If I was forced to use one phrase to describe the cinema of Terry Gilliam ('Brazil,' 'Brothers Grimm,' 'Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas'), it would be "loopy brilliance." And that's not a backhanded compliment. Gilliam is nothing if not a master filmmaker, one whose movies -- whether you love 'em or hate 'em -- are passionate, wildly creative and stylistically daring creations, like nothing else on the screen. This is a moviemaker in full command of his talents and his craft, and whatever the result, always seems to persevere in getting his vision up on the screen, often against enormous odds. Hollywood is not gernerally known for championing original, non-commercial visions, so it is a testament to Gilliam's tenacity that he has managed to carve out a successful career in the industry at all.
'12 Monkeys' may be Gilliam's most accessible film yet. It is certainly his most commercially successful. This, despite the fact that the film's plot is hardly conventional, and indeed, to reveal too much would be spoiling it. A dream-like mediation on memory, loss, love and the thin line between sanity and madness, Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a convict from the future who reluctantly volunteers to be sent back in time to 1996 to gather information about the origin of an epidemic that has wiped out all but one percent of the Earth's population by 2035. Cole is told his goal is to bring back the virus so scientists can study it, but a hiccup causes him to land in 1990, and he begins to realize that those who sent him may have had other motives. After hooking up with well-meaning doctor Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe) and local loony Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, in an Oscar-nominated performance), Cole unravels the mystery -- which will bring him to a very unexpected and shocking climax.
That may be the story of '12 Monkeys,' but it is really impossible to understand the film without seeing it. A mood piece, a love story, a visual tour de force and a black comedy, it is highly impressive how Gilliam is able to orchestrate so many shifts in tone and structure yet still maintain a cohesive, emotionally satisfying narrative. Even when the plot gets a bit dense, and we are unsure of exactly what is going on, we never lose trust that Gilliam knows where he is taking us. The performances by Willis, Stowe and Pitt certainly help, as they often seem to be in the same position as the audience -- lost, but strangely on course. Willis especially had a very difficult job, as his character spends the majority of the movie confused, bewildered and teetering on the brink of insanity. Yet Gilliam never loses focus of Cole's emotional journey, so we are never one step ahead or one step behind what's happening onscreen
By the time we get to the understated denouncement of '12 Monkeys,' however out there some of Gilliam's flights of fancy may have been -- and indeed, this is one weird movie -- it somehow all comes together. I was surprised, watching the film again after many years for this review, how emotionally powerful and satisfying it is. The closest film I can compare it to is Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' -- footage from which Gilliam even uses during a key moment between Willis and Stowe. Startling and evocative, '12 Monkeys' really isn't about time travel and viruses and technology run amok. It is really a fragmented fever dream of lost time and tragic choices, made all the more haunting by the fact that a man can't see his own destiny until the moment it is too late to change it.
Boy, is this one all over the place. '12 Monkeys' hits HD DVD in a 1080p/VC-1 transfer, and it is probably the most inconsistent and just plain wonky presentation I've yet seen on the format. Granted, this is a Terry Gilliam film, and stylistically audacious. Still, with a print of such varying quality I find it hard to figure out exactly how to assess its deficiencies.
There is nary an aspect of this transfer's image quality that, shot-to-shot, remains stable. The source material is fairly grainy, and some dirt and speckles are also present -- the film certainly looks its age, which is just over a decade old now. Blacks are pretty solid, but contrast and color reproduction waver. Some sequences, such as the flashbacks (or is that flashforwards?) that comprise a key plot point are blown-out and desaturated. Others are quite vivid, with hues that are noticeably more vibrant. Sharpness and depth are also pretty crazy -- some moments are so soft that it had me wondering if I was watching the standard-def DVD, while others had a very deep, three-dimensional look that is striking. Thankfully, despite such mixed source material, Universal has done a good job with the authoring and compression. I noticed surprisingly little noise and no macroblocking or other major artifacts. Perhaps '12 Monkeys' was never going to look fabulous in high-def, so I can't say this HD DVD is a genuine disappointment. But you might want to temper your expectations a bit.
A bit more reliable than the video, '12 Monkeys' gets a solid Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (encoded at 1.5mbps). This was once considered the reference quality soundtrack on laserdisc and DVD, and indeed the film's sound design holds up very well. Aside from a couple of problems, I'd say it still packs a healthy punch, even if it can't quite keep up with the most over-the-top soundtracks of today's modern action extravaganzas.
Let's start with the negatives. Dialogue here is sometimes hard to make out. Volume levels were too unequal for me, and I frequently had to adjust quieter dialogue passages to compensate for overly loud effects. I also thought bass response was surprisingly flat. There is little true kick here, and given all the cool atmospheric touches in the film, a bit more low end would have been nice.
That said, the rest of the soundtrack is very strong. Surround use is quite active -- granted, some of the more subdued scenes in the film are front-directed, but it suits the material fine. There are some truly nice discrete touches here, especially the nice dispersement of Paul Buckmaster's unobtrusive score the subtle ambient sounds -- Terry Gilliam certainly has an ear as astute as his eye. Imaging between channels is also very smooth and clean, with some nice transparent pans across the entire soundfield. Overall, it's a nicely rendered and effective presentation.
With such a great documentary, the audio commentary with Gilliam and producer Charles Roven overs a slight bit of overlap, but this is still an excellent extra in its own right. Gilliam again tackles some touchy subjects, from the test screenings to "director's cuts," but always remains rhapsodic about the performances of Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe and Brad Pitt. He and Roven also delve quite extensively into the film's visual style, so this track is somewhat more technical than the documentary. Perhaps the length of both will make these a bit much for a casual fan to sit through, but it would be time well spent.
Rounding out the package is the '12 Monkeys' Archives, a still gallery with concept art, promotional materials and a few production photos. Rather dated in execution, it looks lifted right from the laserdisc. Also included is the film's theatrical trailer in 480i video, and the quality leaves something to be desired.
'12 Monkeys' is a thought-provoking, often challenging movie, and one that polarizes viewers. But if you're a fan of Terry Gilliam or more "avant garde" filmmaking, then it is a must-see. Unfortunately, this HD DVD is a tough call. The transfer is inconsistent, but then so is Gilliam's visual aesthetic. The soundtrack is a bit more strong, however, and the extras still hold up. So recommended for fans of the film, and worth a look for all others.