The question as to whether or not the future can influence the past has plagued many a writer, and probably a few physicists, too. It’s a notion explored in a variety of films, most recently with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), Predestination (2014), and Looper (2012), to name a few. One film, though, that is spoken of with a certain reverence is the Terry Gilliam-directed science fiction drama 12 Monkeys (1995), starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Christopher Plummer, Jon Seda, and Brad Pitt (the latter of whom earned an Academy Awards Supporting Actor nomination for his role). A rich text of a film, this adaptation of the 1962 French short film La Jetée by Chris Marker constantly toys with audiences so that, even now, decades after release, they continue to argue about the meaning of the ending. In celebration of the film, Arrow Video is releasing a limited edition steelbook May 25th, 2021, that features brand new artwork from Matt Griffin and the same bonus features included on their previous December 2018 release.
It’s 2035 and the world is a ghost town decades after a deadly virus killed 5 billion people and sent the survivors scrambling underground. James Cole (Willis) is one such survivor, except he’s locked up in a facility for violent criminals who are selected as “volunteers” for a series of experiments designed to save humanity. What could they possibly do in 2035 that might give humanity a chance? Send someone back in time to gather information about what exactly happened and who is responsible as the last 39 years’-worth of data is basically indecipherable beyond the name “The Army of the 12 Monkeys.” Selected as the next “volunteer” to go on a fact-finding mission in the past, Cole finds himself jumping randomly through the time stream, desperate to gather anything he can find on the eco-terrorists, hindered each time by bad luck placing him, first, in a psychiatric facility where he’s overseen by Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe); second, on a World War I battlefield, and then, back to the near-present. With little control over where he goes and when, Cole and humanity are rapidly running out of time.
Before the opportunity to check out this home release edition hit my desk, I’d never seen 12 Monkeys. I’d certainly *heard* about, but it released when I was too young to see it in theaters and I just caught back up with it. As a fan of Gilliam films like Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), it was only a matter of time before I explored the film that earned Pitt his first Oscar-nom and was part of Willis’s less-traditional heyday (Last Man Standing (1996), The Fifth Element (1997), The Jackal (1997)). With so much time between its release and this viewing, I had come to know the broader strokes of 12 Monkeys, yet that didn’t stop it from being a surprising cerebral coitus. What Gilliam pulls off with the screenplay from David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner) and Janet Peoples (The Day After Trinity) is a heavily layered, trippy, and grounded tale that pusheds the bounds of the unreliable narrator to the point of questioning the film itself. This is Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall-level stuff where the line between what’s real and what’s the imagination of the protagonist is more than blurred, it’s annihilated. The fact that we, the audience, begin to question whether or not Cole is a time traveler at all, whether the apocalyptic future he claims to be from is real within the scope of the film, speaks to the talented screenwriters, direction, and editing. Seriously, who, by the time Cole himself begins to question things while Dr. Railly begins to believe, doesn’t find themselves agreeing with Cole and wondering just what type of ride Gilliam is taking us on. His trademark absurd dystopia production design is all too familiar to those who have seen his other projects and, in comparison to the sequences from 1990 and 1996, they seem just a little outside reality in terms of the future. This doubt doesn’t exist at the beginning as we’re thrust into this cold future when we meet Cole, but it does creep up the more time Cole spends with Railly. Even in the face of conclusive evidence linking Cole to WWI, there’re enough coincidental moments to imply some kind of psychosis. Even in the end, when the truth appears to be known, there’s still a shroud of uncertainty in the conclusion as it ends with the kind of ambiguity that is only resolved on a personal level based on the viewer’s own levels of optimism. The script plays with the figurative and the literal so often that we question the concrete. Only someone like Gilliam can pull this off and pull it off well.
Regarding the release itself, as stated, if you’ve picked up Arrow’s 2018 Blu-ray edition, there’s very little new to offer. It’s the same picture and sound, same bonus features, and the same commentary. One discrepancy worth noting is that the release notes for this edition say that the presentation is a high-def Bluray, while the liner notes included say it possesses a 4K resolution made from a 35mm camera negative. This is the same description on the Arrow page for the 2018 Blu-ray release making me more inclined to trust the liner notes as it would make sense for Arrow to continue with the same disc treatment rather than go backward with a standard Blu release. Outside of the packaging itself, the other new and notable piece is a limited edition booklet containing information on the film, the transfer (as stated), an essay on the film from writer Nathan Rabin, and an excerpt from a previously released conversation between Gilliam and Ian Christie. You can read the entire interview between Gilliam and Christie in Christie’s book Gilliam on Gilliam.
To get a sense of the packaging, here’re a few photos of the complete home release:
Whether this limited edition steelbook of 12 Monkeys is enough for you to spend the extra coin on will have more to do with how you feel about the film, whether or not you already own a copy, and whether you’re a collector of steelbooks. If you love the film, but don’t own it in any kind of new format, this will be an easy decision. If you’re a collector of steelbooks, given the lovely work from Griffin, this limited edition is likely a without-thought instabuy. If, however, you already own the Arrow Video restoration, the allure of the design work and a booklet may not be enough to warrant the repurchase. Limited edition packaging is typically something that gets collectors hopping, but it may not be enough with so few new offerings to go along with it.
12 Monkeys Bonus Features
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
- Optional DTS 5.1 Master Audio and 2.0 stereo soundtracks
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Audio commentary by Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven
- The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of “Twelve Monkeys,” feature-length making-of documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (Lost in La Mancha) (1:27:35)
- The Film Exchange with Terry Gilliam, a 1996 interview with Gilliam and film critic Jonathan Romney, recorded at the London Film Festival (23:51)
- Appreciation by Ian Christie, author of Gilliam on Gilliam (16:12)
- The Twelve Monkeys Archives
- Theatrical trailer
- Limited edition Steelbook featuring newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin
- Limited edition booklet featuring writing on the film by Rabin, and an excerpt of Gilliam on Gilliam by Ian Christie
Available in Limited Edition Blu-ray Steelbook May 25th, 2021.
To purchase a copy, head to MVD Entertainment Group.
For information on the 2018 Arrow Video release, head here.