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Twelve Monkeys

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General Information:
Year Released: 1995
Country: US
Director: Terry Gilliam

Opening image.

Twelve Monkeys portrays a world where science and technology are instruments of oppression.

The tools of science and technology which we see in 2035 are dirty and seem antiquated. This creates an atmosphere which matches the pre-human moral values of the future scientists. These people treat the humanity of individuals with indifference while claiming that they are trying to recover Earth from the animals. Human consciousness seems to have lost its higher order function and regressed to animalism. The film suggests that this is due, in part, to the way science and technology are used to control and oppress.

The 2035 prison where
Cole is kept.
In the futurist world of 2035, men have become guinea pigs for the elite scientists. Prisoners are kept in close quarters which highly resemble today's lab animal cages. They are inventoried with bar codes which are tattooed on their necks. Prisoners are routinely used for experiments that they "volunteer" for -- and rarely return from.

In the beginning of the film, Cole is forced to take such a trip -- a journey to the surface of the planet. He sees a bear, a lion, and numerous birds and insects in downtown Philadelphia. He plucks a spider from its web as a specimen for the scientists.

This is only the start of the use of technology as a tool for oppression. When Cole returns from this trip, he is scrubbed, poked and prodded, and asked endless questions. This treatment is similar to the treatment that the scientists in The Andromeda Strain receive from their computer-controlled containment facility, Wildfire.

The Promise of Science: Time Travel

Pre-ordained time travel, loops in time, time paradoxes, and other side effects of time travel are all seen in Twelve Monkeys. This film begins in 2035, a time where technology and science are far from perfect. The scientists try to send Cole back to the year 1996 several times before managing to get him there. Each time trip taken by Cole involves scenes of nudity, blood and water and ends with his return to the scientists of 2035.

As in La Jetee (the film Twelve Monkeys is based on), travelling through time is an extremely disorienting experience. Divisions between past and present are diminished with each trip, leaving Cole more disjointed and confused. The boundaries between different times disintegrate as the film progresses. Cole eventually loses track of which time is his proper time, which strongly contributes to his mental instability.

Loops in time become apparent as the film progresses. We learn that many of the clues used by the scientists of 2035 to understand and interpret the past were placed by Railly as a result of her association with Cole. She never would have known about the Army of the Twelve Monkeys if Cole had not traveled back in time and met her.

The time machine used by 2035 scientists.

Pre-ordained time travel surrounds Cole's trip through World War I. Railly knows she has seen Cole before when she first meets him, but can't remember where. When she pulls a World War I bullet out of his leg, she remembers that she has seen him in an old war photograph -- that could not have been taken if he had not traveled through time.

The 2035 scientists interact with the past. They own voice mail in 1996, and listen to the recordings in 2035. They then act on the messages by sending people back in time. One message is left by Cole at the end of the film. He tells the future what he is doing, which results in the almost instantaneous appearance of a fellow 2035 inmate, sent by the scientists.

Through these interactions, issues surrounding the potential to change the past are raised. Details from the past are changed as the movie progresses, and these changes are seen in Cole's dreams. The man in the yellow coat from Cole's recurring dream changes from an unknown to Goines when it becomes known that Goines was responsible for the release of the virus. Once this is known, his father is warned, making it impossible for him to do so. At this point, the person in the dream turns into a red-haired man, who finally releases the virus. Although attempts to change the past were made, only the circumstances surrounding particular events changed -- the final outcome is the same. Twelve Monkeys takes the stance that events are inevitable, and changing how an event happens can not ultimately prevent that event from taking place.

The World War I photograph of Cole.

The Promise of Science: Man Made Life

A deadly virus that eradicates most of the population of the planet is the artificial life created in Twelve Monkeys. Despite the importance of the virus to this film's story, we never learn a great deal about it. It was manufactured during the 1990s, probably by Goines' father. This is the only person we know of who is capable of creating it. When it was first released in 1996, everybody thought that it was some kind of flu -- until people started dying and no cure could counter it.

The scientists of 2035 are attempting to learn about the virus by collecting specimens of other animals who have survived the plague. Although we never see these scientists in action, what we do see of their science (the inaccurate time travel machine, questionable ethics, and antiquated equipment) suggests that they will probably not get too far in their quest to create a cure.

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. erika . .
. last modified: Jul 20, 2000 .