12 Monkeys tells the story of a man named James Cole (16 Blocks Bruce Willis) who is sent back in time from the year 2035 to the year 1996 in hopes of saving the human race from a deadly virus which has forced mankind into total seclusion from the above world. Down below the ground, they live in communities hoping one day to come out and start a new world. Once he arrives, Cole encounters a patient named Jeffrey Goines (Troy’s Brad Pitt) and a psychiatrist named Kathryn Railly (We Were Soldier… Madeleine Stowe). Cole soon learns, after a few conversations with Jeffrey, that he may hold the whole key to solving this virus. As the film progresses, what we and Cole learn is that the scientists who simply sent Cole back to obtain a sample of this virus for further study, may have had more sinister motives at hand.
The film is directed by Terry Gilliam, a man who certainly has quite the fan base not because his films gross a lot of money, but rather because his films require the mind to think about what they’ve just seen on the screen. Having only seen this film once before this viewing, my love for the film was brought back quickly. Even though I’ve only seen a handful of his films, I’ve always loved how Gilliam is able to sway away from the main plot to introduce side plots in a manner that is always keeping the viewer in loop with what the main purpose of the film at hand. His films are so creative, insane (in a good sense), fun, and simply a mind trip to watch (especially his recently released on HD DVD Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). He creates these characters that are so unique and interesting that one can help getting sucked into the story at hand.
Speaking of the characters he’s creates, I absolutely enjoyed the performance by Brad Pitt here (no real surprise that he was nominated for an Academy Award). Arriving in the same year as the masterpiece called Se7en, audiences could easily see the type of actor Pitt was shaping himself into. He handles this mental patient role with extreme simplicity that one may wonder, as I did, if Jeffrey doesn’t actually know more than he tells the character of James. Bruce Willis, in the days where audiences accepted his roles and characters (hopefully Die Hard 4 will return this as he is a fine actor) spends nearly the whole running length of the film dazed, confused and bewildered not knowing who to believe, and more importantly, who to trust. This is what makes the film so interesting. In order to fully appreciate the film, one must carefully pay attention to each little point, sort of playing a game of connect the dots. Even in the end, as had to this time around, a repeated viewing might be necessary (luckily the including commentary helped provide some insight into the questions I had).
With 12 Monkeys being his most successful film to date, audiences need to open their eyes and ears to understand the man that Gilliam is. Sure he isn’t the type of director that is a guaranteed, sure-fire go to go for a first rate film, but the films he has done thus far in his career, are definitely entertaining and can monkactually assist in determining who we are (at least I felt this way).
Presented in a 1080p, VC-1 Encoded, 1:85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the transfer for 12 Monkeys reminded me most of the transfer for Gilliam’s other released film on this format in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both transfers are above their counterpart SD DVD transfers, but not in the manner we have come to expect from HD films.
The first item I noticed here is that this transfer, as noted above, is not what I expected. Now this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just the transfer felt like I was on a continuous roller-coaster ride with the constant ups and downs in the video. Grain was the first big issue here as the overall presences of grain and dirt certainly helped to show the age of the film (11 years now). I do wonder if the use of grain may have been a stylistic choice by Gilliam as his recent Brothers Grimm had a similar problem. Anyhow, when it comes to color usage, blacks are the most dominant color here. The black levels are solid and defining created a real dark, somber world that are characters have involved themselves in. Since black is the most dominant color as noted above, the sequences where the color does dominant, like the overall transfer, tends to go up and down. Some sequences, like a majority of the flashback sequences, seemed to be washed out almost creating a sense of blurriness in the image. Again, this may have been done as a stylistic choice, but still I was curious about this.
Speaking of the ups, when the image delivers, it delivers an extremely nice image. However, the image is still not as good as we’ve come to expect. Sure the image does create a nice overall look (especially some of the three-dimensional effects), but I guess I could consider this transfer a slight disappointment. Universal has done what they could have done with the transfer at hand. However I still must put out a warning to all of you. If you do grab this film, don’t go into the transfer with as high an expectation as I did, and you won’t come out as disappointed.
Using the standard Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 in either English or Francais, 12 Monkeys does sound a bit better than it looked. I remember reading reviews of the SD DVD when it first came out. A lot of reviewers commented that the provided 5.1 track, was certain demo material. While this isn’t the case here, the Plus 5.1 is still pretty good.
The best part of this track is the overall positive use of the film’s surrounds. Gilliam, as he has proved with the film itself, obviously has a very careful eye making sure everything looks its best. Composer Paul Buckmaster worked close with Gilliam here to create the perfect score here with interesting, little sounds all of which sound fantastic. Dialogue, on the other hand, does become a bit muddled and hard to understand in some sequences. This is a big deal because instead of lying down and enjoying the film’s audio experience, I had to constantly adjust the audio levels, certainly taking away from the audio. Bass, on the hand, was similar to the film’s surrounds becoming active when needed.
Again, I must comment here on the idea of a Dolby TrueHD track. I do wonder if it’s becoming the standard for Universal to announce a Dolby TrueHD track (like they did for this film), only to remove it discretely before the street date. This is becoming highly annoying making me wonder if only WB is going to include TrueHD tracks on their releases. The film would have definitely benefited from a TrueHD track here to give those quieter, volume raising, sequences an overall more defining experience. Besides this little annoyance, this was a fine, effective experience.
- Audio Commentary with Director Terry Gilliam & Producer Charles Roven: Obviously made as an accompanying piece to the included documentary, I found that Gilliam and Roven do tend to repeat a bit of the information that was included in the documentary. Still, Gilliam and Roven are a blast to listen to coming off as two highly informative and intelligent gentlemen. Gilliam informs us that it was a pleasure to work with the entire cast, while Roven dives into the technical aspects of the film.
- The Hamster Factor & Other Tales of 12 Monkeys: Now this was a highly pleasant surprise here. This 87-minute documentary is the feature of all features. Every little aspect of the film, from pre-production, Gilliam’s relationship with the cast, crew and Hollywood in itself, audience reactions to the film, and the success of the film at the box office is dealt with here. And never, not once, does the documentary become dull or uninformative. Kudos to the folks behind this film, as you’ve created one of the best features I’ve seen in quite sometime.
- Trailer: Here we get the film’s Theatrical Trailer.
- 12 Monkeys Archives: Here we get a few looks into the film’s conceptual art, promotional materials, and production photos.
12 Monkeys is quite the interesting film giving the viewer quite the mind-ride not only from the story at hand, but the exceptional acting at hand as well. Even thought the transfer is a bit questionable, I do give kudos to Universal for doing what they could with the material at hand. The disc does shine with the audio and the fabulous documentary on the film. Recommended for fans of the film, as the title can be found online for only $19.99, which is a fine price for a fine film. The rest of you, however, may want to give this one a rental first if you’re not familiar with the works of Gilliam.
Special Features List
- Audio Commentary with Director Terry Gilliam & Producer Charles Roven
- The Hamster Factor & Other Tales of 12 Monkeys
- 12 Monkeys Archives