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The Twelve Monkeys

Twelve Monkeys is a 1995 movie that deals with time travel. More than a decade on, trying to stop the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is considered to be one the best visual attempts to portray time travel.

Philip Coppens


“Twelve Monkeys” is a Terry Gilliam film – and that should say a lot. The 1995 film now turned classic grossed over 150 million dollars worldwide and gave Brad Pitt an Oscar nomination. The movie was inspired by the French short film “La Jetée”, and featured an impressive set of actors, namely Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt, the latter using some hand gestures that we would also encounter in “Se7en”.
The French New Wave film “La Jetée” was made by Chris Marker in 1962. The film was composed entirely of black and white photographs and set in Paris after World War III. It was an apocalyptic vision in reaction to the threat of nuclear annihilation, the most likely method of total annihilation in the 1950s and 1960s. Writers David and Janet Peoples were approached by producer Robert Kosberg to do an adaptation of this movie. They wanted to rework the theme of time travel into the “gift” of prophecy: "We were very interested in asking questions like 'Is this man mad? And how about the prophets of the past, were they mad? Were they true prophets? Were they coming from another time? What are all the different possibilities?'"

Time travel is practically the only barrier that Mankind has not yet pushed through – equally, time travel is not too often the theme of science fiction novels or cartoons. Twelve Monkeys is the story of James Cole (played by Bruce Willis), a convicted criminal, living in the future (2035 AD). Humans have been forced to live underground as the world above – our world – has been destroyed: a virus has killed five billion people in late 1996–1997 (only one percent has survived), but no-one knows precisely how it started or who is responsible. The disease is believed to have arisen as an act of bioterrorism by a mysterious group calling itself "The Army of the Twelve Monkeys". These people saw Mankind as a viral infection of our environment and are thought to have developed a virus that only killed humans – thus returning the world to the (other) animals. In the first scenes, we see how Cole “volunteers” for an expedition to the surface of the Earth, to collect samples, which are then most likely analysed by the underground laboratories to see whether the virus is still present, has mutated, etc.
Despite the perilous circumstances and the inability to find an antidote that would allow Mankind to return to the surface of the Earth, the government is not totally in disarray. It has been able to conquer the space-time barrier and is thus able to travel back in time. This is not done in attempt to prevent the bioterrorist act from happening – a task which is apparently deemed either impossible according to the laws of the universe or too difficult to accomplish. Instead, Cole and others are sent back in time to find the origin of the disease, to collect it in its original state, so that scientists can study the virus before it ever mutated and thus come up with an antidote, allowing Mankind to return to live on the surface of the Earth.

As time travel is still in its most basic format, “volunteers” – convicted criminals – are used: to accomplish Mankind’s most urgent mission, the government is relying on criminals, rather than “the best of the best”. “Worse” is the fact that though people are properly sent back in time, ending up at the right time – Q3 1996 – is a bit of a problem for a technology that is still in its infancy. Cole first ends up in 1990, while on a second mission, he first ends up in the trenches of the First World War, before finally ending up in Q3 1996. His third mission seems day-perfect, for he returns to exactly the right timeframe where he left off during the second mission. As the story is set in Philadelphia and there were no World War I trenches in that American city, it implies that not only does one travel through time, but equally space – though of course the spatial displacement may have been an oversight from the screenwriters or put in there for dramatic effect.
One other reason why criminals are used is because they have a “strong will”. Time travel seems to scramble the brain and Cole eventually believes that the mind is not created to zap through two different dimensions – or perhaps future scientists haven’t been able to “medicate” against this side effect of time travel yet. When he arrives in 1990, Cole immediately starts to talk about being from the future, that 1990 is the past, not the present, rather than just keep his mouth shut – the time travel has obviously disorientated him and he is not thinking clearly, which would result in him keeping his mouth shut. With talk about being from the future and being on a mission to save Mankind, he is soon sent to an insane asylum. When he returns from his second mission back to 2035, his mind is so scrambled that he is convinced that he has not gone “back to his present time”, but is hallucinating, as the psychiatrists in 1990 and 1996 have told him he is – that he is “mentally divergent”. Equally, when he ends up in 1996 for his third mission, he is convinced that he is mad and should be treated for his madness.

