April 18, 2011

Open-ended Sci-Fi: Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys [review by starlight]

"Ah! Ah! There's no right, there's no wrong, there's only popular opinion. You... you... you believe in germs, right?"
The immortal and yet completely loony words of Jeffrey Goines in 12 Monkeys really hint at the point of this film. No one interpretation is right or wrong, but throughout human history we've tended to assume that the majority is correct, even if the minority is one Galileo Galilie. Or, to use Jeffrey's example, the first scientists to come up with the idea of bacteria. Science fiction is a genre that works beautifully with an open-ended approach, where the credits roll and there is no one answer as to what just happened (much as I observed in Mulholland Dr). We really are given nothing conclusive at the end of 12 Monkeys, but of course, watchers everywhere have come up with many theories. And who's to say that the least advocated one is any less likely to be the correct? The majority used to think that the sun was one of seven planets visible to the naked eye that revolved around the earth. Shows what the majority knows.

Several plot lines are left completely unresolved when the credits roll, or at least left up to the viewers imagination. The first and most obvious is what is the woman scientist from the future doing on the plane next to  Dr. Peters, who spreads it. Most people tend to view this as a happy ending, that James' tips were able to tell the scientists who spread the virus so that they could get a sample of it and maybe even stop it. Some think the scientists were not trustworthy - that they were in fact pro-virus and the woman being there makes her a backup for Dr. Peters should he fail. This interpretation is based on her ruthlessness when she says to Peters, "You might say that we're the next endagered species - human beings", a statement with which Dr. Peters agrees. Still others might believe that James really was insane and that everything we see of the woman and Dr. Peters getting on the plane is perfectly innocent. This one is supported by James seeing a bear standing on hind legs and roaring in the future and a stuffed version in a present-day shop window. What he thinks he saw in his made-up future world is directly from something in the real world. He's crazy. These, and more theories about the ending, are supportable, but nothing seems to be one hundred percent conclusive.

If you believe that Dr. Peters wanted to spread the virus, a likely interpretation, you might notice that he gave away no real motive. This is another aspect of the plot that is left open ended. Why did he want to wipe out humanity? Was he just a sick, suicidal man taking out 5 million people with him? When he goes to Kathryn's presentation and speaks about the instability of the human lifestyle on the planet, we get a hint of why he might want to do this, but in the scheme of the whole movie, this seems like a very minor moment to bring about the death of 90% of the population.

We might still believe that Peters was in agreement with Jeffrey. The Army of the 12 Monkeys is given a free pass because it seems their plot only went as far as to release all the animals from the city zoo, but really, this could have been Jeffrey's idea for a decoy. If we decide that Jeffrey may really have been involved in the end, can we believe him that it was originally James' idea? The scientists said that they couldn't change the future, but that doesn't quite work with our concept of chronology. James impacts the lives of the people around him - even his childhood self, as evidenced by his recurrent dream. Why can't he stop the virus from being released - or even cause it to be in the first place?
"It's just like what's happening with us, like the past. The movie never changes. It can't change; but every time you see it, it seems different because you're different. You see different things."

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