Study Guide for 12 MONKEYS
|James Cole: Bruce Willis||Dr. Kathryn Railly: Madeline Stowe|
|Jeffrey Goines: Brad Pitt||Dr. Goines: Christopher Plummer|
|Dr. Peters (Dr. Goines's assistant): David Morse||Jose: Jon Seda|
|Young Cole: Joseph Melito|
Scientists in 2035: H. Michael Walls, Bob Adrian, Simon Jones, Carol Florence, Bill Raymond, Ernest Abuba
Televisions figure prominently in the film. What do we see on TV? Cartoons, animal rights programs, advertisements (Florida Keys), Marx Brothers, news updates. What purpose do TVs play in terms of plot development? What does it say about 1990's television habits? What purpose does the giant globe with screens in 2035 play?
Contrast Goines's story about germs and Cole's eating of the spider. It's too much for even Goines to take. Compare Goines's facial reaction to that of Madame Scientist when Cole tells her about eating the spider.
During Cole's escape attempt, the security guard tells him to use the other elevator. But the guard who talks to him is not the same person who is there a moment later--it's the prison guard from 2035. What's going on here? Is Cole imagining this, is he insane, or are the scientists of the future following him?
The only time we see the actual time travel mechanism is when Cole goes to WWI/1996 the first time. Does it matter that we don't really understand how the mechanism "works"? Note that we never actually get to witness his arrival or departure. What does this do for the argument that Cole is just crazy?
Cole's "dream" sequences are not all alike (or accurate for that matter). The point of view changes, so they are not purely his memories. During one sequence he will remember Goines at the airport--another distortion of the truth. How does this figure in our understanding of his memory? What does this do for Railly's argument that he has constructed the dream sequence (and his insanity) out of bits and pieces of reality?
The street evangelist quotes the same passage Railly did in her speech, and he looks remarkably like the illustration she shows. What does his singling Cole out as "one of us", show?
There are Hitchcock references throughout the film--Cole and Railly are in the theater during a Hitchcock marathon, where extended sequences of Hitchcock films are played; music from Vertigo is used; the title sequence is similar to Vertigo--what statement is being made through all of this? What is the effect of having a movie character utter the line, "the movie never changes, it can't change. But every time you see it, it seems different because you're different."?
What should we make of Railly's insistence that she's met Cole before? She may recognize him from the picture taken during WWI, but note her line as they leave the movie theater, "This is how I remember you." For Cole, it really has been Railly all the time, but she can't have known him.
What should we make of Madame Scientist's appearance on the plane at the end? Has she too, traveled in time? If so, does this indicate that the future may be changed? Will she stop the virus from spreading or just get a sample of the virus in order to study it and re-inhabit the surface of planet? Do we think about what will happen to Railly next?
Does this film really care about animal rights or animal rights activists? Goines says a lot about how ineffectual the peaceful protesters are... he may be crazy, but Goines has a lot of important things in this film (see below). Or is it just a convenient backdrop?
How much do we want to make of the Christ figure images? Cole's initials are JC, he dies in order to save humanity (does he?), and he does open his arms awful wide before hitting the floor at the airport. Any other indications?
For the most part, the cinematography is straightforward shots. Note, however, the use of high angle shots when Cole is trapped or pursued, and angled, off-kilter shots in the mental institution.
12 Monkeys is also important for its vision of the future. 2035 is clearly visualized as a dystopia, it's not a happy place to be, very gray and dirty feeling. While the underground world is very emphatically mechanized, note that it's not very high tech. Everything looks as though it was pieced together out of things available in 1996 (intentional, considering plot line and possibility it's all in Cole's head). Note that when Cole goes above ground, it's winter. There were no nuclear weapons involved here... the world has (presumably) gone on as normal, just minus humans. What is the significance of depicting the world above ground covered in snow?
In terms of a hierarchical structure, note that the animals are above ground while humans are bellow--if higher is commensurate with power (Blade Runner, Metropolis), are the animals more powerful? Do they have control over humans? Within the human world there are also hierarchies. The prisoners must be lifted up in order to participate in "volunteer duty", and we are told that those who have returned from duty are kept on the 7th floor--is this above or below the regular prisoners? When he sits before the scientists, Cole's chair is elevated--presumably to intimidate him and increase feeling of helplessness--but it places him above them. He has a power which they do not.
