Why is the genre of science fiction cinema of interest to philosophers? Discuss with reference to specific examples from Twelve Monkeys

Science Fiction or ‘Sci-Fi’ merges the concepts of science with fiction.  It brings together what’s possible through science and technology (facts and ‘reality’) and concepts beyond ‘reality’ (fiction or ‘the fantastic’). Cinema has been particularly useful in helping explore the merge of these concepts since it brings to life what’s possible through science whilst exploring the ability for one to transcend boundaries or break free from the realities of everyday life by deconstructing what we know to be true and challenging the viewer’s underlying metaphysical presuppositions. 12 Monkeys in particular, underlines questions of ethics and metaphysics.  For philosophers these questions in a cinematic context have become increasingly important since they highlight the ability of mass media to act as philosophical agents and re-define the notions of philosophy and what it means to philosophize.  This essay will broadly highlight the use of Sci-Fi cinema in raising philosophical questions with specific examples from 12 Monkeys and aim to demonstrate why philosophers should turn to mass media agents such as cinema in the quest to expand philosophical thinking and broaden theory.

There is an obvious attraction to Sci-Fi cinema since it usually showcases the latest breakthroughs in science and technology. However, its use of the fantastic is perhaps the greater contributor in highlighting the essence (or what the film is trying to say) beyond its aesthetics. Philosopher Guiles Deleuze suggests that “confronting cinema will open us up to a new philosophy, and it will do so not because we apply philosophy to films, but because we allow the creating of films to transform philosophy (Colebrook, 2002).” Following in this line of thought, Richard A. Gilmore (2005), proposes that much of the philosophy that one develops through the understanding of a film stems in a large part from the fantastic. According to him, “the fantastic [vacillates] between that which remains beyond comprehension or rational explanation and that which [emanates] from the deeper recesses of the human mind.” This is certainly true for 12 Monkeys, which explores the possibility of time travel and the consequential dilemma’s that occur. Questions of ethics and the metaphysical realities of time travel are raised while Christian subtext presents itself on more than one occasion reflecting on religious philosophy. The fantastic allows one to delve into these philosophical notions on a deeper level since it strips away physical actuality and allows one to ‘think outside the box’. Therefore, as Deleuze suggests, create their own philosophy without applying existing notions. This is certainly true for much of the public since many hold very few notions of what philosophy is (and most that do would be influenced through a religious context – which in itself calls for little thinking outside of ethics).

Guiles Deleuze also proposes that when we view cinema, we experience affect – “the power to interrupt synthesis or order (Colebrook, 2002).” According the Deleuze, the sensation of affect occurs even before we have cognitive awareness of what’s going on. It plays an important role in horror cinema since it allows the viewer to feel the sensation that comes with being shocked thus allowing them to feel as if they’re almost apart of the film. Sci-fi cinema uses it to a lesser extent but it’s still important in making the viewer feel as though they’re experiencing the feelings and sensations that the character in the film is. Understanding the mise-en-scène is also an important factor in viewing 12 Monkeys in philosophical terms. Although the aim of the film is to showcase different temporal locations, the use of real life settings (such as the streets of Chicago and Chicago Airport in the penultimate scene) has more of an effect on the viewer than artificial scenery would. It makes the viewer feel as though there is a possibility that such an event could occur.

Another reasons that a film such as 12 Monkeys is so important to philosophy is that it brings to life philosophical concepts. For example, the premise of Cole’s mission comes from a message left on the scientist’s answering machine claiming that the 12 Monkeys are responsible for releasing the deadly virus that has killed most of mankind and forced the rest to live below ground level. Later on, we find out that Riley who intends it to be a joke stemmed from information that Cole gives her, left the message. This causes a paradox known as a casual loop, “where the information casually flows in a circle without a definite point of origin (Gilmore, 2005).” The film also highlights empirical paradoxes that occur in time travel or the ability for more than one of a certain person to exist in a certain temporal location at the same time.

In twelve monkeys it is suggested this is not possible since Cole in one form is certainly not Cole in another form and arguably, whilst the same person by name and birth date, they are different people entirely. This is especially true when seven year old Cole witnesses his own death but does not fade or cease to exist. This draws on philosophical theories of personal identity and what personal identity constitutes.  It is also suggested that time can’t be changed even if time travel occurs and one interacts with the world around them. At the end of the film, the virus is still released, despite Cole’s efforts to stop the event from occurring. This suggests ‘time’ as a linear concept can be manipulated but not as a biological or physical construct. 12 Monkeys suggests, to a certain extent, that we all encapsulate biological time – that is, while we change with time, we can’t necessarily change time. Although time travel allows for time to be manipulated so that we can experience the external past, it does not allow the time traveller to become younger or older.  This is why Cole sees his seven-year-old self but does not become his seven-year-old self.

