hroughout most of Twelve Monkeys, a multitude of doubters call James Cole’s sanity into question and we in the audience are also initially skeptical of Cole’s veracity. But in time director Terry Gilliam not only converts us to Cole’s side, he also provides a painless and highly entertaining introduction to one of the densest philosophical texts of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. And once Heidegger’s insightful theories are digested, we see that authenticity (self-knowledge) is really just a matter of “us or them.”
The nature of insanity apparently fascinates Terry Gilliam, which is good for filmgoers as he commands a wealth of imagery on the subject. (Brazil and The Fisher King also delve spectacularly into insanity.) Using scenes in the asylum and a gradual disclosure of the contrasted personalities of Cole (Bruce Willis) and Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), Twelve Monkeys asks us to question what sanity really is.
It’s clear as Twelve Monkeys progresses that Gilliam shares at least some of French philosopher/historian Michael Foucault’s renowned theory (Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason) that affixing the label of insanity to someone is a political power play, not a medical diagnosis. As Goines says, “You know what crazy is? Crazy is majority rules!” Even the professional psychologist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) comes to question the medical science behind psychology: “I mean, psychiatry: it’s the latest religion. We decide what’s right and wrong. We decide who’s crazy or not. I’m in trouble here. I’m losing my faith.”
Losing her faith? Railly’s loss of faith in psychology is slowly but surely replaced by faith in the man she once thought mad, James Cole. Cole’s crazy-sounding story finally rings true for Railly, and her scientific background provides the elements for understanding Cole’s plight. It is Railly (reality?) who describes the mythical precedence of Cole’s situation: “Cassandra in Greek legend, you recall, was condemned to know the future but to be disbelieved when she foretold it. Hence the agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.”
In just two sentences, Railly summarizes both Cole’s situation and the theme that inspired David and Janet Peoples (yes, the same David Peoples who wrote the screenplay for Blade Runner) to write Twelve Monkeys.
Their immediate inspiration was a French short called La Jetée (The Pier, 1962), whose plot should sound familiar by now. Simply put, it’s the story of a man who volunteers for a time-travel experiment to determine the riddle of a woman’s face that haunts him. Is it a vision of his impending death? He can’t tell, so he volunteers for the experiment. La Jetée was a brilliant movie, but it is just the launching pad for the supernova that is Twelve Monkeys.
The key to appreciating Twelve Monkeys is found in the significance of the title, which has two complementary aspects. The first has to do with the evolution of Western society’s treatment of insanity. Foucault reports that it was about three hundred years ago—during the Age of Enlightenment—that the practice of incarcerating the insane in cages was initiated. The idea was to protect society from the animal-like behavior often exhibited by the insane. (Consider how many times Cole and Goines go “ape” in Twelve Monkeys.)
Colonics for everyone!
In the Age of Enlightenment, science and reason usurped the church’s high status in society. The insane were believed to be regressing not only in emotional behavior but also in cognitive abilities, and so madness was thought to displace reason, the key element separating man from the animals. This, then, was where modern philosophy began, with the rationalist approach that promised to find all the answers. The great fear was to be diagnosed as mad. Even the great René Descartes was not above this fear, as evidenced by his denial of ever possibly being “one of the insane ones.” And separation of rational man from irrational, uncontrolled animality, to use Foucault’s term, was a prime method of combating this fear.
As depicted in Twelve Monkeys, things haven’t changed much since the seventeenth century. Man and beast could not be more segregated than when we first witness the world of twenty-first century man. But wait: who’s on top in this world? It’s the animals, the only creatures—thanks to their immunity to the virus mankind has unleashed upon itself—remaining on the earth’s surface.
Cole is atypical of his fellow cowering humans in being enticed by the pleasures of the surface world. As Twelve Monkeys progresses, so does Cole’s desire to escape the caverns and return to surface—to return, in effect, to the natural, animalistic world of the Garden of Eden, prior to the gift of knowledge. Cole wants to be monkey, to restore the link between rational man and irrational (intuitive) nature.
The second significant aspect of the Twelve Monkeys title that demands examination is the number twelve. It’s a number with much religious significance. Twelve Monkeys is rife with religious references, particularly with multiple allusions to prophets and prophecies. Prime example is the self-proclaimed prophet on the streets of Philadelphia who shouts at Cole that he is “One of us!” (This also explains the reappearing bum who keeps addressing Cole as “Bob.” Like all prophets, Cole hears voices.)
Cole is a prophet, but he’s not the prophet. Despite several misleading clues (for instance, the shared initials JC), Cole is assuredly not a savior. But prophecy alone can be a wearisome burden, as Railly reminds us with her identification of Cole and Cassandra.
What’s to keep a repeat time traveler sane? Gilliam makes use of fellow time-companions like Railly and Goines. Each time travel twist serves to bring the three closer together in ways that none of them fully recognize. They’re related in a transcendental way like Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Three together and separate at the same time. (By, the way isn’t twelve a multiple of three? And, how many apostles were there?) The intertwining of Cole/Railly/Goines through time makes us question the very nature of time.
