The East Coast, Then and Later
Few settings are more depressing than those featured in 12 Monkeys.
(Maybe All Quiet on the Western Front's depiction on World War I's No Man's Land is a little worse. Oh, and maybe Fargo, depending on how you feel about snow.)
What's impressive about 12 Monkeys is that it manages to spread the dirt and depression across not one, but two different versions of Philadelphia: the city as featured in the 1990s and then in 2035. It even throws in a little Baltimore for flavor.
At first glance, these two versions of the city of brotherly love have little in common. But as we dive into the seedier side of the cityscape, we'll see the film isn't comparing grimy apples with rotten oranges. These two are one and the same.
Mystery Science Theater 2035
Let's start with 2035 because that's where the film starts. Seems logical.
Thirty years after a virus killed five billion people, humanity has been forced to eke out a squalid existence underground—like a society of mutant ninja turtles. We don't get to explore much of this society, but from what we see, everyone appears to be either a prisoner or a guard, and the ruling caste consists entirely of a panel of scientists.
That description is a dead ringer for something literature majors and futurists like to call dystopia, a nightmarish vision of the future featuring a sinister society where people don't live or even think freely. Let's break down all the ways this society has gone sideways.
For starters, freedoms appear to be nonexistent in 2035. We can't say this for certain because we only see it from James Cole's point of view, and he is a prisoner, a person who, by definition, has limited freedoms. However, it is telling that the only citizens of this world we observe are dirty, uneducated prisoners or their captors. Seriously, do these people not have teachers? Or cooks? (Actually, they probably don't have teachers—Cole brags to Railly a few times that he can read as if it were an exceptional accomplishment.)
Instead, everybody works toward the goals of the ruling caste, rather than pursuing their own goals as individuals. Speaking of the ruling caste, the Scientists appear to make and enforce the laws of this society like an oligarchy.
Consider this early scene:
ENGINEER: We have a very advanced program. Something very different.
MICROBIOLOGIST: An opportunity to reduce your sentence considerably.
ZOOLOGIST: And possibly play an important role in returning the human race to the surface of the Earth.
ASTROPHYSICIST: We want tough-minded people. Strong mentally. We've had some misfortunes with…unstable types.
ENGINEER: For a man in your position, an opportunity. Not to volunteer could be a real mistake.
MICROBIOLOGIST: Definitely a mistake.
Note that Cole isn't exactly volunteering here, even if that is the word they use. The scene shows us that the Scientists rule the society in a way to meet their own goals, rather than creating a society that allows individuals the opportunity to pursue lives of self-enrichment. That's a clear sign of a tyrannical dystopia. Also, they had out pardons to prisoners, a job that would be assigned to a nonbiased judicial system in any worthwhile society.
Finally, this society is stagnant both industrially and creatively. Despite being the year 2035, all of the materials used to build the society are from the pre-2000 years. Its entire infrastructure is cobbled together from blenders and batteries and TV screens and price scanners that you would likely find at the dump.
It doesn't appear to have created any new art either—although, again, this could be the result of our limited perspective. All of the songs and paintings featured in 2035 come from the pre-2000 years as well, such as the song "Blueberry Hill" and Albert Bierstadt's painting "Valley of the Yosemite." Granted, there's not much art featured at all, but the film does take time to point out that new artistic endeavors exist in the 1990s, from the poet reading her work at the library to Dr. Railly publishing her new book.
To recap, the year 2035 has all the hallmarks of a dystopia: a lack of individual freedoms, a despotic ruling caste, and a lack of industrial or creative advancement. Also, a lack of hygiene. The future is smelly.
Of course, the film is setting the future up as the fall guy. Showing us a potentially devastating future in order to show us how much better off we are in modern-day America…right? Right?
Back in the '90s
Wrong. The film's depiction of the '90s is almost as bad. Its modern cities are dirty and designed with little regard to citizens' health. Authority figures and public servants, like doctors and police, display little regard for those they are entrusted to serve. And while creativity exists, it is shown to be in a state of decline. 12 Monkeys is certainly not the kind of advertisement the Philadelphia tourism board would approve of.
In fact, every quality of the dystopian future has a mirrored image in the modern setting. Let's go down the list:
- The modern-day police station, mental hospital, and zoo all feature cages much like the future's prison. Actually, cages and fences are featured prominently in both timelines, in a variety of settings.
- The psychiatrists are arranged in a way that is parallel to the Scientists. Much like the Scientists, they don't seem to care much for their prisoners—er, patients.
- The police and orderlies mirror the wardens of the future. They see patients/prisoners as nails, and they are the hammers.
- The present society is shown as falling apart, while the future society already has. Just notice how prominently trash, construction projects, and abandoned buildings are featured in the backgrounds of the '90s scenes.
- While art is present in the '90s, it is clearly in decline. There's the crumbling Royal Theater that serves as stomping grounds for two thugs. There's also the overabundance of commercials and trashy pop culture shows on TV (with apologies to the Marx Brothers and Woody Woodpecker).
And we're sure there are many we haven't found, but the clear intent here is to suggest that the dystopian future isn't some far-off nightmare. It's already begun to grow, and to spread, from within the modern American city. The dystopia is here; the virus is simply the booster shot that'll really get it growing.
We can think of no better way to conclude that thought than to quote from one of our greatest time-traveling philosophers, Marty McFly: "That's heavy, Doc."