How Can I Save You? 12 Monkeys and the Coronavirus

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Reopen the economy, they said…

This piece spoils the entirety of the film 12 Monkeys (1995), written by David and Janet Peoples and directed by Terry Gilliam.

It’s 2020. A science fictional sounding year. You wear the mask your wife made and a pair of latex gloves to go out for groceries. Everyone on the street wears masks and it adds a layer of weirdness to just walking around, like you’ve stepped into an alternate reality of the neighborhood you know and love.

You hurry to the supermarket a few blocks away. The line to get in stretches around the block, everyone trying to keep their distance, if not strictly the recommended six feet. You’d use services like FreshDirect or Amazon Fresh, except it seems impossible to get a slot. Besides your wife is concerned that the slots there are should go to people who really need them. And so the simple act of getting groceries has become a fraught proposition, and you can never be completely sure if you’re going to bring home the plague.

While you wait, you fiddle with your glasses because they’re fogging up over your mask, though you’re not supposed to be touching your face. After about half an hour, you get inside. You try not to touch anything other than what you want to buy, and probably don’t pay as much attention as you should to keeping six feet from other people in the claustrophobically spaced aisles of a New York Supermarket.

Once home you follow a strict routine: leave the shoes at the door, strip off the gloves, the mask, the coat and sweater, haul whatever you bought to the sink so it can be washed unless it’s in a cardboard box in which case you put it by the door and don’t touch it for 24 hours since that’s supposedly how long the virus lasts on cardboard. Take off your pants and put on pajama pants, wash your hands for 20 seconds, disinfect the phone and the AirPods and the wallet and the keys by rubbing them over with a Clorox disinfecting wipe. You wash the groceries and put them out to dry.

You live with your wife and daughter in a 1.5 bedroom apartment in Queens. You talk about what to do if one of you gets sick, isolating them in the bedroom. But since you can go up to two weeks without showing symptoms, if one of you gets sick all of you are probably going to get sick. And if it gets bad and all three of you are feverish, you don’t know what you’re going to do.

It’s 2035. James Cole (played by Bruce Willis in the prime of his abilities and popularity) is “volunteered” for a trip to the surface world from the cage in which he’s kept for unspecified violent crimes. Enveloped in a transparent space-suit with an elaborate, Gilliamesque breathing apparatus, he wanders a ruined, overgrown, and snow-laden Philadelphia. A lion stalks the roof of a building. Cole collects a huge beetle in a jar and is startled by a roaming bear. The bear wanders away. Cole stalks an eerily empty and ruined department store.

Back underground, Cole is thoroughly hosed down and scrubbed with long brushes by men in similar suits. He must draw his own blood sample to be tested for any trace of the virus which has wiped out the bulk of humanity.

Good news: not only isn’t he sick, he’s impressed the scientists with his diligence and his memory. They have a special job for him.

It’s 2020. Sometimes you think everything is normal and then you realize the only car traffic you hear is ambulance sirens and you remember what’s really going on. You live a short walk from Elmhurst hospital, the epicenter of the epicenter of the outbreak. There’s a large playground in front of it where you used to take your kid, and a fantastic Thai restaurant across the street.

You and your wife have been working from home for weeks now. You’re happy to have jobs–people you know have lost theirs, others had their pay cut. The day they shut down the nursery school, your three-year-old daughter saw the nanny in the morning, realized she wasn’t going to school, and burst into tears. You’re nervous about still giving the child to the nanny, but if she were home it’d be difficult to keep working and you both need to keep your jobs.

Every day you check the numbers on the nyc.gov website and update a spreadsheet you’re keeping of cases and deaths in the city. Hundreds of New Yorkers drop off the face of the earth every day. It’s the kind of thing where if you don’t know people who’ve died you know people who know people who’ve died. One of your friend’s grandmothers died of it. Another friend’s aunt died of it. One of your wife’s co-workers had 6 members of her family die.

Some of your friends and family literally haven’t left the house in weeks, prisoners of the virus.

Here Because of the System

It’s 1990. Cole has been sent back in time to gather information. He’s supposed to find a pure original sample of the virus that can be used to synthesize an antidote. He quickly ends up in a sanitarium, where he meets patient Jeffrey Goines (played by Brad Pitt at his twitchiest in a breakout role which would earn him a Golden Globe and his first nomination for an Academy Award).

