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Essay: 12 Monkeys: A Thrilling Philosphical Take on Time Travel

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  • Reading time: 4 minutes
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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 907 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 4 (approx)

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For those of you who love an action packed, adrenaline-filled and thought provoking film, director Terry Gilliam has brought one to the big screen. Starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt 12 Monkeys is an intense film about time travel that is definitely worth watching.  Picture yourself in the year 2035, living in an underground shelter with just a few other humans who have survived a terrible virus that was deliberately released into the earth. Ninety-nine per cent of humanity was wiped out in 1996 by this deadly virus. The movie begins with presenting James Cole a prisoner, with a mission to go back in time and gather information about the virus before it was mutated. He is mistakenly sent to the year 1990 and is locked up in a mental institution since no one believes his plea of being a time traveler. Here he meets Jeffery Goines a crazed conspiracy theorist who Cole gets to know quite well. Cole is told by the scientists that the Army of the 12 Monkeys are responsible for the virus. Throughout his journey he has dreams of his childhood where he witness’ a man getting shot in an airport. He is later sent to the correct year and finds out that it was Jeffery who founded the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Cole finds the man who is going to spread the virus but he gets away and Cole ends up being shot just like in his dreams. This film addresses interesting philosophical concepts such as free will and the relativity of time.

Cole the protagonist has visions of a traumatic event of his childhood where he witness’ a man being shot at an airport. It is later clear that he is in fact the man in his visions and what he saw was his older self as a time traveler getting killed. The concept of free will is proposed through Cole’s character by showing that humans don’t actually have free will since everything has been predetermined. The fact that Cole is not capable of changing his life’s outcome shows that time cannot be changed, not even with a functional time machine, because everything is already fixed to happen in a specific way. He was being foolish by chasing after the man responsible of releasing the virus because it is too late since the virus was already unleashed. Cole is under the impression that he has free will, he thinks he is capable of changing the past but in the end gets shot as it was pre-ordained to happen. Determinism expresses that every event has prior conditions that cause it and human actions are part of a casual chain of nature that are predetermined. Determinism explains, that to us it may seem like we are free but in actuality, this freedom is our ignorance of the laws that govern us. Famous philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche’s doctrine of the External Return states that ‘’all that happens has already happened exactly the same way, in earlier cycles of the eternal return, and they are fated to happen again and again eternally’’ showing that everything in our lives is pre-set and it cannot be changed. This statement is clearly represented in this film through Cole who lives out his life exactly how it was predetermined to happen even when he tries to go back in time and change the outcome.

The relativity of time is another interesting concept in this movie. The universe can be viewed as having three space dimensions one time dimension creating a 4-dimensional space which is referred to as the space-time continuum. This film is based on the concept of spacetime. Einstein’s theory explains that ‘’the distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion’’. The past, present and future are all equally real, someone’s past can be someone else’s present. When Cole time travels to 1996 he is in his past however his past is the present for the people living on earth, this shows how one person’s past is another person’s present and they both exist simultaneously.  Everything that has ever happened and everything that will happen all exist simultaneously. Future events are "already there", and there is an objective flow of time. In 12 Monkeys everything that happens has already happened before. The scientists send Cole to find information about the virus, they understand that they cannot change what has already happened so instead they want to find a vaccine to cure them in their present. In other words the scientists are aware of the fact  that if they could change such a catastrophic event in the past, then they wouldn't be considering doing so at all in their present. The fact that the future is set does not prevent Cole from trying to change it anyway. It is known in the future that there was an outbreak of a virus, but not who or what started it, when Cole successfully finds the perpetrator he gets killed. Cole was unable to change the past because it was also a part of his present.

Overall this is a great movie, with an intriguing storyline and surprising twists. If you enjoy action movies with philosophical concepts this is definitely the movie for you.  Cole makes a captivating statement in this film ‘’I want the future to be unknown. I want to become a whole person’’ which perfectly captures the topics presented in this movie.

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