Sunday, December 21, 2008

DVD Review! 12 Monkeys: Special Edition

The Film

One of my favourite sub-genres within sci-fi is the time travel movie. The concept of time travel is itself mind-blowing enough to make even a simple comedy like Back to the Future reach a level of greatness that few comedies can. When explored further, time travel reveals itself to be a complex and very abstract concept that can be dealt with within the compass of many philosophical and psychological theories and questions. Where most time travel films lose a few marks by refusing to push the concept to its fullest, Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film, 12 Monkeys, never has this problem.

The film stars Bruce Willis as James Cole, a man from the future sent back in time to find the origin of a disease that wipes out nearly all of humanity in 1997, forcing the remaining humans to live under the Earth’s surface. A group of scientists from the future is trying to find the disease’s point of origin so that they can retrieve a pure form of the disease in order to create a vaccination that will allow humanity to return to the surface, but this is just the basic premise; neither the script (by Blade Runner scribe David Peoples and his wife Janet), nor the direction of Terry Gilliam ever allow the film to give easy explanations of the plot or easy answers to the questions posed by it. The biggest question is, by now, a classic one: are the events taking place in the film completely in James Cole’s mind or is he truly a man from the future working to save humanity? I have my own interpretation, but each person will likely come out of this film with their own ideas of what took place and how the events after the film will possibly play out.

It is the question of the protagonist’s sanity that pushes the film into true greatness. A more interesting depiction of sanity and madness has possibly never been put on celluloid. At a certain point near the beginning of the film, James Cole is thrown into an asylum. It is here that he meets another patient: Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Through the eyes of the audience, Jeffrey is clearly insane, but when the perspectives of the other characters in the film are established, he appears to be no more insane than James, and this is exactly where the film succeeds. It isn’t so much about what constitutes insanity or even whether James Cole is in fact suffering from mad delusions; instead, the film plays on how sympathies to a person and their situation can affect the way we view their mental status. It also further questions our sense of reality: if the events of the film are completely within James Cole’s mind, then what stops our reality from being a construct of our own minds?

The direction of this film is superb and often utterly sublime. Terry Gilliam can’t help but make 12 Monkeys a feast for the eyes. Each frame is filled with endless detail and almost always captured under the eye of a wide-angle lens. Each time period feels fully realized, helped by the fact that the film is almost completely devoid of computer-generated imagery. Gilliam also seems to find within the screenplay a kind of inspiration that is rare in his work; the lead characters are treated with completely sympathy and even though the film is dark and often bleak, it still manages to find the optimism prevalent in humanity. The screenplay is also something of a masterpiece: The writing always feels realistic and, other than the intentionally disorienting beginning, the film handles the potentially confusing time-jumping plot with a deft understanding of space and the characters’ places within it.

The acting is also worthy of much praise. Bruce Willis plays James Cole as a quiet, reserved individual slowly plunging into the depths of his own sanity. Willis can be intense, frightening, and sympathetic, yet always completely relatable. I would have no hesitation in calling Willis’ performance as James Cole the best of his career. It is a completely different performance from his John McClane persona and he makes the most out of it. The wonderful Madeleine Stowe plays Kathryn Railly, Cole’s psychiatrist and love-interest. Stowe is so natural in her performance as Railly that one wonders if her character is simply an extension of herself. There are moments of terror within the film that are made completely real by Stowe’s ability to convey both fear and empathy in one expression. The final third of the great leading cast is Brad Pitt. To say that Pitt plays his character completely opposite from Willis is an understatement. Pitt’s character is totally manic and is played with a speed and ferocity that is both unsettling and wholly engaging. When he is onscreen, it is difficult to take one’s eyes off of him. The film is saved from his potentially stealing the show by only the juxtaposition of Willis’ superbly still performance; it is really no wonder why Pitt was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award at the ’96 Academy Awards.

