12 Monkeys 4K UHD Review
4K UHD Release: April 26, 2022
Video: 1.85:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and English LPCM 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 2:09:31
Director: Terry Gilliam
In 1996, a deadly virus is unleashed by a group calling themselves the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, destroying much of the world’s population and forcing survivors underground. In 2035, prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) is chosen to go back in time and help scientists in their search for a cure. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
By now, emphasis on the legend of Terry Gilliam outweighs his actual output as a filmmaker. His post-millennial filmography has been almost entirely defined by a series of unfortunate events that can only be considered darkly comedic at this point. It’s impossible to tell which of Gilliam’s recent hardships can be considered bad luck, which can be blamed on true persecution, and which are merely the results of a self-fulfilling prophecy. After finding considerable success as the token American member of Monty Python and scoring a surprise hit with surrealistic family film, Time Bandits (1981), Gilliam entered the long and labored production of his masterpiece, 1985’s Brazil. When the film tested poorly, the US distributor, Universal, recut Brazil without the director’s input or blessing. Then, his next film, another family fantasy adventure called The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), went over budget and was buried by Columbia Pictures following internal politics out of Gilliam’s control. Things went better on his next film, the critically acclaimed Fisher King (1991), but he tempted fate again in 1995, when he accepted a director-for-hire gig with his old nemesis, Universal, to make a film called 12 Monkeys (1995), from a screenplay by Janet & David Peoples (based on Chris Marker’s short La Jetée ) – the couple that had written Blade Runner (1982), another ‘80s science fiction classic that was famously re-edited by the studio before release. Production was, predictably, a nightmare.
At this point, 12 Monkeys’ tortured production history and place in Gilliam’s ‘legend’ is impossible to separate from its artistic and entertainment value. However, while it isn’t a classic on the level of Brazil or perhaps as Gilliam-esque as Time Bandits or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 12 Monkeys is eminently satisfying on a dramatic level. Fisher King aside, even director’s greatest films tend to engage in irony, whimsy, and anxiety in an effort to avoid sentimentality. This isn’t a criticism, more like a measure of what makes his movies tick, but 12 Monkeys requires some sentimentality to work and Gilliam admirably balances that with his usual inclinations. The cast deserves a lot of credit for the film’s success, as well, of course. It’s easy to forget 27 years after the fact that Bruce Willis was primarily an action and comedy star who was trying to establish himself as a dramatic lead, while Brad Pitt was trying to break out of his sex symbol mode (he was rewarded directly with a Golden Globe win and Academy Award nomination). As the straight-woman in the situation and true audience surrogate, Madeleine Stowe is the glue holding the whole thing together, and her performance is the undervalued key to the film’s success.
12 Monkeys definitely play differently in 2022, following two years of a real-world pandemic that has been further complicated by conspiracy theories. What was intended as an intellectual spin on the post-apocalyptic time travel formula of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), its sequels (especially Terminator 2 , which also features a protagonist institutionalized for ‘delusions’ of future apocalypses), and inspirations, now feels like a twisted satire of our current reality, bent through the fish-eyed, Dutch-angled lenses of a noted cinematic stylist – especially the parts where humanity is trapped in a perpetual underground limbo that is almost indiscernible from prisons. We know that COVID-19 isn’t an environmental terrorist organization’s plot – well, most of us do – but I really hope that it doesn’t continue mutating and spreading to the point that future governments need to invent time travel to save humanity. Fingers crossed!
Twelve Monkeys was one of Universal’s best early DVDs and the studio’s initial Blu-ray (and HD DVD) offering was pretty good as well, so, initially, it seemed unnecessary for Arrow to put a lot of money and effort into a new release. This 2160p, 1.85:1 UHD is based on the same restoration as their earlier 1080p Blu-ray. The original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director at EFilm, Burbank, then graded/restored at Silver Salt Restoration in London, under the supervision and approval of director Terry Gilliam.
I don’t have Arrow’s Blu-ray on hand and can’t get accurate 4K UHD screencaps, anyway (the images on this page were taken from a digital streaming version), but the folks at Caps-a-holic have a nice comparison between the Arrow remastered BD and the original Universal version that illustrates the upgrades in 1080p, at least. The higher resolution scan leads to tighter detail and better grain structure, leading to stronger texture during the many scenes where Gilliam and cinematographer Roger Pratt utilize loads of diffused backlight (the entire film is actually quite grainy by design). There’s also a touch more information on all sides. The Gilliam supervised grading that makes the biggest difference to my eye. The basic color temperatures aren’t changed much, they’re just augmented in order to bring out subtleties, like skin tones and minor highlights, and deepen the important shadows. The 4K UHD boosts everything already good about the remaster, bumping up the detail and improving the already very good dynamic range with the Dolby Vision upgrade.
This initial printing does have one notable fault that Arrow has acknowledged on their Twitter page (sometimes, it pays off to get my screeners later than some outlets, because I probably would have assumed there was something wrong with my disc specifically, rather than the lot):
Sadly, we have identified a fault on our12 Monkeys UHD disc (FCD2191/AV380), where, at approximately 41 minutes, some footage is briefly repeated with no disruption to the soundtrack. This error was not spotted by the producers, the facility that carried out the work, or the filmmaker who approved the restoration. The fault was traced to the initial 4K data when one of the scanned reels contained some overlap in content and this wasn’t flagged in the initial conform.
I actually didn’t notice the error at first, due to the deliberately bewildering nature of the scene (Cole is being interrogated by the scientists and there are a lot of quick cuts between similar images) and the fact that the soundtrack does not repeat, but it was present on my review copy.
12 Monkeys was released early in the digital sound era, three years after Dolby Digital’s 1992 premiere and two after DTS’ in 1993. As such, it was mixed for 5.1 and stereo-surround markets, and Arrow has included both options here in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio and LPCM, respectively (supplied directly by NBC Universal). The difference between the two tracks is negligible, amounting mostly (and expectedly) to a slightly broader soundscape and better dialogue centering from the 5.1 mix. Gilliam likes layering effects in a sometimes uncanny way to help set the mood and prefers utter silence in a lot of cases, so the bulk of the stereo/surround effects pertain to environmental din and Paul Buckmaster’s off-kilter score.
Commentary with director Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven – This is the commentary track originally recorded for the Universal laserdisc that was transferred to the DVD (apparently, there are slight differences to each version, due to the fact that laserdiscs needed to be flipped). It’s among the formative tracks of the earliest DVD generation and maybe even the best track Gilliam himself ever recorded, brimming with stories and lessons for budding filmmakers.
The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (87:34, HD) – There have been plenty of fantastic documentaries made about disastrous Terry Gilliam productions, including Jack Mathews’ Criterion short The Battle of Brazil (1996) and Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe Lost in La Mancha (2002), but Fulton & Louis’ The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (1996) remains my personal favorite. It’s a perfect warts-and-all, fly-on-the-wall view that is arguably better than the movie it is covering.
The Film Exchange with Terry Gilliam (23:51, HD) – An interview with Gilliam conducted by Jonathan Romney at the London Film Festival in 1996, in which he speaks about the film and Fulton & Louis’ documentary.
12 Monkeys: Appreciation by Ian Christie (16:10, HD) – An Arrow exclusive interview with the author of Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema (University of Chicago Press, 2019), who discusses Gilliam’s work rehabilitating his reputation in the ‘90s, 12 Monkeys’ production, his relationship with the screenwriters and cast members, the performances, and the film’s themes.
The Twelve Monkeys Archives still gallery
The images on this page are taken from HD streaming, NOT the 4K UHD, and sized for the page.