top of page

Arrow Video hits the mark with 4K restoration of Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys”

Updated: Jan 22, 2023


Bruce Willis is James Cole, a prisoner in 2035 who is “volunteered” to be sent back in time to find the origins of a virus that will kill 5 billion people. During his trips, he encounters Dr. Kathryn Railly, a psychiatrist played by Madeleine Stowe.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)

4K frame shots courtesy of Arrow Video - Click for Amazon purchase


4K Ultra HD, 1995, R for violence, language, and brief nudity

Best extra: The archival commentary with director Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven

IN THEIR commentary, recorded way-back-when for laserdisc, director Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven talk at length about the fact that Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt both felt that they had something to prove when they signed on for this thought-provoking sci-fi drama.

Willis wanted to show he had more range than the mostly one-dimensional John McClane of “Die Hard” (1998), while Pitt, a bankable heartthrob after “A River Runs Through It” (1992), “Legends of the Fall” and “Interview with the Vampire” (both 1994), was stepping way outside his comfort zone as hyperkinetic asylum patient Jeffrey Goines.

And they nailed the roles on the first day, Gilliam and Roven say: Willis, when James Cole, a prisoner who is “volunteered” to be sent back in time to find the origins of a virus that will kill 5 billion people, is interviewed in jail, and Pitt, who “explodes” into the frame when he shows Cole around the asylum. His sensational performance brought him the first of seven Oscar nominations. (Bonus points if you can name them all.)

(1) Budgeted for $30 million, “12 Monkeys” opened on December 29, 1995. Its worldwide box office topped $169 million. (2-4) Cole suits up for a specimen-collecting mission to the surface, now the dominion of animals.

For the record, Madeleine Stowe (“The Last of the Mohicans,” 1992) more than holds her own as Kathryn Railly, the psychiatrist who first thinks Cole is off his nut then comes to believe him.

But as Ian Christie, author of “Gilliam on Gilliam,” says in a new appreciation, Gilliam (“Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” 1975, “Brazil,” 1985) also had something to prove.

He was still patching up his reputation after he was seen as “out of control” in the wake of “The Adventures of Baron Manchausen” (1988). While “The Fisher King” (1991) had gone a long way to restoring his rep, he was determined to show that he was a responsible director, in part so he could get the financial backing for other projects.

“12 Monkeys,” Christie says, was his “stabilization” film.

Mix in an engrossing script by David Peoples (“Blade Runner,” 1982, Oscar nominee for “Unforgiven,” 1992) and Janet Peoples, who were inspired by Chris Marker’s 28-minute feature “La Jetée” (1962), and it’s easy to see why “12 Monkeys” is that uncompromising rarity that poses important questions that stay with you long after the end credits.

(1&2) A panel of scientists offers Cole the opportunity to reduce his sentence by going back in time to 1996 to gather information about the virus before it mutates. (3&4) Instead, he lands in 1990 and is arrested and hospitalized in an asylum, where he encounters patient Jeffrey Goines, played by Brad Pitt. He received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and won the Golden Globe for his performance.


Restored in 4K from the original 35mm negative, “12 Monkeys” (1.85:1 ratio) delivers a near-reference-quality picture. Some scenes are deliberately — and fittingly—murky. Gilliam and cinematographer Roger Pratt (“Brazil,” Tim Burton’s “Batman,” 1989) used diffusion filters and sometimes draped the lens with stockings, but that only makes the bold colors elsewhere more dynamic. Detail is consistently good, especially in the close-ups, and the shadow resolution is top-notch. A steady grain completes the movie-house experience.

That said, there are two hitches: At about the 40-minute mark, Willis’ dialogue when he’s debriefed by the scientists is out of synch; a minute or so later, a few brief shots are repeated. Arrow says it’s on the case. (Even though I knew about both going in, they went unnoticed.)

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and uncompressed PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks are carryovers from Arrow’s 2018 Blu-ray. Take your pick: Both are clear and broad with a solid mid-range. “12 Monkeys” isn’t a sonically busy film, so dialogue is never lost, leaving plenty of room for Paul Buckmaster’s innovative score. The theme, Gilliam says, takes its lead from the great tango master Astor Piazzolla.

(1&2) Dr. Fletcher (Frank Gorshin, The Riddler on TV’s “Batman”) and his colleagues interview Cole, who is sedated and locked in a cell before disappearing moments later. (3) After giving a lecture, Dr. Railly is approached at the book-signing by Dr. Peters (David Morse), an assistant to a noted virologist. (4) She is later kidnapped by Cole. (5) Thomas Roy plays a street evangelist.


Despite having a few years on it, the Gilliam-Roven commentary is the ideal starting point. They discuss everything: the circular narrative, Pitt’s months of preparation, building the underground sets in vacant power stations in Philadelphia and Boston, using computers to age the exteriors and how they wanted to help audiences get into the story while preserving its ambiguity.

In addition to Christie’s appreciation, other extras include the feature-length making-of doc “The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys,” a “Film Exchange” interview with Gilliam conducted by critic Jonathan Romney, and a 44-page booklet with an essay by author Nathan Rabin, an excerpt from Christie’s “Gilliam on Gilliam,” and details about the restoration.

Sounds like a full evening, eh? Dig in.

Craig Shapiro

(1) Cole confronts Goines during a dinner party. (2&3) Brought back to 2035, he’s questioned again by the scientists. (4) Christopher Plummer (“The Sound of Music”) plays Dr. Leland Goines, a pioneering virologist, and Jeffrey’s father. (5) Jeffrey and the Army of the Twelve Monkeys go over their plans. (6-8) Dr. Railly and Cole disguise themselves to elude the police. (9) Freed from the zoo by the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, the animals take to the streets.



bottom of page