His ally in “the past”, i.e. 1990-1996 is psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who in 1990 is nothing more than a county psychiatrist, sent to evaluate Cole in a police cell after he tried to evade arrest. She is the one that sends him to a psychiatric institution. She listens to Cole, but does not accept his story, but becomes interested in his case. So much so that by 1996, she has just published a book on Doomsday prophets, a subject she approaches from a psychological perspective. She argues that on several occasions, people have appeared out of nowhere, to begin preaching about the end of the world, which roughly seems to occur around 2000 AD. She lists one (fictitious) example of a man in 1562, appearing near Stonehenge, doing just that. Her study reveals that most of the prophets are men and some seem to possess genuine knowledge of future events.
After one book signing, Cole seeks out Railly and kidnaps her. She believes she is being kidnapped by a madman, but he is convinced he is on a mission to save Mankind and return him and the rest of the world back to the surface of the Earth. As he has just been erroneously zapped to the middle of a battle during World War I, Cole is still suffering from the bullet wound he received when he was shot in the leg (suggesting that somehow he travelled from World War I to 1996, not via 2035, where you would expect a doctor to have at least dressed his wounds). It turns out however that Jose, another inmate who “volunteered” for time travel, has been sent back to retrieve him from this erroneous destination; Jose himself, however, is wounded in the head during the rescue attempt. As luck would have it, Jose and Cole are photographed and Jose has earned a small footnote in history when French doctors decide that he was a soldier who had forgotten French and retained English with an unrecognized dialect as a result of shell shock suffered in the trenches. It is one of the examples that Railly has listed as a footnote in her book. When Railly extracts the bullet wound from Cole’s leg, and Cole shortly afterwards suddenly disappears (back to 2035), the police officers investigating her kidnapping are confused as the bullet recovered from Cole is shown to be from the First World War. Railly therefore looks at the World War I photograph and recognises Cole on the photograph. Furthermore, in his second mission, radio and television report on the story of a boy who has fallen into a well in Fresno, California. Cole bluntly states that the story is a fraud and that the boy is actually hiding in a barn. Railly at first doesn’t believe him, but when she finds out that Cole was correct and knew the outcome of an event that was impossible to predict, she realises that he is not insane – he is a genuine traveller through time… as he has said all along.
But by the third voyage, Cole’s mind is scrambled and he believes himself that he is mad, whereas his psychiatrist is now convinced that he is really from the future. Though she convinces Cole he is not mad, he wants to be crazy: “If am crazy, the world will be okay.” Together, they will try to avert the inevitable… but not for long. Soon, the duo – on the run from the law – decide to spend the few remaining weeks of life on Earth on a holiday, so that Cole can see Key West before dying. “Extracting” a traveller from the past relies on a tracking device in the traveller’s teeth, as well as them making a phone-call, or apparently using a second traveller to get a “lock”. It is with the second method that they are able to find Cole (for in the trenches of World War I, there are no phones) and it also implies that those travellers who ended up in the 16th century or elsewhere before the invention of the telephone, were stranded. Even when Cole arrives in 1990, he finds that the telephone number is not yet operational, but as the future’s scientists realise he has gone amiss in time, and as he has phoned the number (even though not yet operational), they are able to extract him. [Making a phone call to escape from The Matrix was of course the same method used in that film trilogy and the woman in the kitchen receiving the enigmatic message in 1990 somewhat resembles the Oracle in the Matrix, who equally seems to have the kitchen as the centre of her operations.] Nevertheless, extraction from the past seems to work in various formats, left unexplained in the film; in 1990, Cole disappears from solitary confinement (the future has traced the phonecall, but how did they find him inside his cell some time later?) and in 1996, he disappears while splashing about in a river… without a fellow traveller by his side or having made a recent phone call, and definitely not from that location. When he and Railly decide to abandon their mission and go on a holiday and he wants to make sure that he does not return to 2035, he extracts the tracking device from his tooth, so that “recall” is no longer possible. Or so he thinks.

