Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys. Photo: Universal Pictures
When it comes to the flexibility of history, time-travel stories exist on a spectrum. On one end are stories where fate can be easily changed. Back to the Future, in which Marty McFly reverses all manner of poor outcomes, dwells here. Move a bit down the line and you get the Terminator franchise, where Armageddon is never quite stopped, but can be staved off for a bit. Farther along, you get the approach to time travel in superhero comics, where certain events — the killings of Batman’s parents or Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, for example — are fixed and others can be wildly altered. Finally, move all the way to the other extreme, and you get 12 Monkeys, where history is written in unbendable iron.
“How can I save you?” says the protagonist, Bruce Willis’s James Cole, early on in the 1995 Terry Gilliam film. “This already happened. I can’t save you. Nobody can.” He’s speaking before a panel of psychiatrists in a mental institution in 1990, a year in which he’s newly arrived. He’s been deemed crazy for his ravings about how he’s been sent from the year 2035, where a scant remainder of humanity lives in squalid underground tunnels after having been driven from the surface by a viral pandemic. The movie wisely wastes no time on ambiguity about whether Cole’s story about a chronological jaunt is true or mere madness. By the time he appears before the shrinks, we’ve already seen Cole’s home time. Throughout the story, we know — sometimes even better than he does — the worldwide doom that awaits. Though there are moments in the movie in which it seems as though fate might be altered, the conclusion of this deeply pessimistic masterwork (spoiler alert) makes it clear that Cole is right: humanity falls, right on schedule. He couldn’t save anyone. Nobody could.
I’ve been thinking about 12 Monkeys a lot lately. It seems, these days, as though the human race has passed a Rubicon and is now on a straight path toward the end of days, or at least the end of the social order as we know it. The most obvious threat is not a virus, but rather our degradation of the biosphere. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made it clear that our ongoing ecological hubris means there’s precious little chance we will avoid planetary upheaval of the worst variety, and suggests we will probably fall off a cliff in the next dozen or so years. We are still obligated to try to mitigate the extremity of the climate disaster, but the existence of that disaster is more or less a done deal.
So what does one do when the end is foreordained? The centrality of this question in 12 Monkeys is what makes it more valuable than ever, and one of the most currently relevant pieces of science fiction ever committed to celluloid. In addition to being visually stunning and filled with fascinating — if occasionally overcooked — performances, it puts forth a clarion call that is woefully necessary in these dark times. In short, 12 Monkeys offers a vision of the curious joy and hope that we must embrace when all conventional forms of it have been lost.
For the uninitiated, three points must be made before going further. One: This film has next to nothing to do with the recently concluded Syfy television series of the same name. They share a title, a few character names, and the existence of time travel; but where the movie is a grim psychological spelunking expedition with the aforementioned conceit of unchangeable history, the show is a pulpy thriller in which the space-time continuum is extremely plastic. Two: It’s a very loose adaptation of Chris Marker’s seminal French New Wave short La Jetée, but 12 Monkeys deviates so significantly that we can call its themes and ideas its own. Three: The plot of 12 Monkeys is more than a little convoluted, so I’ll spare you every last in and out.
Generally speaking, it follows Cole as he shuttles unwillingly back and forth between the 1990s and the 2030s, interacting in the pre-virus era with a psychiatrist named Kathryn Railly (the underrated Madeleine Stowe) and a mentally unstable eco-activist named Jeffrey Goines (a slightly over-twitchy Brad Pitt). His mission, decreed by authoritarian scientists in the ’30s, is not to prevent the end of days, but rather to find a sample of the virus in its earliest form, then bring it back so they can synthesize a cure. There is no hope for the people Cole sees in his time-travels: As he says at one point (oddly predicting The Sixth Sense), “All I see are dead people.” As a result, it’s tough to refer to the ’30s here as the “future,” and likewise to call the ’90s the “present.” Cole goes out of his way to tell the residents of the earlier era that they’re in the past and that the true present is the post-apocalyptic hovel from which he came. It’s a compelling concept that I think might have been wasted on the audiences of the ’90s, that bizarre blip in American history where it seemed like we were living in an eternal present, the End of History, where history was being written with a new pen on clean paper.
Now, as in 12 Monkeys, it feels increasingly as though our minds are situated in the years to come, as though we’re already looking back on what’s happening to us right now from the vantage point of the coming calamities. People speak about the collapse of civilization with startling regularity. Some stockpile cans and guns for the coming war of all against all, others merely summarize their depressed outlook in half-ironic tweets. More and more of us are united by a feeling like anything good is living on borrowed time.
