Analysis of Time Travel in "Twelve Monkeys"
By Michelle Karl
discussing time-travel stories, Lewis states that “not all science fiction
writers are clear-headed . . .But some writers have thought the problems through
with great care, and their stories are perfectly consistent.”
The movie Twelve Monkeys is an excellent example of a perfectly
consistent time travel story. In order to determine whether the movie is
consistent or not we will examine the three aspects of time travel in the movie:
first James Cole, the time traveler; second, the possibility of a grandfather
paradox; and finally causal loops.
Cole is the main time traveler in Twelve Monkeys in that his personal
time is not equal to external time. At each point in external
time that we see James Cole, he is at a different stage or segment
of what Lewis would consider the whole James Cole. In
order for James Cole to be considered a part of the whole at each stage he must
have spatial-temporal, qualitative and mental continuity.
Throughout Twelve Monkeys, we witness a
complete continuity of Cole’s identity. While Cole is actually time traveling,
time passes in his personal time. This spatial-temporal continuity
is conveyed through the black and white streaks passing by Cole as he travels
from one external time to another.
also exhibits mental continuity.
When the older stage of Cole hears a news broadcast in 1996 about a child who
had fallen down a well he remembers that his younger stage had heard the story
and been scared for the little boy. He also remembers that the little boy was
only playing a prank and had not actually fallen down the well. Another example
of mental continuity are the dreams that Cole has throughout the movie; he
remembers seeing his older self shot in the airport when he was eight years old.
However, he does not realize that it is himself until his older self arrives at
the airport in 1996.
begs the question of whether it would be inconsistent for an earlier part of
Cole to meet a later part of Cole. If we view Cole as different segments of a
whole, then it would be possible for one segment to meet another in the same
spot of external time. If we look at Lewis’ railroad bridge example,
we can understand how this is possible.
point where the train travels under the trestle is the same place in space that
the train crosses over the trestle, thus the spot five miles down the track is
the same as the spot seven miles down the track. When applied to Cole’s life
this means he could be both 8 years old and an adult in 1996.
second aspect of time travel addressed in Twelve Monkeys is whether the
past can be changed. Twelve Monkeys would be inconsistent if Cole’s
mission was to save the human population from the deadly virus. If this were to
happen, we would have a contradiction - the human population destroyed in 1997
and the human population survives in 1997. However, when James Cole is asked in
1990 whether he has come back to save the world he states, “How can I save
you? This already happened.” This comment creates a consistent time travel
story. Cole’s mission is only to learn about the virus in order to help the
survivors living in the present for as a time traveler he knows it impossible
for him to change the past.
incorporates a possible Grandfather Paradox scenario. Once Cole falls in love
with leading actress Kathryn Reilly, he wants to prevent the virus from killing
everyone. However, this cannot happen because it would cause a contradiction as
we previously saw. Cole has his chance to kill Dr. Goines’ assistant, the man
responsible for the release of the virus, however another occurrence intervenes
and prevents Cole from succeeding - Cole is shot by policemen, who think he is a
mental institution patient. Cole was capable of shooting the assistant, however
he was prevented from doing so because the virus had been released in 1996, and
the past cannot be changed.
final aspect of time travel that could cause Twelve Monkeys to be
inconsistent is a causal loop.
During Cole’s first time travel back to 1990, he speaks to Jeffrey Goines
about a virus that could possibly kill the entire human race. This idea is then
planted in Goines mind, and in 1996, Goines tells Cole that it was Cole’s idea
to create the virus. However, Cole only knew about the virus in 1990 because he
had lived through it 1997. Therefore, the creation of the virus has an
inexplicable cause. The virus was created because Cole spoke about in 1990, but
Cole spoke about it only because he had lived through it in 1997. Does this
create an inconsistent story? No, it does not. According to Lewis, if we believe
“that God or the Big Bang . . .is uncaused and inexplicable. Then if these are
possible, why not also the inexplicable causal loops that arise in time
have critically looked at the three aspects of time travel addressed in the move
Twelve Monkeys. This analysis has enabled us to see that by Lewis’
views of time travel Twelve Monkeys is indeed a consistent time travel
Cole has the mental, spatial-temporal and qualitative continuity necessary to be
viewed as a time traveller. He does not try to change the past but rather is on
a quest just to learn about the past. And finally we have seen that the causal
loop does not create an impossible time travel scenario.
 Lewis, The Paradoxes of Time Travel. Pp.67
 Personal time is the normal process at which our bodies age through time, while external time is the time which the rest of the world is experiencing i.e. Greenwich Mean Time.
 The stages that make up our whole are the stages of life we go through, i.e. infantile stages through senile stages.
 Spatial-temporal continuity requires that a person can be traced through space and time without any breaks in the path.
 Mental continuity means that the person should remember all segments of his/her life, and there should not be a sudden dramatic change in thoughts.
 Lewis, The Paradoxes of Time Travel. Pp. 71
 When there are events in a loop that have been caused by events elsewhere on the loop, but the loop as a whole has an inexplicable cause.
 Lewis, The Paradoxes of Time Travel, Pp. 74