The movie never changes. People change, but every time you see it, it’s different because you’re different.
Toward the climax of director Terry Gillam’s iconic apocalypse thriller, 12 Monkeys, time traveler James Cole (Bruce Willis) and his psychiatrist-turned-ally, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), hide in a movie theatre where they catch a few snippets of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Cole was sent back to 1996 from the year 2035 to learn about the origin of a pathogen that wiped out five billion people and relegated humanity to the dustbin of natural history. Cole was a child when it happened, and memories of the old world still rattle around his broken brain — memories, for example, of Vertigo, which felt decidedly different to Cole as a little boy than as a man trying to find hope in the face of the end of everything.
Another memory haunts him: As a young boy, Cole witnessed an airport shooting. A long-haired man in a Hawaiian shirt pulled a gun at the security checkpoint and was quickly killed by police officers. The violence haunted Cole for the rest of his life, even after illness eradicated his parents and community. It’s a tough, uncompromising world — and the only comfort may just be the fleeting dreams we allow ourselves against better judgment.
That’s certainly one way to read 12 Monkeys and a different way than I read it as a teenager or a twentysomething who simply appreciated the Gilliam found-art aesthetic, unhinged goodness of Bruce Willis, and career-defining mania of Brad Pitt’s performance as privileged nutjob Jeffrey Goines. Back in the day, I held the structural tightness of David & Janet Peoples’ script (based on the short film La Jetée) in really high regard. There are few predestination time travel movies that feel this airtight. What I appreciated now is the ennui of it all, the deep, unrelenting sadness of Cole’s mission to the past. The world of 2035 is bleak. It’s hardly worth saving. Neither, it seems, is the Philadelphia he discovers in 1996. Gilliam depicts both as decayed, polluted wastelands of different sorts, all due to human neglect. It has more in common with Pitt’s other career-making role in the mid-1990s, Se7en, than I ever appreciated.
Arrow’s new 4K UHD release of 12 Monkeys is the best it has looked on home video since their 2018 Blu-ray release. It’s hard to say whether the upgrade is worth it for those who already own the original, but as someone who only ever watched the film on DVD, it was a stark difference. Audio-wise, the 4K UHD set boasts lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 stereo soundtracks.
Special features are also basically the same and plentiful. Included is the feature-length making-of documentary, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys. This is an entirely separate film, not just a fluff documentary, making this a two-for-the-price-of-one purchase.
Additional extras include an audio commentary by Gilliam, as well as a 1996 interview between the director and Jonathan Romney. An appreciation by Ian Christie is also included.
Packaging-wise, this is not one of Arrow’s large sets but rather a single release with a slipcover. A reversible sleeve with artwork by Gary Pullin is included. Inside the case is a collector’s booklet with essays by Nathan Rabin and Ian Christie, the former of which was included in the Blu-ray set.