Yet here can we find the kind of joy that 12 Monkeys teaches us: the embrace of transient delights in our spare moments. While in the ’90s, we see Cole gradually make a transition. Initially, he has a fervent sense of mission, attempting to barrel his way through the world in order to get what he needs from the past and return to the present as soon as he can. But as his trips continue, we find him increasingly taking time to savor these last days before humanity lost its battle against nature and decamped for life beneath the surface of the planet.
At one point, he finds himself in a car with Railly (it’s after he’s kidnapped her and before they start up a romance — the sexual politics of the film are questionable, but best addressed another time) with the radio on and he hears Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.” He laughs as tears begin to stream down his cheeks. “I love the music of the 20th century!” he bellows. “I love this air! Love to breathe this air!” He sucks oxygen in deeply and sticks his head out the window, cracking up.
It’s a beautiful moment, one I’ve thought of often in recent days. Joy is not the enemy of action; indeed, without joy, one can hardly imagine finding a reason to bother. That said, we have an obligation to not spend all of our remaining hours assuming nothing can be done and just hedonistically taking in our disappearing pleasures. The movie subtly warns against such hedonism in a moment when Cole briefly interacts with a mental patient who describes his fantasies of life on another planet, then concludes, “I am escaping certain unnamed realities that plague my life here. When I stop going there, I will be well.” We are unwell if we live permanently in joy. But it’s worthwhile to taste what you can, here and there.
And what of hope? Here we find a mix of duty and mild, benevolent insanity. On the surface, 12 Monkeys provides us almost solely with dread, and its comforts are profoundly cold. Gilliam and his team conjure up an unforgettably bleak vision of Cole’s home era, where the narrative begins. It’s a world in which humans live, as he puts it, “like worms,” in what look like massive subterranean sewer tanks. There, he’s a prisoner, jailed for crimes not spelled out in any detail, confined to a cage no bigger than one you might obtain for a dog. The one time we see the post-virus surface world, it’s been reclaimed by the beasts, with bears and lions wandering among the cracked buildings of what was once Philadelphia. In the ’90s, we get premonitions of disaster, and not just from Cole. Goines regularly pontificates about humankind’s folly and, when Cole mentions a viral apocalypse, replies, “Wiping out the human race? It’s a great idea!” When we first meet the virologist who is revealed as the perpetrator of Armageddon (David Morse), he is attending a lecture by Railly about prophets of doom throughout history. “I think, Dr. Railly, you’ve given the alarmists a bad name,” he intones before listing all the ways humanity is destroying itself and the biosphere. “In this context, isn’t it obvious that chicken little represents the sane vision? And that homo sapiens’s motto, ‘Let’s go shopping,’ is the cry of the true lunatic?”
In an admirably bold leap of grimness, the movie never really offers up a counterargument to these notions. There is no point at which someone triumphantly defends humanity and says that love will surely conquer all. There are brief moments where the characters think they can slough off their resignation to cruel fate: In his final trip back to the ’90s, Cole tries deciding that he’s crazy and that his present in the ’30s was all a hallucination, and Railly goes along with it, but when Cole starts accurately predicting that which he couldn’t know unless he already saw how events would unfold, he doubts himself yet again. In the film’s final few scenes, Railly and Cole see the virologist at an airport, recognize his plan, and attempt to chase him down and stop him. But not only does Cole get shot by police before he can reach his target, we’re also shown a few minutes prior that the virologist already opened his first vial of disease in the building. It’s too late, after all.
And yet, despite all this, the movie ends on a note of extremely cautious optimism. The virologist sits down on his plane next to someone, and we see that it’s one of the ’30s scientists. She tells him she’s in “insurance.” One might read this as her being sent to prevent the further spread of the disease. Given everything we’ve already seen, this is a misreading. We can assume she’s there to complete Cole’s mission and take one of the vials back to her home time and work on a cure. She wouldn’t have pinpointed the proper moment without Cole’s efforts. They weren’t for naught. Herein lies why 12 Monkeys feels so urgent as 2018 draws to a close: Perhaps it is, indeed, too late to avert the great catastrophe. But we cannot accept that the catastrophe is the end of the story. There will be some kind of future, however difficult it may be to live in. It is our responsibility to prepare whatever we can for the survival of what’s worth preserving in that coming existence.
La Jetée, in a crucial contrast to 12 Monkeys, features the protagonist traveling into the far future and finding an advanced civilization that has emerged from the ashes. Gilliam’s film doesn’t provide us with that relief. It guarantees nothing pleasant. But it reminds us that we can learn from the days in which we live in order to ameliorate the coming world. We still live in the now, and there is still work to be done and wonders to be experienced. Even Cole, near the end of the story, seems to realize this, and, in the ’90s, utters lines that should echo in our heads: “This is the present. This is not the past. This is not the future. This is right now.”