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“I am insane. And you are my insanity.” – James Cole
The past cannot be changed, only the future. This realisation is key to 12 Monkeys. Back in 1995, this fantastical sci-fi, concerned with a virus that wipes out a percentage of humanity and forces survivors into isolation, seemed far-fetched.
Then 2020 happened. Along with isolation, fear and desperation. And the desire to live in a normal world suddenly did not feel like fiction anymore. Although the same apocalyptic fate as 12 Monkeys has not befallen our world, the possibilities are certainly evident. Which is why 25 years later, the movie can be viewed from a different perspective, becoming a more relatable experience.
Diving into the depths of 12 Monkeys is a journey into a warped world of hopelessness, one where there can never be a happy ending and the protagonist can never become a hero. That is the scenario built and directed by the surrealist master Terry Gilliam. 12 Monkeys has a beautifully Orwellian tone, seen in similar work from the idiosyncratic filmmaker such as Brazil, where society exists within a cold, concrete world of minimalism and technology.
“I want the future to be unknown. I want to become a whole person.” – James Cole
In 12 Monkeys, we find the sheltered landscape of 2035 and the broken, bitterness of James Cole (Bruce Willis). He is a prisoner selected to travel back in time and locate the source of this humanity altering virus. This all hinges on one clue: that the antigen is dispersed by a group called the Army Of The Twelve Monkeys. But instead of stopping it, his mission is to bring back a sample, to help find a cure. This straightforward plan takes an unintended turn when Cole is sent further back than 1996 to 1990, missing his target. Treated by the 20th century as mentally unstable, he is committed to an institution for evaluation.
As we witness the recurring dreams and haunted mind of Cole – he has mysterious visions involving a foot chase and shooting at an airport – we may start to question if this is all in his head. However, while he is in the care of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), he ‘befriends’ another patient, Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), and the collision of these three characters forms a clever and intricate narrative.
Through Cole’s interactions with the unstable Goines in 1990, he relays the story of humanity’s faith and the Army Of The Twelve Monkeys. This in turn leads Goines, whose father is a scientist working in the laboratory developing a virus, to put together the army six years later in ’96. After some further time travel mishaps, such as Cole ending up in World War I, he meets up with Dr. Railly. Knowing and understanding Cole, she commits herself to helping him stop the end of society. The fact is however, she cannot. Mankind’s insatiable appetite to destroy itself is the inevitable that cannot be avoided.
That is the takeaway from 12 Monkeys, one that strips away all those theory-heavy views of time travel. In Gilliam’s film, there is no escaping fate or destiny. James Cole’s mission is unlike that of other protagonists in time travel flicks, like Back To The Future, The Terminator, or even Source Code. This is a movie where everything has already happened and nothing can change it.
Throughout 12 Monkeys, the audience feels the desperation of James Cole. Indeed we almost end up suffering the same hopelessness as the pace quickens and the twisting plot reveals itself. 12 Monkeys is not Terry Gilliam’s first story of time travel – he helmed the 1981 smash Time Bandits. Similar to 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits explored that plane of existence between imagination and fate. However where the Bruce Willis starring sci-fi movie preys on apocalyptic fears, and inevitable destruction, Time Bandits is more playful, and relies on fantasy instead of a hopeless reality.
The inevitability in 12 Monkeys comes to the fore as the movie barrels towards a climax that’s already been set in stone, taking place in the airport of the protagonist’s dreams. In the background to everything there is the Army Of The Twelve Monkeys, the creation of James Cole. He planted the name in the brain of Goines six years previous, which leads the time traveller to believe he doomed mankind. All this may seem complicated but Gilliam manages to execute the plot with a simplicity that is extremely rewarding.
However, the real brilliance of 12 Monkeys is how it manages to surprise the viewer despite affirming the inevtiable. It turns out that while Goines is an anarchist of sorts, or more so an activist, the Army Of The Twelve Monkeys’ plan is simply to release animals from a zoo. In some respects, this mirrors Cole’s mission, to free humanity from their concrete dwellings. All the while, the true villain gets away and the world’s fate is sealed. As Cole’s eventual demise becomes apparent, his dream of watching his own death becomes a reality – bringing the film completely full circle. In terms of brainy blockbuster sci-fi, 12 Monkeys deserves a spot amongst the greats like The Matrix and Inception.