12 Monkeys
(1995) rated: R
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Written by: David Webb Peoples, based on the short film La Jetee by Chris Marker
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, David Morse, and Christopher Plummer.

"Cassandra, in Greek legend you will recall, was condemned to know the future but to be disbelieved when she foretold it. Hence, the agony of foreknowledge combined with impotence to do anything about it." --Dr. Kathryn Railly

5 billion people died in late 1996 and early 1997, victims of an unknown and lethal virus, forcing the remnants of humanity to settle underground in germ-free cellars and tunnels. Back on the surface, Earth was once again ruled by animals, insects, and vegetation. James Cole (played by Bruce Willis) is a convict sometime in the 2020s (the exact date is unknown) who is "volunteered" to be sent back in time to gather information about the origins of the mysterious disease. Of course, time travel hasn't yet been perfected, and complications arise. Somehow, though, James Cole seems to be at the center of it all...

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

Every once in a while, a film will come along that not only presents a thoughtful, complex and intelligent story, but is also able to do so in a direct and clear manner that doesn't detract from the film. 12 Monkeys is subtle, ambigious and open to multiple interpretations or perspectives, and yet it somehow manages to stay cohesive and is never hard to follow, despite the byzantine nature of its plot. You could view this film as a standard sci-fi thriller, an exploration of the mind of a madman, or even a social satire or commentary. It's up to you to decide what is going on, and it's this ambiguity that makes 12 Monkeys so engaging.

Time travel theories are notoriously tricky, and films often employ them with disastrous results, but 12 Monkeys avoids these problems with a clear, logical approach that serves its story well (see below for a more detailed discussion of time travel in 12 Monkeys). What's interesting about the time travelers in this movie is they are sent back to observe, not change, the past in order to help the future. As with most time travel stories, there are lots of twists and turns, but 12 Monkeys is never hard to follow, nor is it overly complex.

Naturally, 12 Monkeys takes place in several different time periods, most notably 1990 and 1996, times preceding the deadly virus's release. All the time periods exhibit Gilliam's grim vision, full of foreboding objects and brooding atmosphere (similar to his previous directorial outings like Brazil or Time Bandits). The set design and cinematography are as compelling as the script, and the three represent the main strengths of the film.

Which isn't to say that the acting in 12 Monkeys is in any way sub-par. Bruce Willis turns in one of his best performances (it helps that he's given three dimensions to work with), and seems to have a good chemistry with Madeline Stowe, who plays the skeptical but open-minded Dr. Kathryn Railly well.

Of special note is the scene-stealing Brad Pitt, who plays Jeffrey Goines, an intermittent mental patient and the son of Nobel prize-winning virologist Dr. Leland Goines. Jeffrey is also an animal rights activist who formed an organization called The Army of the 12 Monkeys. They spray painted their logo, an eerie red emblem, all over the place with the words "We did it" written beneath. Naturally, the authorities in the future want to investigate this, as Jeffrey has access to his father's resources. Pitt's over-the-top performance is especially entertaining to watch (he goes on to play Tyler Durden in David Fincher's Fight Club with similar gusto), though it is perhaps derivative of Jack Nicholson's previous work (as well as Dennis Hopper's journalist from Apocalypse Now).

12 Monkeys is thoughtful and entertaining filmmaking at its best. It doesn't spell everything out for you, and is often vague and subtle, but it's never difficult to understand. Best of all, it makes you think, which is something of a rarity these days...

Time Travel Overview:
Technically, we are all time travelers, but we are only able to travel in one direction (forward), and only at one continuous speed. In 12 Monkeys though, James Cole (among others) is able to travel back in time. It is important to note, however, that in 12 Monkeys time is still linear; 1990 always comes before 1996, and nothing can change that. The time travelers don't travel back in time to change history because they already are a part of history. They are there only to observe, and to bring back information that will help in the future.

Given the obtuse way in which time travel is portayed in the film, you could interpret it in different ways. For instance, it's possible that Cole (or any other traveler, for that matter) creates temporal disturbances every time he travels back, and thus creates multiple timelines. However, since those in the future are unaware of their past, and they are sending people back simply to discover it, the only history they can discover is the one which they have created. Though this is an interesting theory, I prefer the linearity theory better, as it seems less prone to the dangers of paradox.

It is tempting to say that the film's time linearity creates the ironic but acceptable paradox that is present in the first Terminator film, where the act of time travel itself was necessary to create the future in which the traveler is coming from. I think 12 Monkeys deliberately plays off of our expectations to make the story more suspenseful, but in the end, I don't think this was true. From my perspective, all the meddling that Cole does in the past does not actually serve to create the future from whence he came, though we are, at times, led to believe so.

