Living in 2035 in the aftermath of a virus which has wiped out much of humanity, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back through time to 1996, not to stop it ever happening, but to get a sample of the original virus in order to allow scientists of his time to work on a cure. Haunted by a recurring dream (that itself changes in small details each time) of a shooting during a foot chase at an airport, Cole is first sent to 1990 by mistake, where he is put in a mental hospital under the care of Dr Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). There he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a fellow patient with strong environmentalist views.
Transported back to his own time, James is given evidence that Goines was part of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, a group linked to the release of the virus. Given the chance to complete the mission, Cole is finally – after a quick detour to the battlefields of World War I – sent to the correct destination of 1996. Encountering Railly once more, he needs to find out where the virus comes from, whilst questioning his own sanity and wrestling with dreams of that airport shooting.
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12 Monkeys remains a strong, relevant work, and is a career highlight for director Terry Gilliam, sporting a vanity-free, engaged performance from Bruce Willis. The environmentalist themes, the work reflecting a fear of an out-of-control pandemic, and the idea that rogue groups can cause more pain that Governments all hold up as ideas worthy of discussion today. In fact, were no years referenced directly, it could, conceivably, be a far newer work than its 27 years.
It stands as one of the most interesting films of the mid-nineties. The film is presented here in a flawless restoration. The blacks are deep, and the slight oversaturation of light in some sequences give it a dreamlike quality, which is entirely appropriate, given Coles’ mental state – his fear that he is imagining it all. If these sets – as with Eureka Entertainment‘s Masters of Cinema range – are about preserving and celebrating film, then Arrow have got the main part very right.
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Arrow Video have provided a UHD release for 1995’s 12 Monkeys, and this was much welcomed. When so minded, Arrow Video can put together some exceptional sets. A recent example would be their extraordinary efforts in the UHD release of RoboCop. By contrast, this is a disappointment. There is almost nothing new here. What is present is interesting, but it is shocking that a company that can get all the key players to participate in discussions of films from two decades before this, have not managed to create anything more exciting for this set. Bruce Willis is retired and unwell, but Terry Gilliam, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt et al, however, are presumably not.
So as to what we do get: ‘The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys’ is a roughly 88-minute-long fly on the wall making of the film from concept to release. It is standard definition, 4:3 ratio, and was released in 1996, presumably alongside the first home release of the main feature. It is – fine; we see Gilliam going on talk shows of the time, designing artwork for the film, looking at marketing materials and so on. The one slight smile to be had is that the film does use the style of his Monty Python artwork, but other than this, it gives little insight and long outstays its welcome by the end. It will be of interest only to devotees of the film.
There is an audio commentary by Gilliam and producer Charles Roven. This is pleasant enough, as they keep the conversation going well, and have a good memory for the project. It is not particularly a standout example of such chats however, and again, is really only for hardcore fans of this work. ‘The Film Exchange with Terry Gilliam’ is an on-stage interview of around 24 minutes with the director, from 1996. Again, it is fine, but we are watching a standard definition extra from over a quarter of a century ago in support of such a wonderful new restoration. Appearing to be new – but is not – is an appreciation by Ian Christie. This is a circa 16-minute conversation with the author of ‘Gilliam on Gilliam’, but it appeared on the 2018 Blu-ray release. The set is rounded off with an archive of picture and artwork and a trailer.
And that is it: a rehash of the 2018 Blu-ray release, not even some new features, with the 2018 release as a bonus disc. Fans of the film will delight in the quality of the picture and sound, but if they are happy with the Blu-ray, then there is nothing here to prompt an extra purchase. Disappointing.
12 Monkeys is out now on 4K UHD from Arrow Video.