Near the climax of 12 Monkeys, time traveler James Cole (Bruce Willis) and his psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), hide from authorities at a rep movie house where Vertigo is screening. Cole’s observation about Alfred Hitchcock’s film may as well be a response to Terry Gilliam’s own twisty, tragic narrative: “The movie never changes. People change, but every time you see it, it’s different because you’re different.” More than 20 years after its original release, 12 Monkeys feels more unnerving. Certainly, its apocalyptic tone will cut deeper for those who project the “accelerationist” instabilities of the post-truth present-day onto Gilliam’s speculative fantasy.
Working from a David and Janet Peoples screenplay inspired by Chris Marker’s avant-garde masterpiece La Jetée, Gilliam delights in making us feel the grotesquerie of urban dilapidation and subverting our expectations. In 2035, Cole is selected to travel back to 1996 in order to stop underground eco-terrorists—known as The Army of the Twelve Monkeys—from releasing a viral agent that killed 99.9% of humanity a year later. Cole’s pulled back and forth between his “present” of 2035 and 1990, and then to the trenches of World War I, before the mistakes in his time traveling are fixed and he finally lands in 1996. In constant flight from police, psychiatrists, and his futuristic handlers, he investigates the cause of the virus and, before he can stop it, is gunned down in an airport terminal. A bystander who stares hypnotized by the action is the adolescent Cole, who will inevitably survive the coming plague, end up underground, and, come 2035, be sent back to stop it.
12 Monkeys is anchored by Willis’s performance. His Cole not only conveys in-the-moment panic and confusion, but is burdened with the inconsolable melancholy of seeing everyone he ever loved die. Every close-up of Cole, whose identity is relegated to the barcode on his neck, expresses the guilt of a survivor. His sense of loss is in step with a film where it’s not only the extinct human race that’s mourned, but the legacy of human imagination.
Early in the film, we see Cole surveying the seemingly extraterrestrial polar landscape of 2035 where wild animals roam freely. In the ruins of what was once a busy department store, holiday decorative angel statues are a sad echo of the good will of a bygone species. Exploring the ruins, Cole is crippled by horror as a grizzly bear approaches him, but the animal unexpectedly trots away, and the intensity of Cole’s fear withers into a display of mutedness, the film’s music score swerving from alarming to comic sadness. Gilliam’s futurescape shows how human invention, emotion, and even corporeality are trivial; Cole’s apparently not good enough for the alpha predator to eat.
Then again, Gilliam wonders if we could ever adequately appreciate our own wonders. When 12 Monkeys transitions to the pre-apocalyptic past, the camera pulls back from an Impressionist painting as Mozart plays in the background. The setting is a museum lecture, with a respectful audience listening as a pompous speaker quotes poetry. The response to human achievement here is respectful but passive, and one can easily imagine the long-imprisoned Cole regarding the same moment as a nourishing miracle. There’s an awe in Cole’s eyes as he hears the less culturally esteemed sounds of Fats Domino on the radio. Cole is the ragged, stinky, drooling antipode to the sharp-dressed and well-read audience, and yet he’s a more ideal spectator of art.
After all, Cole’s mission is in a sense propelled by the enigma of art, namely the Twelve Monkeys’ graffiti—proclaiming “We Did It’—he finds in 2035. The artist, and alleged terrorist, in this case is manic activist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), whose chemist father (Christopher Plummer) presumably has access to the germs that incept the virus. That the Twelve Monkeys are red herrings is then a grand Gilliam joke on misreading works of art. These eco-terrorists are merely political showmen with no relation to the viral attack. Gilliam points out the importance of discernment, as it’s not big-name movie star Brad Pitt we should watch out for, but comparably anonymous St. Elsewhere actor David Morse, excellent as an ostensibly innocuous lab scientist who happens to think the excesses of humanity warrant extermination.
The matter-of-fact resolve of Morse’s Dr. Peters is what makes Gilliam’s blustery madhouse apocalypse unusually terrifying. This mass murderer malignantly slips through civilization’s safeguards as quietly as the virus marking its territory through the air. This is the plain-faced chilling specter of civilization’s heated discontents, which in our own time increasingly feel like they’re boiling over, as breaking the system captures favor with populations the world over more than fixing it. Watching Vertigo, Cole draws an analogy of his inexorable trajectory to that of an old movie where everyone knows the ending. That there’s an eerie resemblance in Morse’s quiet and disaffected Big Bad to so many fanatical lone gunmen and mad bombers we see wreaking havoc in the present day makes the film’s apocalypse feel less like fiction than a joltingly uncanny act of witness.
Arrow's 4K transfer, struck from the film's original 35mm negative, is absolutely marvelous. The picture is sharper than ever, colors are more saturated (particularly reds, which inched toward splotchy orange in previous home-video editions), and grain levels are film-like and consistent throughout. The 5.1 master audio sound mix holds the overwhelming Gilliamesque chaos—music, stammering and stuttering Brad Pitt, deafening airplanes, screeching industrial machinery, the constant chattering in the background—in exquisite balance. The surround sound is staggeringly all-consuming at times, most memorably in the scene where an ostensibly source-less off-screen voice engulfs James Cole in the asylum.
These extras pay diligent respect to the film, possibly salvaging it as a true gem of 1990s studio filmmaking. The extras from Universal's 2009 Blu-ray are wisely ported over, among them Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's "The Hamster Factor," a thorough and frank making-of documentary that showcases how vulnerable Gilliam felt as he smuggled his idiosyncrasies into a Hollywood contract job. A prickly commentary track featuring Gilliam and producer Charles Roven digs deeper into the film's production and the project's origins.
New to this edition are a lively interview with Gilliam conducted at the 1996 London Film Fest and an appreciation of the film (and how it fits in the filmmaker's body of work) by Gilliam on Gilliam author Ian Christie. The Blu-ray's first pressing also features an excellent long-form essay on the film by Nathan Rabin, as well as the full 12 Monkeys chapter from Christie's Gilliam on Gilliam. Arrow's final gift to fans is a reversible sleeve that preserves Gary Pullin's memorable original poster art, which features the mysterious Twelve Monkeys graffiti with the enigmatic warning "They're Coming."
Time has been kind to 12 Monkeys, a compelling and unnerving genre exercise that boasts what may be Bruce Willis's finest performance.