Decentralising Humanity in Science Fiction Cinema Part Two – 12 Monkeys

As I suggested in part one of this article, nature does not only consist of trees and oceans – in 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance, much of the natural world that we are shown is in the form of the unknown reaches of outer space. In 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam takes this concept in a similar yet different direction, one that seeks to complicate the idea of the linear progress of humanity. Rather than looking outward into space to highlight our significance, he looks down onto Earth, exploring the oft-forgotten fact that humans are ultimately animals, holding no privileged position aside from our current, possibly fleeting, dominance over the planet.

The Fragility of Humanity

Although Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys depicts humanity with a greater frequency and with more of a sense of personality than 2001, the question of whether humans are truly distinct from other species still lingers over the film in much the same way. This is symbolised throughout the film with the motif of cages and entrapment as a temporary way of halting nature’s inevitable chaos, with Gilliam frequently shooting closeups through mesh to reinforce this theme. Additionally, the asylum that briefly holds the protagonist is not dissimilar from the lab that holds the monkeys that are eventually released, contributing to the decentralisation of humanity from a privileged position in the narrative. The monologue delivered by Brad Pitt’s character Jeffrey emphasises this, especially his frantic performance, which goes against his leading man persona and gives a claustrophobic atmosphere.

The scene is shot with a constantly moving handheld camera that is usually at a canted angle, which follows Jeffrey as he rambles about how ‘the system’ is able to control people. Though much of the content of his speech is convoluted and difficult to follow, I’d argue that the camerawork suggests that Jeffrey’s apparent insanity is justified, particularly as the grey, metallic set design creates an atmosphere mirroring that of the entrapment that he describes. The position of this scene in the narrative also aids our sympathy towards Jeffrey and the other patients, as we have seen what he describes taken to its extreme endpoint in the future, turning his paranoia into understandable concern. This sequence is just one example of how the film seeks to subjugate its human characters, reducing them to an animalistic state by placing them in situations evocative of how other non-human living beings are treated.

Unlike 2001, 12 Monkeys features a distinct protagonist played by a recognisable star: Bruce Willis as James Cole. We are spatially and temporally aligned with Cole for the vast majority of the film, and are given subjective access to the character through his flashback sequences – a distinct contrast to Bowman’s lack of available interiority, and his absence from large portions of 2001. However, this protagonist is a far cry from the powerful, individualistic Willis known through films like Die Hard – instead, he is made animalistic and submissive by brutalisation, and ultimately fails to use individual power to overcome his own demise. In an early scene, he is depicted as a prisoner of what American society has become, hosed down naked and injected with medieval-looking devices after being forced into the altered modern environment for explorative purposes. This is implied to be some kind of punishment, as exposure to the world his species used to rule can now potentially lead him to physical harm or death. This presents a direct contrast with 2001: where Kubrick’s film depicts humanity being assisted through the universe by mysterious forces in their goal of discovering the unknowable, Gilliam’s film suggests that humanity is too frail to do the same. Additionally, while Bowman and his crew are shown to be men of science, sent out into space as part of a high ranking job that requires a great deal of intellect, Cole is made to leave against his will almost sacrificially, despite not being able to withstand the outside world for long.

A Hostile Planet

While the depictions of nature in 12 Monkeys remain grounded on Earth, the place of humanity within the natural world is still presented as precarious at best, as emphasised by the use of time travel in the narrative. Though the two time periods depicted are only two decades apart, they are impossibly different from one another – while 1990 accurately reflects the contemporary world when the film was released, 2035 is unrecognisable, with an entirely different natural hierarchy. Parallels can be drawn with the scene that depicts the outside world in 2035, and the moment at the end of the film where the zoo animals are released into urban Baltimore in the 1990s – what humanity assumes is the natural order has been entirely upended, resulting in what we perceive as chaos. Comparisons can also be drawn between James Cole’s quarantine suit and that of the spacesuits in 2001, which use similar imagery for different purposes. While Kubrick’s film suggests with its famous cut from a bone to a satellite that these advanced suits are an extension of the knowledge humans were granted by the monolith in the prehistoric era, Gilliam’s uses it to highlight the physical weakness of humanity against the wider world.

