Study Guide

12 Monkeys Themes

  • Madness

    In 1982, Tears for Fears sang about our "Mad World." But is the world mad, or is songwriter Roland Orzabal's perspective of it just tinted with madness? We imagine that's the question 12 Monkeys protagonist James Cole would pose after enjoying some chart-topping synthpop.

    Throughout the film, Cole is plagued by questions of his own sanity. One minute, he knows he's a time-traveler from a future where humanity has been decimated by a virus. The next, he accepts how ludicrous that proposition is.

    This thematic tug-o-war pulls on both Cole's and the viewer's minds, with the film offering convincing evidence that both conclusions are correct. In the end, the only real conclusion we can draw is that our society and the powers that govern it are ill-equipped to help people suffering from such mental illness.

    Questions About Madness

    1. For the sake of argument, let's assume Cole is totally, completely, utterly mad. How do you read the film's ending if we assume this to be true? What is it trying to say on this theme?
    2. Why do you suppose the film chooses to include a character like Jeffery Goines, who is mentally and dangerously unstable? How does this character affect your reading of the theme of madness?
    3. Terry Gilliam chose to film the mental hospital on location at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary. Why do you think Gilliam chose this location given your understanding of this theme?

    Chew on This

    Through the character of Dr. Railly, 12 Monkeys views the concept of madness not as a mental illness resulting from physical or chemical miswirings in the brain, but as a state of perception we are all susceptible to.

    Through creative framing, camera angles, and set design, 12 Monkeys invites its audience to partake in the madness and explore that state of mind. See a doctor if effects last longer than two hours.

  • Power

    In "POWER," Kanye West warned that no one man should have all the power livin' in the 21st century. If he'd watched 12 Monkeys, he'd know that any one dude wasn't going to be the problem.

    The film argues that power is spread out too thin across our society, making it impossible for one person to accumulate enough of it to become the Emperor Palpatine or Sauron or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named of our world. Instead, power is found within the institutions of society—science, politics, law enforcement, and so on.

    These institutions benefit those who work within them, and oppress or ostracize those who don't. But even the people in charge of the institutions aren't completely free of them.

    Consider the Scientists. They relinquish their individuality—being simply known as Botanist, Geologist, Astrophysicist, and so on—to become the head honchos of futureland. Contrast them with Cole, who is very much an individual but one who lacks the social clout to struggle against the institutions he encounters. As for how we escape this predicament, well, the movie didn't say anything about escape, now did it?

    Questions About Power

    1. Which character or group would you say wields the most social power in the film? Why?
    2. Which character or group would you say wields the least social power in the film? Why? 
    3. Now compare and contrast the two. What does this tell you about how the film views social power structures? How does this affect your reading of the theme in the film? 
    4. Do you see any other types of power considered in the film? If so, what is it, and how does it stack up to social power? If not, then why do you think they are absent from the film?

    Chew on This

    The old saying is "knowledge is power," but in 12 Monkeys, the opposite appears to be true. For all their professional-grade knowledge, characters like Dr. Railly and Dr. Goines have little power to alter events.

    Characters are only able to wield power in 12 Monkeys as part of groups, such as the panel of scientists and the Army of the 12 Monkeys. The only exception to this may be Dr. Peters, but does he have the power or does it belong to the millions upon millions of microbes he unleashes?

  • Fate and Free Will

    Philosophers love to argue. In fact, they've been enjoying some arguments for around 2,500 years now and are still no closer to reaching a consensus. Needless to say, the after-debate snacks have grown a little stale. One of those arguments is the determinism vs. free will debate.

    Essentially, are our actions determined or do we have the ability to choose them freely?

    12 Monkeys roots for team determinism, cheering from the sidelines in full-on war paint. Specifically, the film sides with hard determinism, which is to say human behavior is determined by external factors beyond our control, like genetics or past events. For example, Cole goes back in time to gather information on the Army of the 12 Monkeys, but it is only through his going back in time that Railly gets the information she needs to leave the message that prompted the Scientists to send Cole back in time in the first place, and…yeesh, this theme's going to be a mind-twister.

    Side note: we're going to explore this theme with the understanding that the future exists and isn't a figment of any possible mental illness of Cole's. That's not the only approach you can take, but discussing time travel is a juggling act in and of itself. Trying to add madness on top of that is like someone tossing you a chainsaw when you only wanted to juggle bowling pins.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. We argue that the film is all about determinism, but do you agree? Is it possible that the film also promotes free will, even if a limited free will? Why or why not?
    2. Does any character have the power to influence his or her ultimate fate in 12 Monkeys? If yes, who and how does this character affect your reading of this theme? If not, then why is it important that such a character is absent?
    3. Do you think Cole's mad dash at the film's finale signifies his resignation to fate or his defiance of it? Why?
    4. What do you think determines fate in 12 Monkeys? Is it genetically or socially determined? A roll of the dice or the influence of a god's will? Our natural inclination to self-fulfilling prophecies?

    Chew on This

    In the final scene of the film, the Astrophysicist says she works in insurance, suggesting the film's determinism is nothing more than some serious manipulation of events on the Scientists' part.

    There is a dash of free will to be found in Cole's dreams. Their slight alterations throughout the film hint at his ability to change outcomes.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Humankind has a real love-hate relationship with the natural world in 12 Monkeys. On the one hand, nature is seen in almost villainous terms. Viruses and diseases have always been the movers and shakers of natural history on earth, and their campaigns aren't devised for our benefit. In 12 Monkeys, a fictional virus decimates humankind and kicks off a dystopian future where animals control the surface, while humans live underground. People battle nature in our modern world with the power of science, sometimes conquering it, sometimes not.

    On the other hand, the film hints that nature can be therapeutic, too. Cole dreams of seeing the ocean, and scenes featuring natural imagery see the character at peace or, at the very least, content. Unfortunately, nature in its therapeutic state always seems out of reach from Cole and the people trapped in the modern American cityscape.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. How would you describe the relationship between man and nature in the film? Is it antagonistic? Mutually beneficial? Something between the two extremes?
    2. Which character would you say is most in-tune with nature? Why? Why is this character important in understanding this theme? If you don't think such characters are present, then please explain why they are excluded from the story.
    3. Although he is hardly effective, do you think Jeffery Goines' heart is in the right place regarding nature? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The future society looks at nature as having conquered humanity and forced it underground. However, no animals are shown to harm a person in the film, while the reverse is not true. Although widely reported on, we don't even see the virus take anyone down. All we witness is human-on-human harm.

    The many commercials for the Florida Keys are not only a subtle foreshadowing to the film's ending, but also the film's call away from the city and toward nature.