In La Jetee, the image of the past play an all important role-- it is this memory which singles the man out as an ideal candidate for time travel. For Cole, his memory is a "dream," which haunts him, but does not necessitate his travel. The man knows he is finally getting to meet the woman of his memory; for Cole it seems a coincidence. The time paradox, too, is further spelled out in La Jetee--the man realizes he had seen the moment of his own death. We don't know if Cole has understood his situation (we can guess that Railly has). 12 Monkeys takes the same basic structure and uses it to look at madness and science, whereas in La Jetee the story line is the impetus for an exploration of memory and time.
Love and Romance: The love story between Cole and Railly is not secondary to the plot--Cole returns to 1996 in large part because he is in love with Railly. Railly herself does not begin to grow or change (or do anything effective) until she begins to love Cole. But in the end the question remains, Does it matter? Even with their love Cole and Railly are unable to stop the destruction of the human race. That they give up trying in order to try to be together is admirable from the Hopeless Romantic standpoint, but it may not be enough.
Time and Fate: While not necessarily a theme per se, time travel, and all its related trappings, is integral to the movie. Cole's attitude that time can't be changed ("How can I save you, this already happened") seems paradoxical for someone who believes he is acting in the present. Yet this is the attitude he takes up until the final moments, where the implication is that if he shoots Dr. Peters the human race may be saved-- he could make a difference after all. (If this is true, though, what's to stop the scientists from sending back another time traveler to kill him? see below for one suggestion) After all, we have only Cole's word to go on here. Do we ever see Cole change the future? Any impact his appearance in 1990/1996 may have we see in 2035 before that event happens in 1996 (ex. Railly's spray painting). We don't know if Cole ever understands that his dream was actually the truth of his own death--a time loop paradox only if that memory was integral to him being in the airport, which it is not. If we accept the idea that Cole is crazy, it may have been just a dream (or a psychic vision, etc.), after all.
The Dangers of Science: Science and scientists don't exactly get good PR in this film. The scientists in 2035 are manipulative, demanding and shrewish (they are also a source of comedy, at their own expense "We're sending you to 1996 now, right on the money"). While they may somewhat redeem themselves in pardoning Cole, their demands that he cooperate and use of Railly as a hostage at the end earn our dislike right back. After all, why can't he stay there with her? If we disregard the idea that the future can't be changed, does the scientists insistence in curing the surface of the earth have anything to do with their desire to stay in power? Dr. Goines and his assistant also present threats in the name of science. For all his speech about having "no reason to fear the power we have at hand" and Jeffrey's assertion that, "my father's been warning people about the dangers of DNA research for years", it is science which will eventually destroy human life as we know it. True, it may only be one apocalyptic nut with access to science, but all it takes is one. Do we need to be afraid of the power we have at hand? The poet who introduces the 1990 segment seems to be complaining that words have lost their meaning under the weight of science and technology mumbo jumbo. Words are "tinier even than science." Are we in danger of losing our self expression under the oppression of science?
Madness: One of the key issues of this film is the question of Madness. Madness is everywhere--Jose mentions that the "volunteers" all go mad, Cole lands himself in a mental institution, Goines is certainly at least a little bit crazy, Dr. Railly is a shrink; in fact the whole world may be insane. Amidst all this, we have the central question of Cole: is he from the future, or just "mentally divergent"? Cole convinces himself he's mad ("wouldn't it be great if I was crazy") at the same time Dr. Railly is convinced he's from the future--they can't both be right. The evidence is out there, perhaps equally convincing on both sides. If he's from the future (and sane), how do you explain the voice he hears (the bum who calls him Bob), the changing faces of the guard, the fact that no one ever sees him come or go in time, the changes in his dream/memory? If he's mentally divergent, how do you explain his foreknowledge about the boy in the well, his appearance in the WWI photograph and bullet in his leg, his disappearance from the locked room? In either case, the movie seems to be implying that we are no more crazy than the world we live in.
Ambiguity: Is Dr. Goines's assistant part of the Army of the 12 Monkeys? Is Madame Scientist going to save the world? Does Dr. Peters really spread a deadly virus that kills 5 billion people? Is James Cole from the future or is he insane? Why are there so many unanswered questions?