Yes, somehow I have never seen this movie before.
Luckily, the Arrow UHD has solved that.
Terry Gilliam was making this directly after The Fisher King and after abandoning A Tale of Two Cities. He was up on the sea of fates and had not entered the darkest phase of his career.
Executive producer Robert Kosberg was a fan of a French called La Jetée and convinced its director Chris Marker to let him try and get the movie made by Universal, who bought the rights and hired writers David and Janet Peoples. David was a writer on Blade Runner, Unforgiven, Ladyhawke, Soldier and wrote and directed The Blood of Heroes. Janet wrote several documentaries before collaborating with her husband on this script.
Producer Charles Roven felt that Gilliam was the perfect choice to direct this non-linear movie.
A deadly virus was released in 1996 by the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and now the survivors live underground. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is one of those survivors, a prisoner due to his violent outbursts and emotions, who is selected to go back in time and warn others in the past. He’s also suffering from dreams of a shooting in an airport.
When he arrives in Baltimore, he’s six years early and institutionalized, a prison all over again. Only Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and another patient, the anti-capitalist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) listen to him. Cole tries to escape and ends up back in the future, where he’s told that he must stop Goines, who seemingly is the one to unleash the virus. The time machine is faulty and sends him to World War I before its correct destination of 1996, a time when Railly is giving a speech about the Cassandra complex — when a prophet warns others of danger and is not listened to — and ends up meeting Dr. Peters (David Morse), who tells her that anyone who believes in the end of the world is sane and anyone who denies the ecological collapse of Earth is the one truly crazy.
Cole kidnaps Railly and they learn that Goines definitely is the founder of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, using the virus that his father Dr. Leland Goines (Christopher Plummer) invented and inspired from meeting Cole in 1990. Yet is that true? Is Cole insane? Is the time travel actually happening? And what really is his mission?
Gilliam himself said that “The story is disconcerting. It deals with time, madness and a perception of what the world is or isn’t. It is a study of madness and dreams, of death and re-birth, set in a world coming apart.”
At one point, Cole goes from believer to unbeliever and Railly makes the opposite decision. In one of Marker’s later films, Sans Soleil, a voiceover states “only one film has been capable of portraying impossible memory, insane memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo*.” Cole and Railly watch this film within the movie — Cole says, “I think I’ve seen this movie before” — and we even hear the strings of Bernard Hermann’s theme play.
This was probably a hard watch back in 1995 and today, it’s really difficult. I mean, someone immolated themselves to draw attention to climate change yesterday. Wynn Bruce spent an entire year planning this action only for his death to be lost in the coverage of celebrity relationships.
The movie posits that 2035 is the darkest time of the future. Yet in 2030, if global emissions aren’t halved, this world will be unlivable. But what can one person do — like Cole, I feel I am not even a cog in this vast secret shadow machine — when the majority of the damage is caused by corporations? And oh yeah, a movie about a pandemic when we’re living in one that people want to be over and refer to this as post-COVID and people whip their masks off in joy on airplanes which already circulate air filled with illness.
This got dark quick, huh?
Cole says, “Maybe the human race deserves to be wiped out,” but I’m still not so sure.
The Arrow Video UHD of 12 Monkeys offers a brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original negative by Arrow Films, approved by director Terry Gilliam. There’s audio commentary by Gilliam and producer Charles Roven, a feature-length making-of called The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, feature-length making-of documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (Lost in La Mancha), a 1996 interview with Gilliam and critic Jonathan Romney, recorded at the London Film Festival, an appreciation by Ian Christie, author of Gilliam on Gilliam, The Twelve Monkeys Archives, a trailer, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin and an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by Nathan Rabin and Ian Christie. You can get it from MVD.
*Credit for this goes to this article on Little White Lies.