As mentioned above, films such as 12 Monkeys can also help its viewers shape their personal understanding and approach to philosophical dilemma’s such as ethics since it raises strong questions of what it is to behave in an ethical manner. It is clear from watching the film that the standard of ethics shown in 2035 would raise strong objections in much of today’s society.  The prisoners are subjected to almost animalistic standards under the guise that they are ‘volunteering’ and are used in time travel experiments, which often result in disorientation and, as seen in Cole’s case, injury. After experiencing such trauma, the prisoners are also  “scrubbed, poked and prodded, and asked endless questions” once they return to 2035. Science Fiction Film Site (2000) suggests that this is what leads to Cole’s “mental instability” given that “the boundaries between different times disintegrate as the film progresses” and this is also why “Cole eventually loses track of which time is his proper time”. Furthermore, the Dystopian world of 2035, where scientists seem to reign over the common man suggests that science and technology will perhaps become man’s undoing but also reflects on the strong hold technology has already has over man. This point is one of the most significant in comparing today’s society to that of the 2035 in Twelve Monkeys since there’s much to be said about man’s connection to technology, particularly the internet (seen through websites such as Ebay and Facebook, which have large followings and are often used for hours) and mobile technology (such as phones and mp3 players which are also widely used on a day to day basis). However, Twelve Monkeys takes this point even further, suggesting that science and technology not only have a strong hold over man but has also morphed, to an extent, into an almost God like presence in society. The group of scientists sitting at the table while Cole is being questioned on the other side and at a different height reflects on the idea that man will be judged for his sins and will remain away from God until redemption occurs since Cole’s entire reason for ‘volunteering’ is to earn a pardon. Riley also comments on the idea of science playing God when she reflects, “psychiatry: it’s the latest religion. We decide what’s right and wrong. We decide who’s crazy or not. I’m in trouble here. I’m losing my faith.” The issue of ethics in of utmost importance to philosophers since it helps determine the way in which we should deal with the rise of science and technology.

Religious subtext is also rife in 12 Monkeys, reflecting on role it has it has in society and its deterministic features. The title of the film itself can be seen as reference to the twelve disciples mentioned in the bible and Cole’s character can be seen as a modern day messiah trying to save the world – this is further reiterated through Cole’s initials – JC (James Cole, Jesus Christ). Throughout the film, it is suggested that the 12 Monkey’s did ‘it’; this can perhaps be seen as a reference to the betrayal of Jesus by his disciples (and in particular, the betrayal by Judas – or Jeffery Goines, in this case, who initially denies knowing Cole). Metaphilm (2010) also suggests that each “time travel twist serves to bring the three, [Cole, Goines and Railley], closer together in ways that none of them fully recognize. They’re related in a transcendental way like Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Three together and separate at the same time.” This can be seen in both of the casual loops discussed above – the information that each of them draws from each other and leads to each other’s destiny. On an abstract level, it can also be suggested that the releasing of animals by the 12 Monkeys is a reference to the spreading of Christianity by the twelve disciples and the issuing chaos that has occurred over the years due to religious conflict. The inevitable death of Cole can also be viewed with religious subtext, in that Jesus’ death was inevitable regardless of his efforts to help save the world or be a good person. For philosophers, religious determinism is important since so many people resign their life to ‘God’s will’. In 12 Monkeys, it suggested that we can both control the world around us (e.g. the scientist at the end who says she’s ‘in insurance’) but that we also have little control over certain things (such as death).

Sci-Fi has become an integral part of a new order or philosophy, which has stemmed from mass media – of which one component is cinema. Unlike some other forms of mass media, cinema provides you with a two dimensional view of a particular narrative. In doing so, cinema aims to make one feel apart (or engaged) to the narrative in a way that calls for a deeper level of understanding and thinking therefore evoking questions and alternate ways of thinking that tie into the philosophical branch of judgment. In 12 Monkeys for example, one is given the scenario of time travel but faces dilemma’s to overcome their own understanding of physical limitation, ethics and on an abstract level, religious thinking. By doing so, one is forced to engage with the film on personal level and question their own presuppositions about such matters and what it would mean to abandon such presumptions about what is humanly possible.


Colebrook, C., (2002) Gilles Deleuze, London ; New York : Routledge. Cinema: perception, time and becoming, p. 29-55.

Gilmore, R. A. (2005). Doin Philosophy at the Movies. Albany , New York: State University of New York Press.

Peoples, D. W., Peoples, J. (Writers), & Gillam, T. (Director). (1995). 12 Monkeys [Motion Picture]. Universal Pictures.

Sanders, S. ( 2008). The Philosophy of Science Fiction FIlm. Kentucky, United States of America: University Press of Kentucky.

Science Fiction Film Site. (2000). Twelve Monkeys. Retrieved January 25, 2011, from Science Fiction Film Site: http://www.umich.edu/~umfandsf/film/films/twelve_monkeys.html

Smith, T. C. (2003). 12 Monkeys – Us or Them. Retrieved January 20, 2011, from Metaphilm: http://www.metaphilm.com/philms/twelvemonkeys.html


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