Monkey See, Monkey Do
For a movie titled 12 Monkeys, there sure aren't a lot of monkeys to be found. We have the monkeys from the zoo, the monkey lowered down the well with the sandwich, and a cymbal-banging monkey toy in the mental hospital. We think we spied some sock monkeys in the background at the Freedom for Animals Association's office, too.
That's like, what, a handful? Certainly not a dozen.
However, if we broaden our scope to animals in general, there's much more to work with. We have the animals being experimented on in the lab (oh, monkeys included). We have the animals from the zoo and the ones roaming the wintry wasteland of Philadelphia circa 2035. For good measure, we'll even throw in the anthropomorphized animals found on various TV shows and commercials, like Tex Avery's Wolf, Woody Woodpecker, and that weird commercial where the bear turns into a bull.
Okay, we've established the film has animals. Kudos to us. The next logical question becomes: why? We can see at least two potential answers to this question.
The first is that "human consciousness seems to have lost its higher order function and regressed to animalism. [12 Monkeys] suggests that this is due, in part, to the way science and technology are used to control and oppress" (source).
There are several scenes to demonstrate this, but our favorite is probably the one where the Scientists send Cole back in time. Cole resides in a plastic tube as faceless lab techs strap wires and instruments all over him. While the preparations are made, the Scientists shout words of encouragement from the balcony:
GEOLOGIST: No mistakes this time, Cole.
ASTROPHYSICIST: Stay alert. Keep your eyes open.
BOTANIST: Good thinking about the spider, Cole. Try and do something like that again.
MICROBIOLOGIST: Just relax now. Don't fight it. We're sending you to the third quarter of 1996. Right on the money.
The whole scene is eerily reminiscent of the news report showing the animals being experiment upon. The power the Scientists wield over him is obvious here. Cold, naked, and no doubt overwhelmed, Cole stands alone (well, lies down alone, but you take our point). Meanwhile, the Scientists stand together as a group and have all of the power in the situation.
The second answer is a counterargument to the first. Perhaps it isn't science that has "regressed" us to animalism. Perhaps science has merely hidden us from the fact that we are animals.
Consider this telling scene:
GOINES: Okay. Okay. Wanna hear the monkey speak?
DR. GOINES: Ah, Jeffery? Jeffery, I know that's you. I recognize your voice.
GOINES [disguising his voice]: No, you don't.
DR. GOINES: I also know all about your warped little plan. That lady, your psychiatrist? She told me. I didn't believe her. It just seemed too crazy, even for you. But just in case, I took steps to make sure you couldn't go through with it. I don't have the code anymore, Jeffery. I don't have access to the virus. I took myself out of the loop.
GOINES: Too late! Too late! We've got plans for you, Dad. [Everyone makes monkey sounds.]
The Army of the 12 Monkeys act like monkeys because…they are monkeys. Well, primates at any rate. There are several other examples of humans acting like animals in the film, such as the thugs who attack Cole and Railly, the no-tell hotel, and the use of cages to house our more violent and mentally ill members of society.
If we count humans alongside our evolutionary cousins, then the movie is replete with monkeys. And that's exactly the point: we are the monkeys. If anything, the Scientists of the future aren't trying to reestablish our dominance of the planet, so much as the illusion that we held dominance. A difficult illusion to maintain when you live underground.
As Jeffery Goines says, "We're all monkeys." It's the closest he comes to sane in the whole film.
Ultimately, it'll be up to you to decide which answer best serves your reading of the film. Or, perhaps, there is a third answer that we haven't even considered. Or a fourth? Given the type of film 12 Monkeys is, we wouldn't be surprised if there were a fifth, sixth, or seventh as well.