Heidegger’s Being and Time (BT) to the rescue, for it deals with the nature of time and examines the relationship between time and our individual sense of self (Being). Cole’s predicament of being trapped in time graphically depicts Heidegger’s key concept that our Beings are grounded in time. Plato’s ethereal, timeless souls don’t fit in this scheme of things; it is meaningless to speak of our Beings outside of time.
Throughout Twelve Monkeys, Cole jumps back and forth in time, with landings in 1990 (his first meeting with Railly and Goines), 1996 (the release of the virus that causes the worldwide epidemic), and 2020 (his starting point). We see that with each landing the “current” environment has morphed in response to Cole’s activities in the past, which also applies to Goines and Railly. For instance, the formation of the Twelve Monkeys gang is triggered by a comment Cole makes to Goines in 1990. But, the reason Cole went back to 1990 in the first place was to prevent the virus catastrophe triggered by the Twelve Monkeys gang. Which came first: Cole’s trip to 1990, or the creation of the gang?
BT has the answer to this perplexing question: for Beings—such as ourselves—the experience of time is not sequential. Being’s sense of time is not a matter of the past progressing to the current which progresses to the future. It’s more like past/present/future happen simultaneously. A quote from a letter written by Mozart, in which he explains how musical ideas come to him, may help to clarify this. Mozart wrote: “and the thing truly becomes almost finished in my head . . . so that afterwards I look over it with one glance in my mind, and hear it in the imagination not at all serially, as it must subsequently come about, but as though all at once . . .” This “all at once” is the horizon of time that in Twelve Monkeys equates to Cole in 1990, Cole in 1996, and Cole in 2020.
By contrast with Railly’s view of prophet as Cassandra, consider the scenario put forth in Spielberg’s Minority Report of prophets and their ability to alter the future. Tom Cruise’s character explains away the seeming paradox of altering a future that has been seen with the illustration of catching a falling object before it hits the ground. In this view, you have the option of negating a future because you know what’s going to happen based on simple Newtonian physics.This example works because of its limited number of factors (you and the falling object).
But as we learned from the development of quantum theory, relativity theory, and chaos theory in the twentieth century, the world is not so simple. There are far too many factors to consider. Where the Minority Report example only deals with the present (object falling) and immediate future (object hitting ground), the non-sequential connection between past-present-future depicted in Twelve Monkeys defies the possibility of easily calculated prophecies. The future that Cole has seen is just a potential future, not a guaranteed future. In effect, the future becomes a moving target, impossible to “hit.”
So when does it all come together? When does the Jell-O structure that is Being’s life crystallize? What is the final version of our personal horizons of time? The event that finalizes someone’s life story and makes it sequentially relatable, is the death of the individual. You can’t write someone’s obituary until they’re dead. The crystallization of Cole’s Being in time is brilliantly realized in the scene at the end of Twelve Monkeys where the boy (young Cole) is able to watch himself (adult Cole) die.
It’s no accident that time traveling in Twelve Monkeys consists of being thrown back in time, just like being shot out of a cannon. In BT the term “thrownness” refers to the Beings’ dealings with their past (Cole in 1990). “Projection” defines the Being’s future possibilities (Cole in 2020). And “fallenness” is the Being’s present circumstances.
Fallenness purposely has a negative connotation. It has to do with the temptations of the “Them,” the absorbing pull of mass culture (fashion, Internet, popular trends) in which we can lose ourselves. All sorts of Thems pop up repeatedly for Cole in the form of scientists from past and future and his fellow time-traveler Jose. (“Thems”—that is, pop culture—also appear frequently and cleverly in Minority Report. My favorite are the customized virtual advertisements triggered by retinal identification.)
True to Heidegger’s anti-technological beliefs, Twelve Monkeys presents a dystopian future. Cole’s challenge is not, in the end, to save the world. Such a feat is too complicated for a mere mortal. He is struggling, rather, to reach what Heidegger calls “authenticity.” Authenticity is an integrated state where all the elements (animal≠intuition, scientific≠rational, religious/trinity≠Cole/Railly/Goines, and past/present/future) come together. In a sense authenticity is the ultimate form of sanity, where no matter what the Them may say, one is secure as an integrated Being.
Cole achieves authenticity when he chooses to stay with Kathryn in 1996, a decision based as much on his recognition of his love for her as his aversion to the dystopian future. Although briefly realized, Cole enjoys personal happiness when he makes his stand with Kathryn.
Gilliam shows us that authenticity—which includes an understanding and acceptance of our place within time and society—is the key to happiness. But the ending also reminds us that the Thems don’t give up willingly. They take violent action against those who try to escape. The questions remain: Is authenticity—sanity, independence—worth the struggle? In a world like ours, will we be able (or permitted) to sustain it over time? Is it worth dying for?