Science Fiction; Mystery; Psychological Thriller; Suspense
To Boldly Go Where No One Wanted To
Okay, so 12 Monkeys isn't the most spectacular of science fiction. There aren't any laser swords or neon-drenched cityscapes or spaceships going pew-pew through space. Time travel is the most science fictional element to be found and even that is used sparingly.
Yet the film qualifies as a card-carrying member of the genre, not simply because of it has time travel, but because it explores the relationship between science and society. 12 Monkeys asks the question, "Has our dependency and co-evolution with science benefited or harmed us?"
Seeing how the story sees science creating a virus that puts the hurt on humanity, we're definitely thinking it leans toward the harm side of that equation.
In 12 Monkeys' dystopian future, the Scientists run the show, and humanity survives underground like rats. Everyone seems to be either a prisoner or a guard. Despite the Scientists mucking about with nature and time, they have yet to produce any results. In fact, despite their prideful demeanor, they don't actually seem to know what they are doing. As the man with the raspy voice says, "Science ain't an exact science with these clowns."
Case in point, they never manage to send Cole to the proper time period on the first go.
In our modern era, things aren't much better. Psychiatrists poke around in the psyches of mentally ill patients despite a lack of empathy and an incomplete theory of the human mind. Virologists create potentially deadly viruses, not to serve a need or to better humanity but because…seriously, why did Dr. Goines do that again?
So 12 Monkeys is science fiction in that it explores the relationship between society and science. However, it doesn't show that relationship in a good light like, say, Star Trek. Instead, it argues that science is using nature and society as its personal lab. And the consequences will be dire.
Oh, and also time travel.
The Game is a Monkeys' Foot
The crime: humanity has been wiped out by a mysterious virus. The suspect: the Army of the 12 Monkeys, an extreme environmentalist group operating in 1996. Detective James Cole must investigate how they did it before they strike again.
Okay, that last part doesn't scan, but the rest of it does, and when put this way, it becomes clear how 12 Monkeys fits into the mystery genre. Cole acts like a detective searching for clues to the murder of the human race.
You can see this in several scenes. The Scientists give Cole information on the Army of the 12 Monkeys in a scene reminiscent of a twisted police briefing. During the drive to Philadelphia, Cole shows Railly his notebook full of information on the case, and once in Philadelphia, he follows a breadcrumb trail of graffiti straight to the people who inform him that Jeffery Goines is the founder of the Army of the 12 Monkeys.
As Cole follows the clues, new revelations appear, the plot thickens, and the true culprit turns out to have been hiding in plain sight the whole time. Although Cole does solve the case, the film doesn't end in a summation gathering like a classic mystery story. Always one for a little genre subversion, 12 Monkeys gives us our foot chase, but it remains an open question as to whether Cole truly trapped his man.
Pay attention. Take a look at this man with the drool river on his chin. Do you see a mentally deranged man in need of psychiatric help? Or perhaps you see a time-traveler trying to prevent a disaster?
Our survey of genres ends with psychological thriller. This one you may be less familiar with, but in its simplest definition, a psychological thriller is a film that creates suspense through the unstable mental states of its characters. Sound like anybody we know? Yep, Cole fits that description nicely.
The film gives us plenty of reasons to doubt Cole's story about being from the future. There's L.J. Washington's little spiel on mental divergence. There's the fact that no one but Cole interacts with any character from the future. There's Cole talking with the voice inside his head. Oh, and then there's the fact that Cole himself doubts his own mental health.
These qualities in Cole's character create suspense for the audience. Should we be rooting for this character to succeed? What if he's wrong? But what if he's right? The desire to answer these questions leaves us on the edge of our seats, waiting to see what will happen. And it's thrilling to see it all play out.
A word of warning: mixing time travel with psychological thrills can result in a fierce brain workout. Don't forget to stretch your gray matter afterward to prevent it from getting sore. May we recommend a nice nature walk or perhaps a couple of easy reps of Animaniacs.