12 Monkeys is a riveting Science Fiction Movie that focuses on time travel. The film's protagonist is the multitalented Bruce Willis who plays James Cole. James Cole is captured and held captive by the state in the year 2035 (Maslin). The prisoner can only be released if he agrees to travel back in time to prevent a nationwide plague from happening. The earth is under a virus attack that has already wiped out a large section of the population. Moreover, the remaining populace has gone underground because the atmospheric air is poisonous. For these reasons, James Cole returns to the year 1990 to try to prevent the plague from developing and spreading across the world (Maslin). Cole endures all sorts of troubles and pains from being beaten, abused, incarcerated, and shot in his noble quest to prevent humanity from being rendered extinct by the virus.
In the film, the characters stand out for their stellar performance and their roles in developing the plot. Dr. Kathryn Railly, an intelligent psychiatrist, seems to be the only voice of reason in a world full of philosophers, apocalyptic characters and time-traveling criminals (Maslin). Jeffery Goines is the complete opposite of Dr. Railly. He is insane, and he projects his insanity on everything he does. Like Cole, Goines is a critical thinker with some extraordinary ideas on how things should be handled (Maslin). However, what sets him apart from Cole is that he is always complaining about the state of the world while Cole is determined to be part of the solution to the virus problem.
It goes without mentioning that the movie's director did a stunning job in setting the film in two different eras of time. The film manages to compare two versions of Philadelphia and to spread anxiety and depression across the two periods of the 1990s and 1935(Ebert). A keen viewer should be able to identify the similarities between the two versions of the city though they exist in very different eras (Maslin). What is more, society seems to have stayed stagnant in terms of creativity and industrialization between 1996 and 2035. For instance, building materials used in the 1990s are still in use in 2035. Furthermore, paintings and songs featured in 2035 were composed in the 1990s such as the "Valley of the Yosemite" painting and the song "Blueberry Hill."
The major themes of the movie are Power, Madness and Fate (Ebert). The film argues that power or authority cannot be centralized. Instead, it is diluted and spread across society. However, real power can be found in the society's institutions. Such institutions are politics, science, and law enforcement (Maslin). It is for this reason that the scientists in the movie have relinquished their individuality and instead embraced professional names such as Botanists, Astrophysicist or geologists.
The theme of madness is evident from the very start of the movie. The audience is barely ten minutes into the film when it is introduced to two funny characters whose conversation suggests that they are not in their right frame of mind (Maslin). As demonstrated below, the dialogue between Cole and Jose is nothing short of mental.
Cole: "Yeah, they've got them up on the seventh floor...They're all messed up in the head. Brains don't work".
Jose: "Hey, you don't know they're all messed up. Nobody's seen 'em. And maybe they're not messed up. That's a rumor. Nobody knows that. I don't believe that" (12 Monkeys).
Moreover, Cole constantly questions his sanity as the film progresses. For a moment, he entertains the idea that he is a time traveler from the future who has gone back in the past to prevent a virus from decimating humanity. However, the next moment, he ponders over the idea of being a time traveler from another era and accepts the insanity of such a proposition.
Notably, the theme of fate and free will is the bedrock on which the movie was created. From the very start, the film insists that present human behavior is determined by factors beyond human beings' control such as genetics (Ebert). For instance, when the third psychiatrist asks Cole whether he can save humanity, Cole responds by saying, "How can I save you? This already happened. I can't save you. Nobody can" (12 Monkeys). What Cole is merely saying is that he cannot change anything that happened in the past. This is despite the fact that he went back to 1996 before the outbreak of the virus to see whether he could save humanity. In other words, everything follows its natural course no matter what humans do. If it were meant to happen, it would just happen.
While the plot of the movie and the performance of the different characters is phenomenal and exemplary, it is the visualization of the film that makes it eye catchy and worth watching. The director uses duplicated images throughout the film. For instance, the same photograph of Dr. Goines that Cole sees in 2035 is the same that was obtained from newspaper clippings in 1996 (Ebert). The movie is also used to visualize what the future looks like. 2035 does not look like a happy place to be. Mostly, everything looks the same as in 1996. Additionally, the world is not as high-tech as expected.
Particularly noteworthy is the hierarchical structure of living depicted in the movie. Due to the outbreak of the virus, human beings live underground. Interestingly, animals live above the ground. This ironical phenomenon begs the question of whether animals are more powerful than human beings are or immune to the virus that is rocking the world. The other hierarchy worth highlighting is in the civilized world. When Cole appears before the scientists, his chair is lifted to intimidate him. It, however, ought to be noted that Cole's chair is elevated which makes him above the scientists.
Not to be forgotten are the symbols used in the film to represent different things. The title 12 Monkeys is by itself a form of dehumanization. By treating Cole and other humans as lab rats, the scientists seem to have lost their humanity. They are therefore acting like monkeys. The most favorite scene to demonstrate this symbolism is the one where Cole is sent back to the past. Cole is placed in a plastic tube and strapped on wires. The scientists responsible for the experiment stand on a balcony and shout such 'encouraging' words as "No mistakes this time Cole," "Just Relax now. Don't fight it". The scene reminds the viewer of how scientists use rats to experiment on new drugs or discoveries in the medical field.
Ebert, Roger. 12 Monkeys. 5 January 1996. 11 April 2019. <https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/12-monkeys-1996>.
Maslin, Janet. FILM REVIEW;A Time Traveler With Bad News. 27 December 1995. 11 April 2019. <https://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/27/movies/film-review-a-time-traveler-with-bad-news.html>.
12 Monkeys. Directed by Gilliam Terry, Universal Pictures, 27 November. 1995
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