The opening sequence of 12 Monkeys establishes that humanity’s current position as the rulers of Earth has been almost entirely dismantled. The new habitat of humans is shown to be made up of underground cages – although we are only shown the prison at this stage, the lack of many other locations implies that the majority of this new world is dark and oppressive. This creates the first parallel between humanity and other creatures: earthworms and other underground species that are typically perceived to be at the bottom of the food chain. The lack of individuation between the prisoners is similar to the way the hominids are depicted in 2001; however, as the hominids eventually become more individualised humans, this suggests some kind of regression to a more primitive state is occurring here.

This is reflected in a later moment where Cole first meets Railly – he is from the future, but his physical mannerisms, lack of speech, and fewer clothes hold connotations of cavemen and other earlier forms of human life. Although one could argue that the ruling class of scientists underground indicates that some valuing of the intellectual has remained, I argue that this serves to further demonstrate the failings of humanity. We are largely separated from other species because of the size and structure of our brains, allowing us greater cognitive faculties, but as demonstrated by the precarious situation of humans in Twelve Monkeys, this does not mean we are exempt from changes in natural circumstances. Humans aren’t exempt from typical evolution, but another variety of living beings that can be taken down from something as (comparatively) biologically simple as a virus – sadly, this is currently being demonstrated worldwide.

Though the majority of the film takes place in the developed urban environment of 1990s Baltimore, a brief scene with Cole and Railly in a forest suggests what I have argued is the central thesis of the film: that humans are no different from other animals, and are essentially still the monkeys of the title. This scene can even be compared to the literary concept of the Shakespearean ‘green world’, with characters returning to pastoral settings in order to explore their natural inclinations away from developed, repressive areas in ‘a place of withdrawal’. Interestingly, Gilliam depicts this brief glimpse of the natural world as being on the margins of society – the two characters only come across it while on the run, and we have only seen urban spaces in the 1990s up until this point. Structurally, this moment serves as a break from the chaos of the rest of the movie, framing this return to the simplicity of nature in a positive light and reminding the audience of the environmental origins of humanity – we came not from high rises, but forests.

Progress, or Self Destruction?

As demonstrated here, the progress of humanity can be undone at any moment, and although it is caused in this case by humanity’s own self-destruction, this still suggests that our place in nature is not privileged beyond primal impulses and physical fallibility. The fact that it is a disease that undoes humanity is significant – while characters are depicted in situations that emphasise their intellectual capacities (Railly’s lecture, for instance), no one is able to escape the limitations of their body when faced with a biological threat. However, this virus did not naturally occur and was instead engineered intentionally to wipe out much of the human race. This can lead to a more damning environmental interpretation of the film; humanity’s self-awareness has led us down a route of self-destruction unique to our species.

The complex time loops that the narrative of 12 Monkeys is constructed from (taken from the source film La Jetée) reflect the precarious position of humanity in the ever-evolving natural world, as well as our tendency towards self-destruction. By utilising a non-linear structure that gives a fragmented impression of reality, Gilliam encourages the audience to question the notion of time travel throughout, presenting it as Cole’s subjective experience as opposed to the more objective time jumps in 2001. By seemingly using the tenseless time model, in which events are fixed to occur and cannot be altered, Gilliam creates a sense of the inevitability of humanity’s collapse both narratively and thematically. Despite Cole’s best efforts, or perhaps because of, he dies at the close of the film, fulfilling the loop he had foreseen as a child and in his dreams. Though the ending is ambiguous as to whether the scientists were able to prevent further spread of the virus through further time travel, Cole’s demise creates a bleak tone that implies humanity’s powerlessness and eventual regression to the misery shown at the start.


Although 2001 seems to follow humanity’s progression as a species, while 12 Monkeys implies an inevitable downfall, both films present a relationship with nature and outer space that places humans as largely insignificant and powerless even within their own narrative. Each text decentralises the assumed importance of humanity, transforming the dichotomy of humans versus nature by showing that humans are only one small aspect of the wider world. While the newer film emphasises how humanity’s intellectual, technological, and sociological progress can all be undone at the whim of the natural world, the older depicts humanity as conquerors, but not of their own merit.


Updated: Dec 31, 2020

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