Cole’s mission is to find out who the Twelve Monkeys are, in order to get a sample of the virus. He is soon able to accomplish the first part of his mission, though it seems he is not the only one who found out. Outside their headquarters, he finds another time traveller, who has extracted his tracking device in order to remain a tramp in 1996; around the corner, he runs into another prophet of doom who recognises Cole as “one of us”… In short, it seems that in 1996, there are at least some people who have discovered part or the whole of the problem, but for some reason do not return to the future with vital information that could change Mankind’s predicament. Why?
Cole identifies Jeffrey Goines, the son of a Noble Prize Winning virologist, as the leader of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Cole has met Goines in 1990, while incarcerated in the asylum and fears that a throwaway remark about Mankind may have inspired Goines to create his apocalyptic group… in short, Cole fears that he may be responsible for inspiring a madman to kill all of Mankind.
When he and Railly locate the Army’s headquarters, they inform the future about its location, but on the morning of December 13, 1996, on the way to the airport to go on holiday, they discover that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is not responsible for the end of civilisation; instead, Goines has kidnapped his father, locked him up in a cage in the zoo and has set all animals from the zoo free, causing mayhem in the streets of Philadelphia. Cole then phones the future, to inform them that the Army is not responsible. While Cole is making that phone call and Jose appears from the future apparently in an effort to bring him back or help him in his mission, Railly recognises a man at the airport from a photograph as someone working in Goines’ father’s laboratory. She puts two and two together and is not only able to inform the future of the real cause, but also tries to have Cole stop him. Unfortunately, this ends up fatally for Cole, who is shot by the security personnel in the airport… a murder which occurs in front of an eight year old Cole, who happens to be at the airport to welcome a member of his family – “a man being shot in front of his eyes in the airport” is a recurring dream that Cole will have throughout his adult life, but for a reason he does not know – until, of course, he realises he is that man and dies before his own eyes.

Many people will have left the movie with the idea that Cole’s mission has been futile. Dr. Peters, the virologist who has created the virus to destroy Mankind, is travelling around the world, opening up canisters of the deadly virus at each stopover. But has it been a failed mission? The movie ends as the lead scientist from the future has been sent back in time and takes the seat next to Dr. Peters on the plane, introducing herself as "in insurance". The original plan of the mission was for criminals like Cole to locate the true cause, whereupon a scientist would be sent in to retrieve a sample of the unmutated virus. So it seems that Cole’s mission has indeed been a success and Man in 2035 will soon be able to return to the surface of the Earth. But is it? It is here that Terry Gilliam decided to end the movie, so no-one knows. As it is an open ending, some have wondered whether the reference to “being in insurance” means that she is sent to make sure that Peters actually will disperse the virus. For either she is merely trying to build rapport with him by labelling the rest of Mankind “insects” and speaking about them disdainfully in order to ease her gaining access to a sample of the virus, or she shares his view. To quote from one observer: “After all, they are in charge in the future, and the virus put them there. If they come up with a vaccine, their power is threatened. So why not send people on wild goose chases to pretend they're working on something and use it as a way to eliminate those who cause trouble (as Cole had done)? And it is a wild goose chase. A close look at the movie shows that the scientists in the future had a good idea where the virus came from […]. In one scene, when Cole is being interrogated, take a look at the newspaper clippings on the wall. They show Dr. Goines. Why those clippings? Since they were talking about finding the source of the virus at the time, the only conclusion is that they knew that Dr. Goines (or his lab) was the source. Yet this essential fact is never communicated to Cole. He is told about the 12 Monkeys (and there is no newspaper clipping mentioning them), but the most likely source of the virus isn't even mentioned to him. With a plot as well constructed as this one, that omission is a key one. They are sending Cole off chasing after the 12 Monkeys, when they know the source of the virus wasn't there.” Or, even if the source is believed to be the 12 Monkeys, they will still most likely have taken the deadly virus from Goines’ laboratory, which therefore remains the key bit of information that they should have given to Cole – but fail to do so. Instead, we find Cole and others locating the Army’s headquarters… with several of his colleagues remaining in that very area… why?
Still, in the most conventional interpretation of the movie, the message seems to be that future analysts assume that the end of the world has been brought about by a or several madmen, rather being the result of a calculated logical decision. Dr. Peters does not seem to be mad. Instead, it seems that his exposure to animal testing has led him to the conviction that the “planet cannot survive the excesses of Man” and hence deserves to be wiped out. This is a cold, calculated, logical step; Dr. Peters is a suicide bio-terrorist, killing in the name of “innocent life”, which Mankind has subjected to animal testing and other wanton destruction.

