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
- Which character or group would you say wields the most social power in the film? Why?
- Which character or group would you say wields the least social power in the film? Why?
- 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?
- 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?