12 Monkeys is Terry Gilliam’s most commercially successful film by sheer box-office numbers… although Time Bandits turned a bigger profit due to its low budget and being a surprise blockbuster hit in the United States. It was a project that came to Gilliam from Universal and the screenwriter couple David and Janet Peoples – David wrote Blade Runner and Unforgiven, both films Gilliam admired. Gilliam previously had a much-publicized spat with Universal, so he was wary of getting in bed with them again, but his former arch-nemesis Sid Sheinberg was on of his way out of the door there, which probably helped. Plus he had the promise of the final cut, even though it had the condition of having to come in under a two-hours-and-ten-minute running time and get an R rating, both conditions that Gilliam met.
Gilliam claims he never watched the film’s source material for 12 Monkeys, Chris Marker’s La Jetée. He was aware of it but avoided it till the premiere in, I believe, France, where they played the short before the feature. He had seen stills from it, and since the film is made out of stills, there was an unconscious influence visually. Perhaps the interesting symmetry with Marker’s film is that 12 Monkeys references Vertigo: both are Universal films, so that helped with the decision to use it, but Marker’s favourite film is Vertigo, which is referenced in his work constantly, including La Jetée. I don’t really consider 12 Monkeys a “remake” of La Jetée either, both are uniquely original works. One just happens to have been inspired by the other and follows some basic story beats, the approaches are so radically different the comparisons are ultimately pointless.
Bruce Willis in easily his finest screen role portrays James Cole, a prisoner from the future who is sent to present-day 1996 Philadelphia to find the origin of a virus that caused most of humanity to be wiped out (sounds a bit like a doomsday version of Covid, doesn’t it?), with the remaining humans living in underground compounds. He ends up in 1990, not ’96, and is understandably arrested, declared insane, and sent to a mental hospital. There he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), an unhinged quasi-green anarchist type. Cole escapes in spectacularly baffling fashion, and after a detour back to the future, he finds himself in 1996. He ends up kidnapping Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), the doctor who diagnosed him, and tries to find out the origin of a green anarchist group “the Army of the 12 Monkeys,” who he believes was connected with the spread of the original virus.
The film is one I’ve probably seen at least 30 times over the years—I think I may have even seen it before Brazil (which is my all-time favourite film)—and it still plays as well now as did the first time I saw it. It’s a perfect combination of Gilliam’s surrealistic vision with an incredibly literate sci-fi script from the Peoples. 12 Monkeys is the kind of intelligent blockbuster that Christopher Nolan tries to make, and while I like all of his films, he never quite nails it (The Prestige is my favourite, maybe due to the he is willing to indulge in the whimsical.) I joked to Terry that Nolan’s most recent film, Tenet, was “0012 Monkeys” and there is some truth to that, even though I liked Tenet a lot.
Terry’s film is richer: it’s about a society that breaks down due to over-reliance on technology to communicate with each other; the subjective nature of memories, including false memories; the way we perceive the world around us, and whether it’s through somebody’s possible schizophrenia or some neurodivergent state of being like autism. Terry’s own wife, Maggie, has joked to him often that he just makes the same film over and over, and there is some truth in that he always comes back to the thin line of the sane and insane, whether in the modern world it’s those who see the world differently through some form of “mental illness” who are perhaps the only ones who see it clearly. The hazardous impact of technology and consumerism on the modern world is also something he comes back to often. His second to last film, The Zero Theorem, is a kind of third film in a loose unofficial trilogy with Brazil and 12 Monkeys.
12 Monkeys is a milestone in science fiction cinema, a film that has seeped into my dreams over the years. Many films certainly have done that, but remembering which ones have is the hard part. The performances are some of the best from everybody involved, along with Se7en, his 12 Monkeys performance proved that Brad Pitt was one of our great screen actors, not just a pretty boy movie star, and Willis never gave a more soulful performance. Madeline Stowe, who should’ve been a much bigger star than she was, gives a career-defining turn that on paper might have been a little underwritten, but brings it to life. David Morse and Christopher Plummer also knock it out of the park with their supporting roles. It goes without saying with it being a Gilliam film that it’s beautifully designed, with an impeccable eye for detail, including that infamous hamster wheel in the background while Willis injects himself in one scene. The soundtrack is also worth a shout-out, it uses two of the most overplayed songs in history—Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”’—but the way they are used seem fresh and unique, which is quite a feat.
The UHD release is a first for a Terry Gilliam film (please, please let Brazil be on the horizon) and the film looks the best it ever has. It’s a deliberately muted colour scheme, so unless you’ve seen the film as often as me, the difference between the previous Arrow Blu-Ray and this release won’t be particularly noticeable. The extras include the old commentary from Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven, the absolutely fantastic The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys from Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe who found end up making a trilogy about Gilliam’s filmmaking process, the next two would focus on his attempts to make his Quixote film. The other extras include an excellent interview with Gilliam from 1996, an appreciation from Ian Christie who compiled the Gilliam on Gilliam book of interviews (worth reading!), the stills gallery is full of images including some designs of the Army of 12 Monkeys posters, and the trailer. Finally, it includes a 44-page booklet featuring writing on the film by Nathan Rabin and archive materials