I don’t know why it took me this long to see 12 Monkeys. I call myself a Gilliam fan, or a fan of 80s Gilliam. After the mild disappointment of Brothers Grimm and the stomach-churning shame of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I thought the man had derailed after The Fisher King, unable to face the headaches and crises of another shoot and another duel with the studios. Last night I saw 12 Monkeys (1995) at Cineplex’s Digital Film Festival. Part conventional thriller, part mind-bender, it blurs the same dreams-reality present-future border Brazil mined ten years earlier. Bruce Willis stars as Cole, a convict from 2035 sent to retrieve knowledge from a pre-viral past – hopefully you’ve seen it already so the following ideas will have some context for you. If not, read no further, there are some serious spoilers to be warned of. But see 12 Monkeys, it’s two hours well-spent.
James Cole = Jesus Christ
Is Cole a Christ figure? He’s sent to the past from the future to save humanity from a deadly virus, or at least allow the humans of 2035 feel fresh air again. He’s granted a pardon for helping the scientists find a cure. So he is meant to be a saviour who is pardoned for his early, unspecified sins by acts of altruism and suffering.
These appear like fragments of Christian myth inverted and warped by Gilliam’s imagination. Cole doesn’t succeed in creating a new future for humanity, and for the film’s second act he tries to forget his duties. Only his psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) r can convince him he’s perfectly sane, and she discovers that Dr. Peters is the real carrier of the virus. Cole is a very reluctant Christ. Even when pushed by Railly and Jose (the divine messenger from the future who gives him a gun) he fails to stop Peters from boarding his flight. While he is shot dead, he is not really dead: he is watching his own death as a child.
He can’t save the world from the apocalypse, which does not bring ultimate salvation. Humanity limps on under the ground, possibly a metaphor for hell. 12 Monkeys deserves a lot more views before a substantial thesis can be teased out, but there is clearly a postmodern angle, maybe even parody being played on the Bible. Cole does not want to save anybody, he wants to remain in the past/earth and forget the future. In a way, he wants to forget God; what better representation of an omnipotent being in science fiction than the unknowable, unfathomable, but all-powerful future?
Also, the animals running around Philadelphia scream Noah’s Ark, as the virus does the Flood. Again, Gilliam has turned the Biblical story on its head: instead of a diety punishing humans for being sinful, a diety (maybe just karma) is punishing humans for mistreating animals. The Army of the 12 Monkeys protests animal testing. Humans are said to be “an endangered species”. A monkey is exploited to save a child at the bottom of the well. Animals go on to survive the virus and reclaim the earth, while the humans are driven underground like rats.
There are doubtless other mythical references at work – I’ve even read an argument that Cole is Osiris and the other characters Ancient Egyptian deities. Watching any of Gilliam’s films is like unpacking a T.S. Eliot poem, where allusions point to older allusions which point to ancient allusions.
The ending reflects Eastern theology and, tellingly, is a lot more optimistic than the gloomy Christian overtones. Kathryn and Cole and James are locked in a cycle of two presents: he witnesses his own death and looks into her eyes, though he does not know this until he grows up, gets thrown into the past, and walks into that airport on that particular day. Is this an endless journey, repeated infinitely, without James able to break it because, as a child, he does not understand what’s going on? It’s a beautiful, mind-blowing conclusion. Maybe most touching is how Railly looks into the young Cole’s eyes and smiles, as if she knows she will see him again.
This could be the Sanskrit Sangsara: the endless wheel of life and death. According to Buddha we have all been in Sangsara for an indefinite period of time, continuously suffering, dying, and getting born, only to suffer and die again. Eliot probably had this is mind when he wrote “April is the cruellest month.” Release from the cycle of mortality comes with Nirvana, a freeing of identity and end of the world. Has Cole reached Nirvana? The last shot is one of his eyes watching the Peter’s plane take off, suggesting grown-up Cole and young Cole have merged and he understands what is going on. Or he could be ignorant and go through the same cycle again.
David Webb People and Janet People’s by-the-books script is an odd bedfellow to Gilliam’s flamboyant sets and cartoonish wide angles, but it’s a partnership that is mostly functional and sometimes brilliant. 12 Monkeys explores very human issues, which is maybe why there are so many religious allusions. The drive behind Cole’s story is the very human desire to reverse, escape, and finally defeat time. Cole might have reached Nirvana, but like the end of Inception, we are left without an answer because we have to fill in our own.