Twelve Monkeys and 13th December: almost the end of the story

In the bleak midwinter Bruce Willis looking for life in 2030’s Philadelphia

This is something they don’t teach you in history lessons. But 20 years ago today, there was a close call for most of the human race. And it took a guy with the initials J.C to pull us back from the brink…


Among Christians, today is St Lucia’s Day, where in Sweden eldest daughters, representing the martyr, wear a crown of candles and serve breakfast with special cakes for the family. Alternatively, today can be celebrated as Twelve Monkeys Day. For 13th December 1996 is the date scientists in 2030 pinpointed when a virus which went on to kill 5 billion people was first released in Philadelphia.

Had it not been for James Cole (Bruce Willis in a non-gung ho role) travelling from fourteen years hence back to December twenty years ago to track down the source of a killer virus deliberately spread via the world’s inter-city flight paths, the vast majority of humanity would have been wiped out.  And never even made the Millennium. Or social networking, come to that.

It’s A Wonderful Mind-Bending Gilliam Christmas Movie

Back in the real 1995, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys was heralded with a clever hush-hush marketing campaign that covered street hoardings in posters which mirrored the grafitteed logo of Brad Pitt’s eponymous animal rights group. 

Inspired by the French film, La Jeteé (1962), (and itself an inspiration for last year’s Looper), Twelve Monkeys pairs with Brazil (1985) as a mind-bending Gilliam Christmas movie (though the Nativity features at the very beginning of The Life of Brian (1979)).  It is also, of course, not Bruce Willis’ first festive film: Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990) are both set on Christmas Eve.  

A Languid Angel And A Dead Store Tree

Although Twelve Monkeys never leaves winter, Cole’s jump cut between centuries jerks us around as much as a plot which cleverly plays with our assumptions of whodunnit.

We initially follow criminal, Cole in 2030, who, clad in high protective layers has been ordered on a mission through what turns out to be a manhole into the snow-deep city of Philadelphia.  He traps a bug in a jar as a contemporary specimen to see if there remains any sign of the deadly virus.  He wanders through the cobweb entangled cavenous atrium of a decrepit department store. A statue of an angel hangs languidly, and there is a large dead Christmas tree.  He disturbs a flock of pigeons in the building and they fly upwards through the shattered glass roof.  

We catch a glimpse of how the store once was. On the air we hear the strains of a seasonal song.  Or is it in Cole’s head?  There is a lion on a rooftop.  Cole has to avoid a grizzly bear.

Always Winter, Never Spring?

The deep snow that lieth all around suggests that it is certainly winter, whether or not Christmas itself is still being celebrated beneath the ground a third of the way into the Twenty First Century.  Scientists know that symptoms were first detected in Philadelphia on December 27th from where it spread across the planet, and have calculated that it must have been released around December 13: Cole’s task is to help stop it in its tracks and so prevent the terrible outcome.

Yet rather than being some glorious pre-virus world, the 1990s corners of Philadelphia he investigates and the people who iive there are shabby and barely clinging on to reason and civilised living.  Nevertheless, James is compelled to remain in this time, through love for psychiatrist Kathryn (Madelaine Stowe) whom he has managed to almost convince of his sanity, but also through a strange sense of familiarity even though he is due back in the future.

Magic And Confusion Of Ordinary Life

We can’t help but note the parallels with Cole’s future investigation in his protective suit.  Philadelphia also has impressive architecture like City Hall where years hence he has seen a lion wander among its parapets.  Inside a department store (in reality, Wanamaker’s Department Store[1]) he’s reminded of how he saw it in 2030: the pigeons high above, the angel here about to be raised, and the Christmas tree now in full sparkly bloom.  The time traveller has come full circle.

In 1996, there is the magic and confusion of ordinary life, of mundane traffic jams and a family of giraffe running along the motorway and pink flamingos in the sky because of a group of animal rightists gone wild.  And James is reminded too of a cracked recording of a woman’s voice calling from this past, warning of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys: “They’re the ones who are going to do it.  I can’t do anything more now. I have to go.  Have a Merry Christmas.” Via fate and time, love has tracked Cole down.



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