"…5 billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997… the survivors will abandon the surface of the planet… once again the animals will rule the world…" —Excerpts from interview with clinically diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic April 12, 1990 Baltimore County Hospital
The movie opens with a record of nature taking humanity to the mat. Our humbling defeat comes not from an asteroid, volcano, sharknado, or other typical Hollywood disaster. Rather, it's a disease that puts the world-conquering humans in their place.
[James Cole wanders the ruins of Baltimore in the year 2035. Encased in a plastic hazmat suit, he encounters several animals, such as a bear, lion, and Madagascar cockroach, among the derelict, empty buildings.]
This scene depicts the entropy that humanity's accomplishments will suffer in time. Our buildings will crumble, our societies will fall, and our pop culture will lose all its fizz. But nature will outlast us and take back the land that once belonged to it. The opening scene puts us in a fatalist mood right from the start—unless, of course, you're that lion and you just inherited a slightly used Baltimore.
TV NARRATOR: These dramatic videotapes, secretly obtained by animal rights activists, have aroused public indignation. But many scientists vehemently disagree.
GOINES: Torture experiments. We're all monkeys.
COLE: They hurt you?
GOINES: Not as bad as what they're doing to the Easter Bunny. [Goines chuckles.]
COLE: Look at them. They're just askin' for it.
TV NARRATOR: Animals inside the lab—
COLE: Maybe the human race deserves to be wiped out.
Of course, there was a time when humanity was more master than subject to nature, and we've done some truly heinous things in the name of science and continual mastery. Looking your way, Dr. Skinner. Being members of the human race, we'd like to keep open the debate about whether we should be wiped out.
DR. PETERS: I think, Dr. Railly, you're given the alarmists a bad name.
RAILLY: I have?
DR. PETERS: Mm-hm. Surely there's very real and very convincing data that the planet cannot survive the excesses of the human race.
RAILLY: This is true.
DR. PETERS: Proliferation of atomic devices; uncontrolled breeding habits; pollution of land, sea, and air; the rape of the environment. In this context, isn't it obvious that Chicken Little represents the sane vision, and that Homo sapiens' motto, "Let's go shopping," is the cry of the true lunatic?
Dr. Peters' argument regarding the "excesses of the human race" points to how completely we have dominated the natural world by the end of the 20th century. His language even suggests an attack. As we later learn, his plan is to use some scientifically buffed nature (in the form of a virus) to give nature a fighting chance.
COLE [laughing]: Ah, I love the music of the 20th century! I love this air! Ah, love to breathe this air!
The movie isn't all about pitting nature and people against each other in a no-holds-bar cage match of dominance. In fact, it recognizes that people are creatures of nature; we evolved to live in it, so it can satisfy us as easily as it can suppress us. Consider this scene, where Cole is happy, genuinely happy, just because he has some fresh air to breathe.
"Fresh" here being a relative term. It is, after all, Philadelphia air he's breathing.
RAILLY [bandaging Cole's wound]: You shouldn't put your weight on it. You need stitches and antibiotics. Lucky for you it's near the surface.
COLE: I love seeing the sun. [Goes to stand.] Oh.
RAILLY: Wait. Let me help you.
Going off the idea of nature as curative or therapeutic, notice how this is one of the few scenes in the film that occurs in a natural setting. It is also one of the few scenes showing Cole being healed, rather than injured.
SCIENTISTS [clapping]: Congratulations, Cole. Well done. Well done!
BOTANIST: During your interview, while you were under the influence, you told us that you liked music.
GEOLOGIST: This isn't a prison, James.
BOTANIST: This is a hospital.
ASTROPHYSICIST: Just until you recover your equilibrium.
That painting dangling above Cole in this scene is "Valley of the Yosemite" by Albert Bierstadt. As this is a hospital, we assume it was put there to provide Cole with a soothing, therapeutic vista. Again, notice how the film acknowledges nature's beneficial effects on human life, even if only a replication.
[COLE and RAILLY watch Vertigo in a movie theater.]
JAMES STEWART: There's a cross-section of one of the old trees that's been cut down.
KIM NOVAK: Here I was born. And there I died. It was only a moment for you. You took no notice.
COLE: I think I've seen this movie before. When I was a kid, I saw it on TV.
RAILLY: Don't talk.
COLE: I did see it before.
We swear, this one scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo has more green in it than all of 12 Monkeys. This abundance of foliage makes us realize just how little nature is in the film. Despite all the talk of animals and viruses, natural landscapes appear seldom outside of media such as movies, paintings, or TV commercials for the Florida Keys.
Natural landscapes are always out of reach for the characters, and with them, those therapeutic qualities we've been discussing (with the notable exception we mentioned previously). Instead, the modern cityscape seems to have everyone trapped.