Cassandra and the 12 Monkeys

12 monkeys

After a deadly virus released intentionally wipes out almost all of humanity, The survivors are forced to live underground. That’s the premise of a film that that resonates differently in 2021 than it did when the film, 12 Monkeys (or Twelve Monkeys), was released in 1995.

I rewatched the film last week when I saw that December 13 was the anniversary of the disaster that puts the story in motion. I saw it back in 1995 in a theater. I didn’t see it in a theater this year. I have only seen two films in theaters this year. I’m fully vaccinated and still COVID-cautious.

This science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt is set in the future. It concerns a group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys who it is believed released a terrible virus into the world on December 13, 1996.

It was inspired by the 1962 short film La Jetée, which I saw a long time ago in a French cinema course. It is quite an unusual piece of cinema as it is almost entirely constructed from still photos. It is the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel.

Time travel figures into 12 Monkeys too.  The protagonist, James Cole (Willis), lives in 2035 and is a prisoner living in a subterranean compound beneath the ruins of Philadelphia. He is selected to be trained and sent back in time to find the original virus. The plan is not for him to stop the virus from being developed or released – which is what you would expect – but to get the information for the 2035 scientists to develop a cure.

The deranged “eco-activist” who puts the virus release into motion is Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) whose father’s company developed the virus for non-nefarious reasons. Cole begins to blame himself for the plague because when he is put into a 1990s mental institution with Goines he blurts out something about a viral apocalypse, and Goines responds that “Wiping out the human race? It’s a great idea!”

In a kind of Sixth Sense allusion, Cole/Willis knows that the people he sees in the past are unsavable.  “All I see are dead people.”

The story is complex and the film benefits from multiple viewings. It’s not surprising that a TV series was made to expand the story. I have not seen the series, but it moves the story to 2014 when a plague is released. It’s an airborne virus so deadly it causes the death of 93.6 percent of Earth’s human population.

In playing with time travel, the film says that the scientists in that future know that they cannot stop the spread because it has already happened. There is no changing the past. Rather, if they can get a sample of the original, pure virus, they should be able to create a cure/antibody. The goal is to allow the remaining human race to return to the surface of the planet. It’s all about changing the future. Cole confuses the people in the past he is visiting by telling them that they are in the past and he is from the present which, of course, is their future.


One thing that pops up here and in other science-fiction and time travel tales is that a person from the future who knows what will happen in the past is not believed.  This is known as the Cassandra metaphor (or Cassandra “syndrome”, “complex”, “phenomenon”, “predicament”, “dilemma”, “curse”). The term has come to mean any person whose valid warnings or concerns are disbelieved by others. It could apply today to a whistleblower or environmental scientist warning us of something bad that is sure to come.

The term originates in Greek mythology. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. She was so beautiful that Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy. He expected some romance in return for the gift but Cassandra rejected him. The gods don’t like rejection by mortals. Apollo placed a curse o her ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings. So, poor Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions.

A number of books and films have seemed relevant or even prescient since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. 12 Monkeys is certainly not an optimistic take on surviving a pandemic or even preventing it.  Rather, it is about what you do after to try to restart life, which is closer to where we are now with COVID-19, Omicron variant, COVID-20, 21, or whatever version we’re dealing with when you read this.

The past can’t be changed. Prevent for the future