Goines has some ideas about why they’re really all locked up in a mental institution, giving us much of the film’s thematic material:

Goines

Very few of us here are actually mentally ill. I’m not saying you’re not mentally ill, for all I know you’re crazy as a loon. But that’s not why you’re here, that’s not why you’re here, that’s not why you’re here! You’re here because of the system. There’s the television. It’s all right there. All right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. 

Commercials. We are not productive anymore, they don’t need us to make things anymore, it’s all automated. What are we for then? We’re consumers. Okay, buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen.

But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then I ask you? You’re mentally ill!

Cole is brought before a panel of psychologists at the institution. He explains to them what happened:

Cole

Five billion people died in 1996 and 1997, most of the entire population of the world. Only about 1% of us survived. 

Psychologist

Are you going to save us Mr. Cole?

Cole

How can I save you? This already happened. I can’t save you, nobody can.

It’s 2020. “In a city ravaged by the coronavirus, few places have suffered as much as central Queens, where a seven-square-mile patch of densely packed immigrant enclaves recorded more than 7,000 cases in the first weeks of the outbreak,” reports the New York Times.

At least one person in your apartment building has reported to the co-op board of feeling Covid symptoms and self-isolating here.

You hold the front door open for an elderly woman hauling two overstuffed grocery bags, every inch covered except her eyes which peer from behind thick glasses over a ski mask. “Hold your breath,” she says in her muffled voice as she goes inside. Is she saying that as a general precaution or is she the one with the virus? According to the letter the board put under your door, the person is self-isolating, but how could they enforce that?

You hold your breath until she’s well on her way.

One person you know who works in the food industry said that there’s an estimate going around that 75% of restaurants in the city won’t reopen when this is all over. Here, in the greatest restaurant city in the world. Most of the restaurants are already shuttered for at least the duration. You order Thai food once (not from the place across from the hospital) and it takes 2.5 hours to arrive. Another time you order a pizza and pick it up. Otherwise, you cook your own food, more cooking than you and your wife have ever done in your years together. New Yorkers are famous for eating out, for not knowing how to cook, and why should you when when such an abundance and variety is waiting outside your doors. Was waiting.

Your wife likes cooking. It takes her mind off everything that’s happening.

The board puts up a sign-up sheet for people who want to help those in the building who might need it. You sign up. They send out a message that no one has asked for help yet. No one wants to feel helpless, you guess.

Every night at 7PM the neighborhood erupts in clapping, banging on things, horn blowing, bell ringing, and otherwise making noise. Your daughter loves it, clapping enthusiastically out the window. You’ve read that the first responders in the hospital appreciate it. Still, it feels like just something given for us all to do so we can feel like we’re contributing something, anything at all. After all,“essential workers” (at least outside the hospital) are often less heroes than hostages forced to work in dangerous conditions for very little money or starve.

It’s 1996. Cole has been sent back again. He kidnaps the psychologist who’d been treating him in 1990, Dr. Kathryn Railly (played by the underrated Madeleine Stowe, whose grounded performance does much to help the unfolding insanity work even if she’s inevitably overshadowed by the larger-than-life turns of her costars). He forces her to drive him to Philadelphia where he believes he can find the group behind the virus, the “Army of the 12 Monkeys”.

On the way he repeatedly sticks his head out the window to breathe the air and exults at the music on the radio. 

Cole

Love this music. We don’t have this, we don’t have anything like this.

They listen songs from the 50s and 60s. All the film’s cultural references are similarly dated, with a Marx Brothers movie making an appearance, and an Alfred Hitchcock film. A modern film where someone time traveled to the 90s would ostentatiously remind us of the decade, this one has no need to evoke the year the viewing public would already be in. Instead, by digging into what would be their past, it evokes the nostalgia Cole would be feeling for the world he watched die as a child.

In Philadelphia, they discover that the “Army of the 12 Monkeys” is run by his old fellow patient, Jeffrey Goines, and further that Goines’ father is a world-famous virologist.

