Study Guide

12 Monkeys Power

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WARDEN: Volunteer duty!

COLE: I didn't volunteer.

WARDEN: You causing trouble again?

COLE: No, no trouble.

Did that virus kill all the dictionaries, too? Because that's not what "volunteer" means. Actually, the warden is using something called newspeak. Newspeak is when people—usually politicians and those in power—use soft-sounding euphemisms to hide what they really mean. For example: saying, "volunteer" when you really mean "forced labor."

Cole is often restrained by those in power, but this one of the subtler ways used to restrain him.

DETECTIVE: Negative for drugs. But he took on five cops like he was dusted to the eyeballs. No drugs. You believe that?

RAILLY: He's in restraints.

DETECTIVE: Yeah. Weren't you listenin'? I've got two police officers in the hospital! Yeah, he's in restraints. And the medic gave him enough stellazine to kill a horse. Look at him. Rarin' to go.

RAILLY: That would explain the bruises, I guess. The struggle.

And this is one of the not-so-subtle ways Cole is restrained by social powers. Naked and alone, he is beaten and put in a jail cell by law enforcement. As Dr. Railly points out, he is literally "in restraints."

Cole's one defense, at this point, is his ability to punch real good, but that's only effective against a single person, not the system as a whole.

Side note: why are so many time-travelers sent back naked or darn near close enough? They just have to know that's going to end badly for them, regardless of what era they are sent to.

GOINES: A telephone call? That's communication with the outside world. Doctor's discretion. Nah, nah. If all of these nuts could just make phone calls, it could spread insanity, oozing through telephone cables, oozing to the ears of all these poor, sane people, infecting them. Wackos everywhere. A plague of madness.

The restraints put on Cole just keep on coming. After being restrained physically, now he's being restrained mentally by having his freedoms limited. He no longer has freedom of movement, freedom of schedule, or the freedom to make any choices, really.

He doesn't even have that most basic of modern liberties: the freedom to communicate.

COLE: This is a place for crazy people. I'm not crazy.

DR. FLETCHER: We don't use that term, "crazy," Mr. Cole.

COLE: You've got some real nuts here. I know some things that you don't know. It's gonna be very difficult for you to understand it.

[Cole rises. The orderlies stop him.]

COLE: Hey! I'm not gonna hurt anyone.


Notice how the psychiatrists of the '90s are arranged in a manner similar to the scientists of 2035. Likewise, Cole is seated by himself, singled out and alone.

In both cases, the group has social power over the individual, and it wields that power to effectively construct the individual's goals. When it comes to the power relations of society, it's as if the movie is shrugging its shoulders and saying, "Same stuff, different day."

COLE: You can't help him.

RAILLY: Oh, Jesus. James, you killed him!

COLE: All I see are dead people. Come on. Come on.

RAILLY: You never had a gun before.

COLE: I have one now. Come on. Come on!

As we mentioned previously, Cole's power comes from his strength. It's an effective weapon against individuals because most of us aren't built like, well, Bruce Willis.

But nowhere in the film is Cole able to use his strength against people who represent the institutions of social power, such as psychiatrists, scientists, or law enforcement. When he tries, like the time he took on the orderlies, he fails.

DR. GOINES: But, alas, I am burdened. For with all this excess of public attention and cacophony of praise there comes great responsibility. Now I don't have to tell you all that the dangers of science are a timeworn threat. From Prometheus stealin' fire from the gods—to the Cold War era of the Dr. Strangelove terror. But never before—to fear the power we have at hand.

We haven't gotten to science yet, but the film definitely argues that science wields more power over our societies than it should these days. Case in point, the dystopian future is run by a panel of scientists that genetically spliced themselves with the Supreme Court and a bad case of hording in some mad experiment.

In this quote, Dr. Goines' is making the Uncle Ben argument: "With great power comes great responsibility." We'll see how this pans out later.

RAILLY: Oh for God's sake, Owen, listen to me. He knew about the boy in Fresno, and he says five billion people are going to die.

FLETCHER: No way he could possibly know that. Kathryn. You're a rational person. You're a trained psychiatrist. You know the difference between what's real and what's not.

RAILLY: And what we say is the truth is what everybody accepts. Right, Owen? Psychiatry—it's the latest religion. We decide what's right and wrong. We decide who's crazy or not. I'm in trouble here. I'm losing my faith.

You would think Dr. Railly would yield all sorts of power. She is, after all, a well-known psychiatrist and card-carrying member of that social institution. But you would be wrong.

In many ways, Dr. Railly is just as subordinate to her institution as Cole. It tells her what to think, how to think, and how to act on said thoughts. When she starts to think thoughts that aren't allowed in her profession, she has a crisis of faith. As such, it is the institution itself, not the individuals within them, that wield power in12 Monkeys.

DR. GOINES: No, no. I don't know anything about a monkey army, Doctor. No, no. Nothing whatsoever. Good lord, if my son was ever involved in something like that…yeah? Well, I'm sorry. I think it's doubly inappropriate to discuss security matters with you Doctor, uh, Railly. But, uh, if it will ease your mind, rest assured that neither my son nor any other unauthorized person has access to potentially dangerous organisms in my laboratory. Is that clear to you now, ma'am? Thank you so much for your concern.

[He hangs up the phone.]

DR. GOINES: Women psychiatrists.

PETERS: I attended a lecture of hers once, "Apocalyptic Visions."

Let's go back to Dr. Goines. He argued the institution of science wielded great power to shape society, and as a result, they needed to be extra cautious with their research and its potential applications—see the nuclear bomb argument.

He should have taken his own advice. Dr. Goines gives Dr. Peters access to crazy deadly viruses, and Dr. Peters later steals one to eradicate humanity with. It's a "who watches the watchman" type situation here.

CABBIE: 12 Monkeys. In case you folks didn't turn on your radio this mornin'. Bunch of weirdos let all of the animals out of the zoo. Then they locked up this big-shot scientist in one of the cages. Scientist's own kid one of the ones who did it. They've got animals all over the place. Bunch of zebras closed down the thruway 'bout an hour ago. And they got something called an emu. It's got traffic blocked for miles on 676.

There's some awesome imagery to go along with this quote, featuring elephants, lions, and monkeys roaming the metal jungle of Philadelphia. But that imagery also lends itself to the theme of power.

Goines and his cohorts attempted to flip the power structure—freeing the animals and caging the scientist. However, the power structure is not so easily flipped. Although freed from the zoo, the animals are caged nonetheless within the confines of the city, unable to escape to their natural environments. And the caging of one scientist hardly prevents anyone else from science-ing it up.

PETERS: Excuse me.

ASTROPHYSICIST: It's obscene, all the violence, all the lunacy. Shootings even at airports now. You might say that we're the next endangered species. Human beings.

PETERS [panting]: I think you're right, ma'am. I think you've hit the nail on the head.

ASTROPHYSICIST [shakes Peters' hand]: Jones is my name. I'm in insurance.

And so we come to the ever-ambiguous ending of 12 Monkeys. There are several different ways to read this scene, but if we look at it through the lens of power, we have to wonder what Jones means by, "I'm in insurance." Is she the insurance in case Cole failed his mission? Or is she ensuring that the future continues as is, leading to a world where she and her scientific comrades maintain power over society?

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