In the final analysis, a theme that runs through the movie is that of the Cassandra Syndrome; it is a term applied to predictions of doom about the future that are not believed, but upon later reflection turn out to be correct. The name is derived from the Greek myth of Cassandra, who foresaw the demise of Troy, but was not believed. It was designed to denote a psychological tendency among people to disbelieve inescapably bad news, often through denial. (“I have terminal cancer… but I will be ok.”) The person making the prediction is caught in the dilemma of knowing what is going to happen, but not being able to stop it from happening. And that is exactly what Railly has identified as the main character traits of people like Cole: allegedly madmen, but in truth time travellers from the future, sent back in order to observe and learn, but not to alter the past. The syndrome also featured in “Terminator 2”. Several actions from Railly and Cole make it clear that she at first considers the Cassandra Syndrome to be a purely mental disease, from which Cole suffers. Cole, however, suffers from it, but sees the Cassandra Syndrome not as a mental disease, but either as an impossibility (against the laws of physics) or as a task that is impossible to accomplish; so even though he knows that a deadly virus will be released, he cannot stop it; he is an observer from the future, with a specific mission, which is not to avert the cataclysm. But at the very end, both she and Railly do try to avert the course of history, by trying to stop Peters from getting on the plane – an attempt which fails.

But in the end, it are the time travellers themselves who shape the past and their own future…they live in the timeline they have created themselves. Some of these doomsday criers have had a minor impact on history, appearing in history books and in obscure journals and lectures. Although they may be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, they are known Kathryn Railly, who has collected many of these stories for her book. Without these stories, she will never write the book. But the book is but one symptom of their effect: they have created an expectation – have seeded ideas; they have made people “aware” that the world can be destroyed, that Mankind can be wiped from the face of the Earth. They have created this framework and it is within this framework that Peters realises both the framework and the possibility that, indeed, he is able to do this. Peters is the fulfilment of their doom preaching; but would he have done it – set the virus loose – if history had not created such a role for someone? Would he have done it, if there had been no-one to point out that possibility? When we look to other terrorists and their way of thinking, it is clear that they operate within an identical framework, in which certain people have created a concept that “martyrs will go directly to Heaven” and that they do this “for the glory of whatever purpose the framework serves – often religion or some grand idea”, which is of similar grandeur as the notion that all of Mankind is an aberration that should be destroyed. But at its most fundamental level, the message of the Twelve Monkeys should be that we create our own reality… though often, we are unaware of how it came about… and what role we play in it… just like Cole thought that at one point he was the cause of the problem (talking to Goines in the insane asylum), then tried to avert the cause (as a “volunteer”) before failing to changing the course of history in 1996 (Cole cannot stop Peters in the airport) before possibly changing the course of history by allowing a scientist to get a sample of the virus on the plane, so that Mankind in 2035 can finally return to the surface of the Earth… though the meddling with time travel in 2035 and the failed missions that ended up with men stranded in the past and becoming prophets of doom may have been the cause of the problem. Confused? Confusion, so Cole stated, was a side effect of time travel.