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Science on the Screen: Sloppy Time Travel in 12 Monkeys

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12 Monkeys is one of my all time favorite global pandemic / sci-fi time travel films. Released in 1995 and directed by Terry Gilliam, the film features Bruce Willis as James Cole, a prisoner in the year 2023, who is sent back in time to try and find evidence of how, when, and where a virus was released that would eventually out of most of the planet’s population.

Unlike movies that try to incorporate some scientific theories to somehow justify the use of technology to travel through time, the film is more focused on memory and how unreliable it can be. Cole finds himself jumping back and forth, almost haphazardly, through time and struggling to piece together what he remembers and what he is merely imagining. Traveling back in time to the 90’s he see’s and hears things from an era when he was alive as a child, which sometimes proves useful to understanding what is real and what might just be his own hallucination as a result of the stress of traveling through time.

One of the great aspects of director Terry Gilliam’s approach towards technology is the fallibility and inaccuracy of how it is used.  Unlike the more precise time travel stories of the last century, the scientists in 12 Monkeys are constantly making mistakes, at one point accidentally sending Cole into the middle of a battle in World War I where he gets shot. Only to transport again minutes later to the 1990’s where he is still wounded from that gunshot.

Another dysfunctional yet I would argue, logical aspect to how Cole behaves when traveling through time is his being locked up in an insane asylum 1996.  This comes as he commits the classic time-travelers sin of trying to explain to people in the past about an apocalytpic scenario that will take place in the future, the time where he comes from.  As would likely happen in real life, if a self-proclaimed person from the future shows up and tells anyone who will listen about the virus that will soon decimate humanity, Cole is very matter-of-factly locked up and considered insane. As a result of this knowledge that he has and being heavily medicated, in effect, he becomes insane as a side effect of his time travel.

12 Monkeys is not known as the best time travel film of all time, but it should be considered one of the classics, above all for its imperfect take on how technology and memory can fail or turn against us.  And how perhaps, even if someone told us about some terrible event that will take place in the future, we would not be able to take it seriously.

Photo: Brocco Lee / flickr

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