The time travel device used in the movie is never shown in detail, nor are the specifics of time travel. This was done to avoid some of the pitfalls of time travel stories, but also, more importantly, to emphasize the disorientation felt by the time travelers to the audience. Though not specifically referenced, it is clear that there have been many other travelers, but since none of the "volunteers" ever seem to return, we can deduce that the process places a great deal of stress on the travelers, particularly their pysche (the subsequent events of the film confirm this). What is known about the time travel device is that its inventors don't have perfect control over it, as Cole is often sent back to the wrong time and/or place, sometimes by significant margins (at one point in the film, Cole finds himself in the trenches of France during WWI). The operators are apparently unable to confirm what date the traveler has been sent to. The traveler can also be retrieved, seemingly at will, perhaps with the help of crude tracking devices that are embedded in the traveler's teeth.

  • 12 Monkeys was based on a French film called La Jetee, a "27-minute 1962 classic," first released in 1964. 12 Monkeys adds a little, but the main premise and themes are essentially the same (thanks Linca).
  • Apparently, Gilliam gave Willis a list of "Willis acting clich├ęs" not to be used during the film, including the "steely blue eyes look". According to Premiere magazine, Gilliam also told Willis: "This will only work if you do not smirk. Can you do a movie without that smirk?" (thanks etouffee)
  • The scenes in the insane asylum were shot in Eastern State Penitentiary, a historic Philadelphia prison that was closed in 1971.
  • There are a great deal of Alfred Hitchcock references in the film, specifically to Vertigo though other films (like The Birds) are referenced.
  • The revolver that Cole is handed at the end is a Cavalry Model Le Mat, as used by the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
  • Director Terry Gilliam, as usual, had to fight with the Hollywood studios to make sure the film kept its artistic integrity. He was quoted as saying: "It's a hippopotamus and they wanna turn it into a giraffe because giraffes are popular this year. And it ain't gonna be a giraffe, it's only gonna be a really deformed hippopotamus at best."
  • Is Cole really a man from the future, or are we just witnessing the insane delusions of a madman?
  • Why does Doctor Railly always feel like she recognized Cole? When Railly meets with Cole after she dyed her hair and he had his fake wig and moustache, why does she say, "This is how I remember you?"
  • Why doesn't the young James Cole get the virus at the Airport?
  • Does 12 Monkeys adequately solve the paradoxes inherrent in a time travel story?
  • Why do the characters in the dream/memory of the airport change?
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sources and further reading:
The review is slightly modified from a page on my website, found here http://www.kaedrin.com/fun/movies/12.html

Special thanks to dutchess, etouffee, Linca, and Heschelian for their much appreciated feedback and insight!

A Note on Time Travel in 12 Monkeys

The built-in circularity in the Time Travel that occurs in 12 Monkeys is a welcome departure from radical-change-to-be-effected that so often characterises Time Travel in science fiction movies. And this enhances the film as a whole.

It has been said (by tallman above) "They are there only to observe, and to bring back information that will help in the future." With this carefully designed mission for Cole, the writers try to eliminate paradox entirely. However, they ran into problems that could have been avoided when Cole had to report back to his team. See Time Travel and the Knowledge Paradox for details of how this paradox can generally be avoided.

Unfortunately the mode of message-leaving is such that his team in the future have to know about the messages before they send him off to the past - i.e. graffiti and a telephone message that were not taken into account when Cole is first sent back in time. Hence, they have the information, but just hadn't worked out what it meant until after they had sent Cole back twice. This is clearly neither neat nor convincing - surely they would have carefully reviewed all evidence before sending him back?

Clearly, Cole cannot return to the future with his observations about the events of the past, as he has to die where he (temporally) is, as he recalled in his childhood memory at the airport. But, he could have communicated them in some unsuccessful way, or, "Bill & Ted"-style, gone back to do the things that he had already done (ahem). This latter suggestion would not be so fruitful for the narrative in this particular instance though, as Cole would have not been overjoyed at the prospect of knowingly heading towards his death. Of course, with enough omitted information it could still have been a great movie, if a rather different, paradox-avoiding one.

Master Villain says: "There is a way to leave phone messages for the future - if they give him a number selected at random before he leaves and then go and check it they get the message without knowing the message was there." Great thought - but the only reason the characters could give for this is that it would deliberately avoid the paradoxes of time travel!

Why should we bother analysing this in such depth - isn't it just a movie? Philosopher Andrew Harrison claims that intrinsic to any work of fiction is its fictional frame - science fiction gives the clearest example of this. This means that there are laws which are broken (e.g. time travel is impossible), and laws which are not (e.g. humans are mortal). It seems that the makers of 12 Monkeys are trying to preserve our time-travel paradoxes as paradoxes. This is why Cole's death is necessarily in his own time line. So, unless they are trying to shift the fictional frame deliberately for stylistic reasons (From Dusk till Dawn is a good example of this), this no-paradoxes rule should be observed if the film is to properly satisfy its audience.

Thanks to tallman for the correction!

Andrew Harrison's material is found in his Philosophy and the Arts (Thoemmes Press, Bristol, 1997), Chapter four, although I heard it from him in undergraduate lectures in Aesthetics at the University of Bristol, 2003.

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