On the list of most problematic cinematic plot devices, time travel has gotta rank somewhere near the very top. Sure, it can be a ton of fun – there’s a reason why box office hits like Back to the Future, The Terminator, and Avengers: Endgame are built around the concept – but most time travel stories tend to buckle (if not outright collapse) under the weight of their own paradoxes.
Not 12 Monkeys, though. The rules of time travel depicted in Terry Gilliam’s quirky, eerily prescient 1995 sci-fi outing – which stars Bruce Willis as James Cole, a prisoner sent back in time to find a cure for a virus that’s brought humanity to the brink of extinction – are totally airtight, and still stand up today, even after umpteen viewings.
However, the brilliance of 12 Monkeys doesn’t lie solely in its cleverly conceived chronological shenanigans, but in how Gilliam and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples use them to comment on weighty real-world issues. As with most of the director’s best work, there’s plenty of themes to unpack here, including the relationship between perception and madness, and the impact of technology on our ability to relate to each other as human beings.
It’s all fascinating stuff, but just as importantly, Gilliam and the Peoples have (knowingly or not) also used time travel to teach us two invaluable life lessons – both of which are as relevant now as they were when 12 Monkeys was first released 25 years ago.
Life lesson #1: You can’t change the past (but you can learn from it)
Most time travel movies are about altering the past to create a better future. Y’know, Kyle Reese needs to bring down Skynet before it can take over the world, Marty McFly needs to make a confident go-getter out of his wimpy, wallflower father, the Avengers need to reverse Thanos’ universe-wide act of mass murder, and so on.
There’s a reason for this: it represents the ultimate exercise in wish fulfilment for audiences. It allows us to vicariously live out a dream we’ve all had at one time or other, to fix something bad we did or that was done to us way back when, so that our life turns out better here in the present. And honestly? That’s fine – sometimes we deserve a bit of escapist fun.
But 12 Monkeys is more interested in harsh truths than giddy thrills, so this kind of temporal meddling is off the table. Right from the start, Gilliam and the Peoples make it clear that changing prior events is impossible, and according to their mind-bending (yet sound) logic, Cole’s journey to the past is itself proof that the deadly outbreak he’s desperate to prevent did (and always will) happen.
If this sort of mindfuckery is enough to give you a headache, the lesson behind it should at least be easier to wrap your noodle around: nobody – not even a guy with a time machine – can change the past. It’s a bleak, brutal message, but also an important one.
Because spending too much time fixated on events that have already happened and, crucially, will always have happened is an exercise in futility. What’s more, wasting our energy trying to change the past prevents us from doing what Cole was originally supposed to be doing – learning from it.
It doesn’t matter whether that means finding the cure to an extinction-level threat or simply not making the same mistakes in a new relationship that you did the last time around. The point is that shifting your focus from what you would’ve done differently in the past to what you will do differently in the future is the key to a more rewarding life.
Life lesson #2: Obsessing over the past is a great way to destroy your future
Of course, the reverse is also true: if you can’t move on from the past, you run the risk of crushing any chance you ever had of being happy in the future.
Cole finds this out in a very literal sense during 12 Monkeys’ brilliant, haunting finale. After finding love in the arms of Madeleine Stowe’s Doctor Kathryn Railly, Cole is on the verge of moving on from his misguided mission to change (rather that simply observe) the past. But he just can’t let go, and before the credits roll, Cole has made one last ditch attempt to prevent the virus from getting loose – triggering a chain of events that lead to his own death, instead (bummer).
Again, Gilliam and the Peoples aren’t pulling any punches, here – nor should they. Clinging to the past at the expense of the present (and future) will invariably end in tears. In real life, will this sort of behaviour mean you end up dying in a hail of bullets as your younger self watches on obliviously? Probably not. But either way, you’re gonna regret it.
Don’t learn from Marty McFly – learn from James Cole
So, if you learn nothing else from 12 Monkeys – and honestly, I’ve not even scratched the surface when it comes what this flick has to say – it’s to learn from Cole’s mistakes. Don’t ignore what the past can teach you about the future, but don’t daydream about changing things that have already happened, either. Otherwise, all you’re doing is wasting time, pure and simple.