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
- 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?
- 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?
- Do you think Cole's mad dash at the film's finale signifies his resignation to fate or his defiance of it? Why?
- 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.