What Terry Gilliam has crafted in 12 Monkeys is a time travel film that goes further in its metaphysical ponderings than any before or since, yet it never loses sight of its wonderful characters and the story at its heart. 12 Monkeys is a glorious film and one of the few that uses its science fiction premise to explore the human psyche in realistic yet extraordinary ways. This is not a film for those looking for the classic Bruce Willis action flick, nor is it a film for those looking for a simple thriller-with-a-twist: this is a film that begs its audience for patience and requires intelligence and some hard work in both piecing it together and in trying to answer the remaining questions once the credits begin to roll. 12 Monkeys is one of the better films I’ve seen, one of Gilliam’s best films and certainly one of the best films of the 90s.

Image and Sound

The image quality is generally very good. It is a little soft, but that is mostly a result of Gilliam’s shooting style. I noticed few artifacts and edge enhancement could rarely - if ever - be seen. The detail in the picture is not the highest and the colours aren’t as vibrant and natural as some other DVDs, but for a DVD a number of years old, this is generally a quality transfer. It will be nice to see what can be done with the image once it is released on Blu-ray in the future.

The 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track is quite impressive. The sound is generally very clear, and the mix is quite effective. Sound effects regularly come through very nicely on the rear channels. It isn’t the best soundtrack I’ve heard, but it definitely holds its own.

“The Hamster Factor” and other Special Features

When I decided to start this blog, I was at a bit of a loss for a name. I had a few ideas, but it was pixote, a member of the Filmspotting message board, who gave me the best one: The Hamster Factor. Until he told me, I wasn’t aware that this was the name of the documentary feature on the 12 Monkeys DVD. Because of this, I decided to make my first review a review of this DVD.

“The Hamster Factor”, as explained by the documentary, is the name given to Terry Gilliam’s attention to small, insignificant details getting in the way of filming a scene. It came from a scene involving a hamster running in a hamster wheel in the background of a very simple shot. Unfortunately, the hamster refused to run any time the camera began to roll, but Gilliam refused to let up until he has gotten the shot with a running hamster. After nearly a day’s work on a shot that should have taken well under an hour, Gilliam finally got what he wanted.

The documentary itself goes to great lengths to detail the production and post-production of 12 Monkeys and does so very well. Through the documentary, we get a great sense of how the film came together and a fascinating portrait of the nature of Terry Gilliam. It amounts to one of the best documentary features I have seen on a DVD and, at 90 minutes, isn’t the huge commitment that something like the Blade Runner set or the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions require. I can recommend the DVD on the strength of this documentary alone.

The film also comes with a commentary culled from the old laser-disc featuring Gilliam and the film’s producer, Charles Roven. The commentary is the perfect companion to “The Hamster Factor” documentary. There is very little overlap in details provided by the two features, and anytime the two do overlap, the commentary provides even more in expanded detail. A lot of time is spent between the two discussing how the actors developed their characters as well as the intended psychological implications and questions found in the film. Gilliam and Roven share a very fun rapport and their discussion is both extremely informative and intensely engaging.

The DVD also features the original theatrical trailer as well as a set of still images of concept art and the like. Not the most interesting features, but their inclusion is welcome.


12 Monkeys is probably one of the better films out there, and if you want a film that will leave you thinking for days, this is certainly one to watch. The transfer and sound aren’t the greatest in the world, but the film does look and sound as nice as one would reasonably expect for a 90s Gilliam film on the DVD format. The special features are probably worth the price of the disc alone, and between them and the film itself, I can say that 12 Monkeys garners an extremely high recommendation for your collection. Because the film was released on HD-DVD by Universal a couple of years ago, it is likely that a Blu-ray version will come out in the near future, so you may want to wait for that to be released, but the DVD is certainly a worthy option in the meantime.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Obligatory First Post

There always has to be a first; this is it.

I welcome you to The Hamster Factor.

I have meant to start a blog for a long time now, but didn't really know what it would be about. But I've figured it out. Movie reviews! Because you can't have enough online film critics. Most of the site will be comprised of movie reviews, but I will also try to review the latest episode of whatever TV show I may happen to be watching. Blu-Ray/DVD reviews will likely appear too. I might even throw in a book or game review if you're all nice. Here and there I expect to post some random musings, most likely about film, film news, or something else related to film.!SU/!SU.avi

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