Thursday, 7 July 2016

12 Monkeys (1995)

An issue pretty much any time travel story has to grapple with is "can the past be changed?".  This film deals with the question pretty simply: it flat out says "no", via character dialogue.

12 Monkeys is about Joe Cole, a man from the mid-21st century who saw 98% of the world's population wiped out by a virus in the year 1996.  Like every other surviving human, he lives in a dystopic subterranean world of iron and plastic, pipes and cages.  After surviving a compulsory mission to the surface, Cole is offered the chance to travel back in time.  Not to stop the virus.  As I said, the film tells us that's not possible.  Instead, his mission is to find out how and where it originated so that a scientist can be sent back to study it and develop a cure.  Then, the humans of the future can return to the surface of the planet.

Unfortunately, the time travel experience is quite mentally traumatic, not to mention somewhat inaccurate.  Cole travels back to 1990, six years too early.  There, he soon runs afoul of the authorities.  When he tries to explain his mission, they refer him to a psychiatrist who soon decides he's delusional and has him committed to an institution.

And that, I think, is about as far as I'm going to explain the plot of this film, because it is definitely one that relies on creating mystery and suspense about what's going to happen next to Joe.  Instead lets talk about a couple of the themes it explores.

One of those themes, as you might have guessed from my third paragraph, is whether Joe really is from the future, or if he's as delusional as his psychiatrist believes.  I don't think the question is ever really in doubt for the audience (though it does sometimes seem to try to make us wonder), but it's certainly one that Joe has to seriously consider.

The second theme is one of duty and predestination.  If the virus is real and inevitable, then where does Joe's job end and what does he do once it is over?  And can he just assume that it is inevitable, like he has been told?

12 Monkeys is a well-acted, well-directed film.  I don't necessarily like all the answers it has for the questions it asks, and I think it attempts to make the viewer wonder 'is Joe insane?' are not very convincing.  But those quibbles aside, it's an interesting if bleak science fiction mystery.  Worth your time if you're looking for something a bit more cerebral in your genre entertainment.

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