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A Critical Analysis of Time Travel in "Twelve Monkeys"
By Michelle Karl

When 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.”[1] 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.

 James Cole is the main time traveler in Twelve Monkeys in that his personal time is not equal to external time.[2] At each point in external time that we see James Cole, he is at a different stage or segment[3] 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[4] is conveyed through the black and white streaks passing by Cole as he travels from one external time to another.

Cole also exhibits mental continuity[5]. 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.

This 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[6], we can understand how this is possible.

The 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. Therefore, it is possible for Cole to witness his own death, and there is no contradiction created.

The 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.

Twelve Monkeys also 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.

The final aspect of time travel that could cause Twelve Monkeys to be inconsistent is a causal loop.[7] 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 travel?”[8]

We 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 story. James 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.


[1] Lewis, The Paradoxes of Time Travel. Pp.67

[2] 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.

[3] The stages that make up our whole are the stages of life we go through, i.e. infantile stages through senile stages.

[4] Spatial-temporal continuity requires that a person can be traced through space and time without any breaks in the path.

[5] 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.

[6] Lewis, The Paradoxes of Time Travel. Pp. 71

[7] 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.

[8] Lewis, The Paradoxes of Time Travel, Pp. 74