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Category:    Home > Reviews > Science Fiction > Time Travel > Politics > Terrorism > 12 Monkeys (HD-DVD)

12 Monkeys (HD-DVD)


Picture: B-     Sound: B     Extras: B     Film: B+



Give or take Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s best film might well be his complex, ironic, dark time travel thriller 12 Monkeys (1995), a still enduring tale about a future society where technology has so crowded out the human race that there is no longer room for people.  Bruce Willis is the unwilling subject named Cole, who is in an underground jail for hardened criminals who is pulled out (literally by hook) by the scientists who run things.  All are told that a virus wiped out the human race and the survivors have lived underground ever since.  Now a bizarre futuristic police state, he is told being sent back in time to stop the virus from being launched by an animal rights terrorist group.  However, what is really happening is much more chilling.


In the past, he gets a psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) who thinks he is nuts when captured, “interrupting” his mission and he eventually meets the “crazy” son (Brad Pitt in a strong supporting role which earned him an Academy Award nomination) of a powerful man (Christopher Plummer) who turns out to be part of the group of the film’s title.  However, even that might have more meanings and even his psychiatrist’s superior (Frank Gorshin) is not for certain what to think.  Jon Seda is also good as the cellmate who shows up to keep track of Cole in different eras, but even his role is unusual.


The screenplay by David and Janet Peoples script is thoroughly thought out, always challenging as it is also funny, bizarre and more political than most realize.  The performances are strong all around, including Willis, in one of the best understated performances of his career.  Stowe shows she is more than just a pretty face and Pitt went from mere sex object to serious actor with this film.  It is easily one of the bets Science Fiction films of the 1990s and no time travel film or TV show since has come close.


The film was even a moderate hit and a consistent favorite on home video, so it is no surprise that this is one of Universal’s early choices for the new HD-DVD format.  It is a great film and Gilliam’s audience and fan base has only grown since then.  If you like the film and have not seen it in a while or have never seen it, what are you waiting for?  I might just be a classic.


The 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital High Definition image was shot by cinematographer Roger Pratt, B.S.C. and I have seen this in 35mm and never, never, never has any video version looked as good as the film print.  Originally, there was the 12” LaserDisc, from the basic, to the boxed set to a DTS edition that has been an audiophile favorite.  When DVD came along, it was thought anamorphic enhancement could help the Video White from going yellow.  A stand-alone DTS DVD was even issued before DTS and Dolby could share the same DVD, but the picture was not improved much.


Now here is the HD-DVD over ten years later and there was finally hope one could see the film look right without a film print.  I went to the scene of the first early flashback where the film white gets hotter to signify a distant pass.  In all the previous versions, it was always too washed out, looking more like bad Super 35mm shooting than what we get here.  I thought the mistake was a low definition transfer.  Well, the bad news is that this looks almost as bad as all previous versions, except the HD reveals the extent of the flaws and errors in the transfer.  This might be the oldest HD master in Universal’s library or close to it, because this is very disappointing.


The whites do not turn yellow, yet it is as bleaching as ever.  There is noise in spaces, lack of definition in others and despite the high quality of the film, this is a disappointment for picture up there with Goodfellas and The Fugitive.  By default, it is barely the best version of the film on home video, but this is going to need an upgrade later when no one will be able to really enjoy it versus so many better transfers.


The 5.1 mix is another matter, always an audiophile favorite and only here in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, but best-known as a prime DTS demo and Universal obviously knew this by giving it those special DTS editions.  DTS should have been here as well, but this sounds about as good as previous full-bitrate (1509kbps/20bits) original DTS at its best, though I wonder if a Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD upgrade would help.  Paul Buckmaster’s score is very memorable and holds up well, along with the character of the sound design.


Extras include the original theatrical trailer, great Hamster Factor documentary that is a full-length program and not just a featurette, an archive section and a really good early audio commentary track with Gilliam and Producer Charles Roven.  Diehard fans will note that the old LaserDisc Signature Box Set included Chris Marker’s La Jetté, the short film made of black and white stills that this film was based on.  Needless to say it is not included here and likely never on any future HD edition.  However, these extras hold up like the film, even when the transfer should be trashed.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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