Film studies

Pandemic Movies: What Terry Gilliam’s ’12 Monkeys’ Tells Us About the Future

by Susanne Kord

A virus wipes out a substantial part of humanity and drives the rest indoors. Time, no longer neatly divided into work-, play- and sleepy time, becomes erratic and unstable: interminable boredom for many, a crazed race against time for scientists in search of a cure. How the story ends is as yet unclear: will science develop a vaccine, enabling what is left of the human race to reclaim the surface of the Earth? Or will the ruling class—mired in corruption and incompetence, often more willing to exploit people than to aid them, always over-promising and under-delivering—fail humanity yet again?

This describes not only current reality for most of us, but also the bare-bones plot of just about every viral-apocalypse movie ever made. Governments and medical communities may be woefully unprepared for the global pandemic, but for filmmakers and moviegoers, it’s long been a familiar concept. As if we needed a reminder, virus movies have gone viral on Netflix and TV in the UK: Contagion, The Stand, Cabin Fever, 28 Days Later, Carriers, Outbreak, The Flu, Infection, The Bay, The Last Days, Dawn of the Dead, Rabid, World War Z and Cargo have all either aired in the last few weeks or are available for streaming. (Is this gallows humour on the part of programmers or a sign that we can contemplate the unthinkable only in fiction? Would airline execs condone showing plane-crash movies on flights?). We’re living the viral apocalypse, virtually and in real time.

Perhaps the most thoughtful viral-apocalypse movie ever made is Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995, currently available on the BBC iPlayer). Rare amongst outbreak-movies, 12 Monkeys refuses to answer the questions raised in the opening paragraph. By withholding an easy way out, 12 Monkeys encourages viewers to focus not on the ending, but on life during the pandemic, and what humans do in the cause of their own survival—in the best-case scenario for, in the worst-case scenario to other humans. Four aspects of the film stand out for me:

  1. 12 Monkeys states that we brought this on ourselves. In the film, an apocalypse nut takes the deadly virus on a whistle-stop tour around the globe, infecting various major airports. The film is thus comparatively kind to humans; at least it points the finger at a single individual who can be blamed for it all (rather than supposing, say, that humanity-at-large is dumb enough to engage in illegal trade with wild animals carrying coronaviruses that can infect humans). Either way, once the virus is out of its animal cage, aviation obligingly distributes it worldwide.
  2. Humanity in 12 Monkeys stands not united, but divided in face of the apocalypse, split up into the ruling class, the scientists in search of a vaccine, and the exploited and caged remainder of humanity who furnish the raw material for scientific experiments. Abhorrent as this may seem in fiction, our outbreak has already accustomed us to the thought that some lives are worth more than others. ICU doctors worldwide, faced with equipment shortages, are reserving access to ventilators to those most likely to survive; the US President attempted a hostile take-over of a German research group working on a vaccine, planning to vaccinate Americans only, and both the US and the Czech Republic have been accused of diverting shipments of face-masks destined for other countries.
  3. 12 Monkeys focuses extensively on the cost of human isolation and captivity. The film’s cages for humans and stifling subterranean facilities may be a far cry from the apartments and houses in which we’re cooped up, its full-body viral plastic-wear a far cry from our modest face-masks. In fact or fiction, though, the outside has now become a potentially toxic space.
  4. Perhaps most significantly, 12 Monkeys refuses to push the re-set button, rejecting the comforting idea that you can always start over. Viral-outbreak films typically allow us to cling to the illusion not only that this will all end, but that we’ll be better off for it. Post-apocalypse, the ending focuses speedily and optimistically on the handful of survivors who have profited from billions of deaths as an object lesson. Starting over even holds out the promise of a harmonious equality in the new world that was firmly out of reach in the old. The virus sweeps away not only the weak and the frail, but also the morally impaired, erasing all the evils, from racism to poverty, that ailed the pre-virus world. Having reformed, repented and survived, the new human (master) race, considerably reduced but more robust, can face the future with confidence.
    This illusion is not only peddled in the movies but already creeping into our discourse. It is apparent in our hopeful—but already partially debunked—assertions that COVID-19 kills mostly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, or in the conviction, even in so-called ‘normal’ life, of some American right-wingers that poor people need no access to healthcare because they deserve to get sick.  How far away are we now from openly hoping that in the post-virus world, the elderly, the poor, the homeless and the chronically ill will be gone, saving our government big bucks on health- and social care?

The illusion that we can always start over feeds all our hopes at the moment. We hope that after the virus, life will be as it was before, if not—as viral-apocalypse movies often insist—even better. Not 12 Monkeys, though, which may be why it hasn’t yet found its way onto broadcast TV or Netflix. Gilliam’s film is a time-travel movie that rejects the concept of linear time, the very idea of ‘before’ and ‘after’. The film is set in 2035—and 1914, 1990, or 1996; the time is always ‘now’, and the future, as per the film’s indeterminate ending, is murky. Its only glimmer of hope lies in a love story that is granted neither consummation nor permanence. There are no visions of a glorious post-apocalyptic future or assurances that life will return to normal. Our reality, too, is that life may never be the same again.

12 Monkeys assigns no meaning to the future, a vaccine, or a magical injection that cures all ills along with the virus. Meaning lies—and this may be the true significance of the film’s doomed love story—in how we conduct ourselves in the present, how we face down illness, isolation and selfishness today, how we rediscover small pleasures around us, and how we champion and support each other right now. Now, as the saying goes, is the time. Now, as 12 Monkeys would say, is the only time.

Susanne Kord is a professor at UCL and the author of 12 Monkeys, a study of Gilliam’s film published in Auteur’s Constellations series in 2019.

12 Monkeys

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