The cult psychological dystopia “12 Monkeys” by the talented original director Terry Gilliam should be watched carefully, with eyes wide open and the brain turned on. Filmed back in 1995, the stunning film has not lost its relevance over the past decades and still makes an indelible impression. As for the meaning of the film, it is far from unambiguous. Gilliam has never been a straightforward director, he gladly confuses the viewer, giving hints of the non-obviousness of the plot, forcing him to ask questions, think and doubt again and again.
What is the movie “Twelve Monkeys” about?
By 2035, approximately 1% of the world’s population will remain. In 1997, a terrible pandemic swept the Earth, a mutated virus killed about 5 billion people. The survivors are forced to move underground. Prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) was sentenced to 25 years in prison for disobeying the authorities, but has a chance to get a pardon, and at the same time bring invaluable benefits to humanity and become a great hero. To do this, he must go back in time and bring a culture of the virus before its mutation so that scientists can develop an effective vaccine. Will James cope with such a difficult task, what tests await the hero in the past?
It doesn’t take long for Jim to hit the required 1996. The first time, by mistake, he finds himself in 1990, he is recognized as insane and forcibly sent to a psychiatric hospital. There, Cole meets Katherine Reilly, his psychiatrist, and Jeffrey Goines, the son of a renowned microbiologist. The second time the hero is thrown into the trenches of the First World War, where he is wounded in the leg.
Finally, in 1996, Katherine is kidnapped by Cole, and then they work together. A pair of psychiatrist / patient will have to find the culprit of the spread of a deadly virus and prevent the death of mankind.
A dream that repeats throughout life
Since childhood, the hero has been haunted by the same dream. A scene of a shootout at the airport, a girl in tears holding the bloodied hand of a dying man. As the story progresses, James recognizes the girl – this is Katherine Reilly, only with a different hair color and a changed hairstyle. Closer to the finale, Cole realizes that as a child, he was here and saw this scene with his own eyes.
Katherine Reilly is a psychiatrist who has been studying a pathology called the Cassandra complex for several years.
At the presentation of her book, Katherine, using specific arguments and terminology, convincingly proves the mental abnormality of the messengers from the future. Later, Dr. Reilly inspires James Cole with the same thing. All actions and events lend themselves to a logical explanation, mental illness needs to be treated, a psychiatrist is ready to help the hero.
Dr. Rayleigh’s epiphany
Katherine sees the news on TV: the information about the missing boy, previously voiced by Cole, is confirmed. The bullet removed from Jim’s leg was fired before 1920, according to the results of the examination. The photo of the beginning of the 20th century shows the image of Cole.
The moment James admits his insanity, Katherine comes to the conclusion that he is right and not crazy. This means that 5 billion inhabitants of the planet will soon die, something must be done urgently. Katherine clearly understands the conventionality of society’s notions of mental normality and pathology.
Psychiatry is the new religion. We decide what is right and what is wrong. We determine who is crazy, who is not. Here’s the problem: I’m afraid of losing my faith.
Power above all
The attacker, whose plan is to spread the deadly virus throughout the planet, ends up on the plane in the final scene. In the next chair is a female scientist from the year 2035. Those. the authorities of the future know everything, but Cole does not receive any assignment for the physical destruction of the bioterrorist. In all likelihood, the underground administration does not intend to change anything.
The world of the future in this film story is bleak and very similar to a prison or a mental hospital. Volunteers do not really have the right to choose, all actions are strictly regulated by the authorities. There is no freedom of choice at all, complete control and execution of orders is what is important. It seems that the ruling elite is in no way interested in changing the fate of the dead 5 billion people. The government wishes to retain its power and will go to any lengths to achieve this goal.
Alternative semantic version
A large part of the audience supports the idea that the main character is still a paranoid schizophrenic. Based on this message, all the events of the film take place only in the head of James. Director Terry Gilliam throughout the film scatters hints confirming this semantic option: the similarity of an underground prison and an insane clinic, a strange guard in a hospital, Cole’s inner voice. The hero himself at the end of the movie is ready to agree with the diagnosis, now the psychiatrist is already objecting.
Opponents of this version give their arguments: the scene with the disappearance of James from the locked cell, the bullet from the First World War do not allow a double interpretation.
The cast of the film “12 Monkeys” is truly stellar: the charismatic Bruce Willis, the unique Brad Pitt, the charming Madeleine Stowe, and David Morse, who portrays the main villain. Roles in the cult film of the mid-90s became an undoubted creative success for these performers, adorned their track records.
The film revealed the talent of Bruce Willis from a completely unexpected side, he has not yet had such roles in his asset. Brad Pitt is so convincing as the super-inadequate leader of the Army of the 12 Monkeys that there is not the slightest doubt about the wild insanity of his character Jeffrey.
The skill and excellent work of the wonderful actors made this Gilliam film truly unforgettable for many fans.
The former Philadelphia prison became the place where the scenes from the lunatic asylum were filmed.
In fact, Bruce Willis played for free. He received his fee only after the release of the picture.
Brad Pitt starred in the role of Jeffrey for a small fee, since at that time he did not yet have the status of a highly paid star.
The non-trivial performance of the role of the insane son of a microbiologist brought Brad an Oscar nomination, as well as a Golden Globe Award.
