The first time I had come across Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys was in middle school, finding a novelized adaptation at a book sale. I hadn’t seen the movie at the time, but I decided to read the book version. I was immediately intrigued and wanted to see what the movie was like. I ended up blind buying it on VHS at some vendor at a festival. It easily became one of my favorite films at that age, and I watched it multiple times at that point in my life. Then, for some reason, I never re-watched it past middle school – or, at least, after my first year of high school.
Re-watching it for the first time in 20 years or so, I was surprised by how much of the movie I had remembered in terms of certain scenes and dialogue. It also amazed me how eerily it paralleled the events that are taking place in reality today.
Originally released in December 1995, 12 Monkeys tells the story of a virus that is released in 1996, killing off five billion people worldwide. A gang known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is to blame, and the survivors of the virus have been forced to live underground. Normally, sci-fi films take place many years into the future, so it’s an interesting and smart choice for Gilliam to focus on the next calendar year. The bleakness and eerie feel is apt for a movie that, at the time, was taking place in the next year and showcased what may happen if a virus were unleashed around the world. Granted, that never happened in 1996. But, flash forward to 2020, with the coronavirus outbreak taking place, the film comes off as relevant, minus the time-travel aspect.
The film juggles between multiple timelines, jumping forward to 2035 where a prisoner named James Cole (Bruce Willis) is tasked to go back to 1996 and help find a cure for the disease. However, his mission accidentally takes him to multiple detours in time. At one point, he meets mental patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) and psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe) in 1990. While not the original destination to which he was sent, James will later meet up with these two in 1996 to help stop the outbreak of the virus.
Gilliam’s directorial approach is bleak but not too dreary, and that’s due in part to Pitt’s Oscar-nominated performance. It gives the film its needed, humorous lift, without going full Looney Tunes-territory. The commitment Pitt gives to the role as a paranoid, conspiracy theorist mental patient is undeniably good and unpredictable. It reminds me of how great Pitt was in the wildly underseen Kalifornia, and how he can take on a role that is out of his normal performances and knock it out of the park. He can play chaotic characters without hesitation and it would be a pleasure to see him take on something like that again in his older years.
Willis is also terrific as the loner time traveler, who is tasked with saving the world but also has his own challenges. A recurring dream has James as a young boy in an airport, seeing someone run by with a case that possibly contains the virus. James questions its connection to reality, if any, and also deals with the consistent doubts by those whom he encounters.
Although made in the ’90s, the only thing that could be considered dated for 12 Monkeys are some zoo animals that were digitally created. But that tends to happen with advancements in technology. Despite that, Gilliam’s film is still surprisingly effective, no matter which year you watch it.
Arrow Video had previously released a remastered version of the film on Blu-ray a few years prior, but has now released the same version of the film in a steelbook format. The design on the steelbook is incredible and a must for those who are not just fans of the movie, but also fans of steelbook collecting.
The special features include The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, which is a feature-length documentary on the making of the film. The Twelve Monkeys Archives focuses on some designs of the logo. There is also an interview with Gilliam from 1996, the original theatrical trailer, and an appreciation of the film by Ian Christie, author of the book Gilliam on Gilliam. The new steelbook also comes with a booklet that contains an excerpt from Gilliam on Gilliam and an essay by Nathan Rabin.