Humanity’s nature is very perplexing. If you were to be approached by a stranger on any given day prophesizing an impending plague, most likely you would dismiss that stranger as hysterical. And yet, our existence is due in no small part to our wily ability to survive and our primal instincts that demand self-preservation among all else. Cataclysms have happened before but we carry on as if we are sure they could never happen again. Perhaps we would not be where we are without our much-justified sense of skepticism as well, but those two instincts can be at odds with each other. On December 30, 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang offered us a warning of the discovery of a new strand of the Coronavirus. He was dismissed and silenced, and not even 3 months later, he is dead at the hands of the very virus he attempted to warn us about while global society is coming to a screeching halt at the mercy of Dr. Wenliang’s foretold pandemic.
“12 Monkeys” is a film that thrusts you into Dr. Wenliang’s position. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a survivor of pandemic sent back in time from the year 2035 to recover information on how the disease spread so the remaining humans can construct a cure in their present time. Upon arriving in 1990, Cole is presumed to be a paranoid schizophrenic and detained in a psychiatric ward. Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) is his psychiatrist that believes Cole is suffering from a condition of mental divergence, where his psyche constructed the idea of the upcoming plague and him being from the future as a way of escaping his current reality. Cole, however, is insistent that his mission is true and the death of 5 billion people is a mere 6 years away from the current moment. Unfortunately, his detainment means he cannot proceed to gather information and he ends up befriending Jeffery Goins (Brad Pitt), another patient at the institution who suffers from paranoia before he is brought back to 2035 to get another crack at his mission.
The film proceeds to see Cole travel through time, instantaneously on multiple occasions, which eventually strains his understanding of reality. He steadily believes he is mentally ill, as Dr. Railly diagnosed him and comes to question if he was ever from the future at all. We as the viewer begin to view Cole as an unreliable narrator of events and start to question if the cartoonish hellhole of the future could be real or just images placed in his head from the ramblings of patients like Jeffery Goins. And as we begin to grow skeptical of Cole, we become Dr. Railly, a retrospective irony you will come to see as the film progresses. “12 Monkeys” presents a case study of what is known as the Cassandra Complex, which is the psychological phenomenon that Dr. Railly studies. This dynamic gets its name from Ancient Greek Mythology, where Cassandra rejects the advances of the god Apollo and in retaliation, he bestows upon her the ability of prophetic foresight and the guarantee that she will not be believed. Dr. Wenliang, like Cole, suffered from the Cassandra Complex. Their warnings were given to unwilling listeners that were only validated after it becomes too late.
“12 Monkeys” reveals a trick in our cognitive abilities. The characters in the film that are outwardly paranoid are all dismissed, but yet they all seem to have merit to their thoughts. Even Goins, who is a manic patient with obvious psychological issues, is never totally off-base with his evaluations of society, both inside and outside the psychiatric ward. His rants are easy to brush off as the ramblings of a lunatic, but he is correct about almost everything he says, including his father’s work on animals and diseases. Inversely, as Dr. Railly, who was praised as a rational follower of psychology, finds evidence that supports Cole’s story, and begins develops an outward paranoid appearance, eventually inheriting the Cassandra Complex she studies.
But it is irresponsible to believe that this film is advocating paranoia. I am sure Cole would be just as opposed to the masses freaking out over the end of times because he frequently says that his mission is not to stop the virus but to gather information. In his words, the outbreak already happened in his time and he cannot stop that. People going insane over the end of times will not prevent the end from coming and he knows it. What the film is preaching is not to be dismissive and to listen. It is very simple. Return to the real world for a moment. Our current public health crisis is causing a bevy of reactions in society. Some are paranoid and hoarding supplies for Armageddon, and some that are still going to bars and restaurants as if it is a normal day. We have all been given our warning, yet some are paranoid and others dismiss it. And both are viewed as harmful actions.
And for all the film tells us is inevitable, it still revels in the ambiguity of motivations, purpose, and reality. Director Terry Gilliam uses an exceptionally light touch when introducing ideas in the plot, enough to make you leave your viewing with plenty to ponder. There is a multitude of elements within the film to appreciate, as well, that each contributes in some way to the uncertainty the audience feels. The frequent use of Dutch angles, a flat filter, and harsh, bright lighting help convey an unease through visuals. Although the representation of technology in this film is very much restricted to the limited imagination of the 1990s, the production design does succeed in creating a believable yet mildly outlandish view of a dystopian future. The electrifying performance of Brad Pitt as Jeffery Goins also delivers a major contribution. This character is burdened with being friendly, unbalanced, unpredictable, deranged, and intelligent in every scene he is in, and in the hands of a lesser actor, could have become a slapstick-heavy comedic relief character, but instead is an important player that you cannot pin down for sure. Even Bruce Willis, a man notorious for not caring about his work, puts in a very respectable and committed performance that could easily be delusional.
After watching “12 Monkeys” you are forced to ask yourself if you would believe Cole if you were Dr. Railly. Hopefully, you would not stop your self-questioning there. How do you think you would have treated the warnings of Dr. Wenliang in December of 2019? Or, hypothetically, would you be able to convince someone on September 10, 2001, of what is to come tomorrow? Would you listen to someone who tried to warn you? Imagine the burden of knowing but not being listened too. Apollo really was malicious to punish Cassandra the way he did.
I give “12 Monkeys” a 9.0 out of 10
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse
Runtime: 2 Hours and 9 Minutes