Plot explained Twelve Monkeys
The idea that Gilliam develops in 12 Monkeys is not new. The meaning of the film is that the world is on the verge of a massive collapse.
Humanity is destroying itself. It rots, losing its skills and capabilities, dies, being powerless before its nature. Everything goes to the fact that animals will again rule the world – lions, bears, owls, monkeys – all those to whom this world belonged before the appearance of man. But it is interesting that the terrible virus can be regarded not only as a threat to humanity, but also as a hope for its salvation through purification.
Time travel or mental breakdown?
The film “12 Monkeys” is built in such a way that the viewer can interpret what is happening in two ways. On the one hand, before his eyes appears the story of a time traveler who helps people of the future find a vaccine against a deadly virus. On the other hand, this is the story of a madman suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. So who is the hero of the movie? From the content of the picture, this is not entirely clear.
12 Monkeys is directed by Terry Gilliam. In his film, the director tried to combine two topics of interest to him – time travel and mental disorders.
This film was created based on the short film “Runway”. This is a 28-minute fantasy photo novel that tells how only a handful of people who settled underground survived after a nuclear explosion. They travel through time to get food, medicine. The main character, on whose behalf the content of the picture is revealed, is a prisoner. He travels to the future. There, by coincidence, he witnesses a murder at the airport, and realizes that he himself was killed – and he had already seen this episode in childhood. The point is that, as a child, he saw himself being killed, only from the future. This vision haunted the protagonist all his life.
A similar fantastic plot is used in the film “12 Monkeys” – except that it is supplemented with various interesting details.
If you perceive cinema as a fantasy or dystopia, James Cole is a hero who tries to help the people of the future at the cost of his own life.
It is interesting that various details are scattered in the picture, thanks to which an alternative interpretation can be made. Despite the harmony and obviousness of one theory, one can lean towards another.
First version: heroism
Cole was a hero. Otherwise, the world as he saw it would have to disappear. But he did not disappear, and at the very end we see the eyes of the Cole boy following the plane.
Second version: schizophreni
James Cole is a paranoid schizophrenic. Due to his illness, he is aggressive, suggestible and unable to think logically.
In 1990, while delirious, he attacks a police officer. He is committed to a psychiatric hospital, and Dr. Katherine Reilly is appointed as his attending physician. Cole falls in love with Katherine, an interesting young woman who treats him well.
In the hospital, under the influence of drugs, talking with other prisoners (primarily with Jeffrey), and watching TV, Cole has a clear picture: he is not crazy, but a hero who is entrusted with a responsible mission by the people of the future: he must prevent the actions of the army of 12 monkeys . Otherwise, humanity will end.
Cole manages to escape from the hospital, and for some time he wanders somewhere – most likely somewhere in the catacombs, because he often complains about the lack of fresh air and the inability to admire nature: he is deprived of all this in a psychiatric hospital.
A little later, Cole begins spying on Dr. Reilly, interested in her research on the Cassandra syndrome – that is, the ability to foresee and anticipate future events.
In 1996, he tracks down the doctor, kidnaps her, and then (quite likely) kills her by strangulation. Cole has great physical strength, he is aggressive and very cunning. That is why he manages to escape from the hospital and remain at large for a long time.
A story about time travel, an airport murder, and a daring mission is just Cole’s delusions and fantasies.
12 Monkeys ending explained
At the end of the film, the boy James, having seen his own death at the airport, leaves. In the finale, it becomes clear that everything that should have happened to him happened. So the future is predetermined?
To understand the meaning of the 12 Monkeys ending, you need to remember what Dr. Reilly worked on – she studied the Cassandra syndrome. The tragedy of Cassandra was that she foresaw the future, but could not change it.
Also at the end we see a female scientist who delivers the virus to different cities of the world. The explanation for the ending in this case here is twofold: the female scientist was supposed to die from the virus, but she appears in the future. Either there was no deadly virus, or in the final, scientists managed to change the future.
That is, the film has two endings: one of them confirms the reality of what is happening, and the second only hints at the fact that Cole is sick, and all events took place only in his inflamed imagination.
There is also an alternative theory. The clue to events lies in the voice in Cole’s head: it exists in the future and in the present. And that voice calls Cole Bob.
Probably, this Bob is the main character of the picture. And it’s not Cole, but a homeless man, whom all the characters in the movie “12 Monkeys” encounter several times.
This character Bob is a former patient in a psychiatric hospital. He suffers from a split personality. He invented Cole and the world in which he lives. Some of the ideas for Cole’s world Bob takes from his environment.
In the world of homeless Bob, the air is dirty, there is a stench around – both the fictional world and Cole himself have the same features – he is dressed like a homeless person, and behaves the same way. Airport Murder – Bob’s memories. The boy in the well is Bob’s childish prank. Cole’s torn teeth are a copy of Bob’s actions. Ideas about total surveillance and control are Bob’s ideas.
Bob periodically talks to Cole when he becomes too “independent” person, or gets lost, to give a hint on what to do next. Two times Bob even “appeared” personally in front of his heroes – and they did not understand anything. But they are not given – after all, all of them – this is Bob.
According to this version, the entire film – in the best tradition of Philip K. Dick – is just a fantasy in the head of an episodic character who no one pays attention to.