This section is entitled 3rd person, as it is opinions from people other than myself. The letters are opinions/insights on the film and are the work of the author listed. If you'd like to send me your thoughts, please direct them to

Wednesday, December 22, 1999 3:16:43 PM

One of the prevalent themes throughout, as you're well aware, is the struggle between reality and insanity. Science, in the real world and this film, has always sought to provide this distinction.... And we look to "people of science" for this direction, explanation, and truth, we look to Scientists to explain reality with science. This includes the good-intentioned Dr. Railly, who diagnoses James as clinically insane. Her diagnosis is of course unchallenged, her word becomes fact, we accept it as gospel (which is another piece of the analysis altogether.) Science therefore transforms human hypothesis to truth. Scientists convey to us what is real and what is not real, and their opinion governs the whole of what we perceive as reality.

But who are these "people of science?" Are they not human, are they not prone to the same mistakes, susceptible to the same misinterpretations as the rest of us? I think the film says "yes" and goes to great lengths to substantiate three arguments to this point, which play on the world's "prescribed" perception of reality: 1) Scientists are only human, and 2) Their ability to see truth, prescribing reality is only perceived and 3) We can (should?) question them.

The faults of scientists, and therefore science, (as the scientists are the defining voice of what becomes science/reality), are exploited throughout the film. The scientists of the future can't seem to get time travel "just right," and they continually send James (and Jose) back to the wrong time. These scientists head up a project that involves saving humanity, curing the earth of a deadly disease which forced everyone underground. We trust them, we believe in them, they are our only hope. Scientists know how to do these things, right? We SHOULD trust them... Not necessarily. Thirty-nine years earlier, one of those "scientists" was an insurance saleswoman. The future of humanity in the hands of an ex-insurance agent... How fitting. It is not, therefore, the knowledge, or intelligence, that scientists hold that make them what they are...(After all, what exactly is "scientific fact?") The ability to perceive truth is not an innate quality that scientists possess. Instead, it is the perception of science and scientists to the rest of the world that puts them on this pedestal.

Dr. Railly diagnoses James as insane. Wrong. Had she truly been "scientific," had she truly had the ability to prescribe a truthful reality (encapsulated in a little thing called a diagnosis), she would have known that James really was from the future. And then there is Jeffrey Goines... Cured!! Released from the hospital as fully recovered from his psychosis. Wrong again... In the end, it seems Jeffrey is the least sane character in the film, as we see in his "animal breakout" subplot. Are scientists innately good? Should we trust them to use their "power of truth" to always make decisions based on the interest of bettering humanity? No! After all, it was a red-haired scientist who released the virus in the first place. Seems to me that scientists have faults similar to the rest of the population.

We perceive those who question science, who question reality, who are disbelievers of the "truth" as crazy, insane, psychotic, and unable to deal with the pressures of everyday life. Remember the hospital patient who was from another planet? Well, he wasn't from another planet, or so he was told by the doctors, he was simply "constructing his own alternate reality because he was unable to deal with true reality." Once he accepted reality (as defined by the doctors/science/"the real world") he would be "cured." James was of course given the same diagnosis, and a similar solution. His beliefs weren't "normal," but when they were, he would be cured, and released into his newly accepted world.

With this in mind, the image of scientists as preachers develops, with the greater population as their disciples. Science becomes a religion. Those who question this "religion," or subscribe to an altogether different one, are generally not accepted into the mainstream, such is the case with the preacher ("You're one of us!"), the bum, and James himself. The film also makes the case that an ability to understand different, or even multiple realities is rare, possibly even impossible. This, an idea directly from the scientists of the future, is one that James begins to realize... James starts to stray, to believe his prescribed scientific reality, he begins to diagnose himself as insane. (Remember the scene where he has his hands up, walking towards the squad car) If it wasn't for Dr. Railly, who at this point had "converted," he would have been locked up yet again, possibly even killed! Without the ability to question what is deemed reality, the mission would have failed before it started.

Now, I do not believe "12 Monkeys" is meant to discredit science or scientists. But it does bring to light the fact that (similar to James' memory) science is a work in progress. Scientific reality is constantly changing, as is the perceived reality of the human mind...(Railly's reality is the exact opposite at the end of the film as it is in the beginning.) What is generally considered reality in 2039, is deemed insanity in 1996. The film makes the clear distinction between those visionaries who perceive things according to their own individual beliefs, and those followers whose perception is based on what others have told them. Scientists are human too, they are individuals like the rest of us. Human perception, though similar to many, is still simply one person's opinion of why things are the way they are. A human opinion is just that: and an opinion that comes from a Scientist of the present is no less faulty than that of James Cole, a prisoner of the future.

Thanks for listening.

Matthew J. Knight
Relationship Manager

My take:

You made some excellent points. What you said about science as the ultimate truth, and that science's job is to make the distinction between reality and unreality, and to govern the way we all perceive reality is very interesting. This is very true. Science has always been the deciding factor in any questions of life, including the perception of reality and insanity.

"People of science" are indeed human, and the majority of the population sees them as the unquestionable faith, and the ultimate truth as well. Part of this, I think, comes from ignorance, and lack of desire to question reality or to create your own perception.

1) Scientists are human,

2) Their ability to see the truth, prescribing reality is only percieved and

3) We can (should?) question them.

I agree with all of those and would like to add more to the third: Science also has a basic rule, which saves it from people like myself who are quick to say, "Shouldn't I question science?". The rule is that the purpose of science is to question science. Science is seen as an ever-expanding set of rules and explanations that only become more meaningful the more they are questioned. Where science and I disagree is that sometimes, something more radical is desired. A reality which does not rest on the basic tenets of science is seen as "crazy". In a world of changing views of reality, sometimes "science" cannot and will not make sense.

However, 12 Monkeys is excellent regarding some questions, but extrapolating this movie into the real world can be a little daunting sometimes. I'd have to say that overall, these are some of the best points that the movie makes.

Loved this quote:
A human opinion is just that: and an opinion that comes from a Scientist of the present is no less faulty than that of James Cole, a prisoner of the future.

"Thirty-nine years earlier, one of those "scientists" was an insurance saleswoman. The future of humanity in the hands of an ex-insurance agent..."

I happen to disagree .. I think that she was actually the scientist of the future travelling back in time when James and Railly made the discovery of who the apocalypse nut was. In an interview, I remember Gilliam saying that that ending was there to tie up some loose ends. But he was only the director, and didn't write the screenplay, so then again, I guess I can't prove my point.


... and a reply

I agree wholeheartedly with your point that a perception not resting on the "basic tenets of science is seen as crazy." In fact, this type of perception defines lunacy/psychosis. But a fundamental problem with this philosophy is its tendency to slow down the evolution of scientific thought. After all, unless you are a "scientist" to begin with, questioning science with such alternate perceptions becomes futile: as 12 Monkeys shows us, you'll probably end up in Ward 1A, hanging out with inter-stellar guys in fuzzy slippers. Thus, science, the great "work in progress" allows for extremely limited "artistic input"... And because of this, science progresses at two speeds: slow and stop.

Maybe you're right about the ending... I also read on your website about the possibility of the "insurance woman" in fact being a time-traveling scientist. Entertaining this possibility provides for an interesting twist, as it provides closure to the questions "Did they catch him?? Did they get the virus?? How does it end??" Never thought of it that way, and yes, with this in mind, it would definitely "tie up some loose ends." Good point.


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