Time Travel: the ending of ‘Twelve Monkeys’

‘I’m in insurance. Just to be clear, that means I’m a scientist here from the future to obtain a sample of the original form of your doomsday virus so that survivors in the future can reclaim the surface of the Earth. Clear?’

Something a bit left-field, but still about BS and history (sort of) and another in a series of time travel-related posts. One of the greatest time travel stories ever is the original Twelve Monkeys (1995); I love it. It’s an absolutely flawless, self-consistent time loop with a wonderfully bleak ending where (spoiler alert………….) the hero dies and fails to prevent the end of the world. However, it isn’t actually as bleak as it seems. The whole point of the movie, which some people have missed, is that the outbreak cannot be prevented. To do so would prevent the very future that sends James Cole back in time in the first place. What the future scientists *can* achieve is to obtain a sample of the virus to engineer a cure for the survivors in the future. They dub this an insurance policy of sorts, hence the future scientist – the ‘Astrophysicist’ in the credits and the script – introduces themselves as ‘…in insurance…’. Some take this literally, perhaps a deliberate jibe at the incompetent future rulers; she wasn’t even a trained scientist – just some business type (this argument has taken place, amongst other places, on the Wikipedia article ‘talk’ page)! This is not the case. The woman on the plane is definitively the scientist we see in the future, and she is a key part of the plan to save what’s left of humanity in the future, not in the past.

If the apparent age of the actress herself (who does not wear age makeup or even sport grey hair in the future scenes) doesn’t make this clear, the available drafts of the film’s script, dated June 27 1994 and February 6 1995, do. The future scientist is meant to appear the same age as he (given the late dates of the scripts, they must simply have not bothered to change the scientist’s gender after Carol Florence was cast in the role) is in the future scenes; ‘…a silver-haired gentleman…’. 

INT.  747 CABIN – DAY

  1. PETERS closes the door to the overhead luggage rack containing his Chicago Bulls bag and takes his seat.  Next to him, a FELLOW TRAVELER, unseen, says…

FELLOW TRAVELER’S VOICE (o.s.)

It’s obscene, all the violence, all the lunacy.  Shootings even at airports now. You might say…we’re the next endangered species…human beings!

CLOSE ON DR. PETERS, smiling affably, turning to his neighbor.

  1. PETERS

I think you’re right. sir.  I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  1. PETERS’ POV:  the FELLOW TRAVELER, a silver haired gentleman in a business suit, offering his hand congenially.  DR. PETERS doesn’t know who this man is, but we do.  It’s the ASTROPHYSICIST!

ASTROPHYSICIST Jones is my name.  I’m in insurance.

EXT.   PARKING LOT/AIRPORT

As YOUNG COLE’S PARENTS (seen only as sleeves and torsos) usher YOUNG COLE into their station wagon, the boy hesitates, looks back, watches a 747 climb into the sky.

 

FADE OUT:

 

The Astrophysicist we see in the final cut likewise looks no older in the future than she does in the past. Although the date of the future scenes is never given, we are looking at a minimum of 30 years from 1996; Jose specifically mentions ‘30 years’ in the closing scenes, and Bruce Willis is very clearly at least 30 years older than his child actor self. This is a Hollywood movie with a 30+ million dollar budget; they could have afforded a little more latex if they had wanted to change the intent of the script.

The real clincher though is the wonderful documentary ‘The Hamster Factor’, which you can find (illegally of course) on YouTube. I’d encourage watching the whole thing, but from 45 minutes in we hear, despite director Terry Gilliam’s misgivings, the filmmakers’ clear intent that this scene is indeed a ‘happy ending’:

 

‘…a shot which has caused considerable conflict between Terry and Chuck. Chuck wants to follow the original script which ends with young Cole in the airport parking lot. As far as Terry is concerned though he has his final shot; the shot of young Cole in the airport witnessing his own death. …from early on reading the script and in discussions I’ve always felt that the ending of the film would take place in the airport between Railly and the boy, their eye contact, I mean, that’s why I started the film with, on his eyes, and end on his eyes, and the boy is touched, scarred, damaged by what he’s just seen, something that’s going to stay with him for the rest of his life. The scene that then came after that, was a scene in the airplane where Dr Peters and his viruses meet the astrophysicist and we know that somehow, the astrophysicist will get the virus and will be able to save the human race. [there is then a short clip of Jones the astrophysicist on the plane with Peters]. There was an argument that we needed that scene because otherwise Cole’s death would have been in vain, that he wouldn’t have achieved anything; this way we the audience can see that he has achieved something, that his death has led them to the virus and he saves the future, and um I was convinced that was all nonsense anyway, it was unnecessary and emotionally it would weaken the emotional ending.’

 

Note that although Gilliam talks about ‘reading the script’, the aeroplane ‘happy ending’ scene was definitely in there from at least a year before filming began; Gilliam as director was proposing that they should leave it out as it might be ‘giving too much away’, but producer Chuck Roven (and no doubt others, given the difficulties experienced with test audiences) were insistent that it remain. Later in the documentary, Mick Audsley (sound editor) explains the tricky balance being struck between giving the audience enough information or too little. We see Gilliam and others in the edit, watching first the scene of young Cole seeing older Cole die, and then the scene on the plane. Audsley even laughingly asks if this scene might actually be a setup for a sequel (!), something which Gilliam denies immediately before explaining that they are preparing two different edits for test audiences, one that ends on young Cole’s face, the other with the plane scene. As he puts it; ‘There are definitely two camps here on this one about whether that detracts from the ending or enriches it a little bit by tidying up certain plot.’ Then Gilliam states outright that ‘…she’s actually come back from the future, and Cole effectively has led them to this point…’ to which Audsley (at least, I think it’s him, it’s said off-camera) admits that this ‘didn’t come through’ for him. According to Gilliam, ‘quite a few people’ didn’t get it either. So if you were one of those people, don’t worry; you are in good company!  

On the ‘somehow’ of the means by which the future scientists will retrieve the sample from Peters (which definitely is unclear), I actually suspect that the handshake is also meant to represent the scientist willingly contracting the virus herself to obtain the virus sample by physical contact. This would be consistent with the Terminator-style naked time travel that we see; she couldn’t bring back a phial of virus, but she could contract the virus and bring herself back. Alternatively, perhaps there is a means of bringing back a sample without killing herself (assuming no actual virus has yet been released, she could even achieve this, er, drug mule style… I’ll say no more than that). The important point is that whether or not the scientists thought they might be able to stop the outbreak, they had a contingency plan to use the pinpointed location, time, date and ID of the perpetrator to obtain a sample and at least have a chance of engineering a cure. Although it isn’t clear how the unmutated virus would help them combat the mutated future strains, but still, the filmmakers are clear that this is the ending. It’s ambiguous enough, and the plan desperate enough, that you can still read it as the beginning of the end of humanity if you wish. For me it’s the right balance of bleakness, but I can see why many, including Gilliam himself, wanted the movie to end on young Cole watching himself die as a futile loop is completed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s