives" (a cool gallery of concept drawings, storyboards, production photos, and poster art totalling 237 images) and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:25, SD). Of course, Universal also includes the customary My Scenes bookmarking feature and BD-Live accessibility.

First-time adopters should go all in, and current owners should definitely consider this hi-def upgrade.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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