Cole subsequently tracks down Goines at his father’s house, but fails to do anything except find out Goines got the idea to kill the world from Cole when they were back in the sanitorium. Cole becomes enraged, attacks Goines, shouts,

Cole

We live underground! The world belongs to the dogs and cats! We live like worms! 

At the edge of his wits throughout the story, Cole finally cracks and decides that Railly was right all along, he is crazy and so he gets to live in the ‘real world’ of 1996 where he can breathe the air and drink the water and doesn’t have to ‘live like worms’ underground. Unfortunately, it’s at this moment that he’s spirited back to 2035.

It’s 2020. Everyone’s obsessed with a TV Show about the godawful people who own private zoos and the godawful things they do to each other. The godawful things they do to the animals gets far less focus, buried under the weight of their collective inhumanity to one another.

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo catches Coronavirus from an infected handler. Fortunately, the case is mild and the animal is expected to make a full recovery.

It’s 1996. After several of Cole’s predictions come true and other circumstantial evidence is uncovered, Dr. Railly becomes convinced that Cole was telling the truth all along and tries desperately to circumvent the apocalypse with what little she knows. Outside the headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, she finds Cole stumbling towards her. He tells her he’s come to his senses. 1996 is the real world. He played the future scientist delusion like a fiddle and convinced them to send him back one more time, and now he’s ready to get treatment and become healthy again.

Now it’s she who convinces him that the world is ending. They leave one last message for the future, and then decide all they can do is buy disguises and flee to Key West to ride out the coming plague. (Cole has never seen the ocean.)

Jeffrey Goines and the Army of the 12 Monkeys raid the Philadelphia Zoo and release the animals from their cages. Lions, tigers, and bears run riot through the streets. This was their plot all along. All they wanted to do was save the animals. Free them.

“I think we’re gonna make it,” Railly says, laughing as they pass a giraffe in the cab on the way to the airport. She thinks the virus won’t happen after all.

But, of course, the film has a secret villain, a character who appears briefly in all of three scenes. His name is Dr. Peters (played by a perfectly cast David Morse, who oozes with detached psychopathy), an assistant to Goines’ father. I only know his name because I looked it up. Why does he want to release a plague to kill everyone in the world?

He tells us in his longest piece of dialogue, delivered to Dr. Railly while she’s distracted and barely listening.

Dr. Peters

Surely there is very real and very convincing data that the planet cannot survive the excesses of the human race: proliferation of atomic devices, uncontrolled breeding habits, the rape of the environment, the pollution of land, sea, and air. In this context, isn’t it that “Chicken Little” represents the sane vision and that Homo Sapiens’ motto, “Let’s go shopping!” is the cry of the true lunatic?

Proving one man can make a difference

This critique of consumerism jibes with what we heard Goins say in the earlier scene, and it’s easy to conclude that diegetically (in-story) the two characters know each other (certainly possible since the one works for the other’s father), and non-diegetically (in reality) the screenwriters wanted to make sure they got their point across. (And characters having similar ideas actually works in favor of a movie as dreamlike and with as much repeated imagery as this one, where in a more mimetic film it might grate.)

One might complain here that we have the same problem we saw in the Doctor Who episode “Kerblam!” last episode. Indeed, Goines’ speech in the sanatorium or Peters’ speech here might not have sounded odd coming out of the terrorist character from Doctor Who, if that script had had a tenth of the teeth and savvy this one does.

But here’s the key difference: at no point does anyone tell either Goines or Peters that they’re wrong in their philosophies. Certainly, no one wants Peters to murder everyone, but the film takes the correctness of his general criticisms as a given. People tell Goines to calm down. No one tells him the system is not the problem.

Equally, it’s significant that Peters is barely in the film, hardly a character at all. Why is he like this? What’s his backstory? What sets him off? It doesn’t matter because it’s not the point. Peters might as well be a natural disaster, or a systemic threat vast to the point of insolubility. Peters is an oncoming, implacable storm.

It’s 2020. The president hawks untested drugs in which his family has investments at his press briefings like the two-bit snake oil salesman he is. He and his party have so eroded faith in the media that millions of people ignore advice on how to stay safe, call the whole thing a liberal hoax, and pack into churches. And so simple safety advice during a pandemic is transformed into part of a larger culture war, chucked out along with facts and science in general.

Dr. Peters has a coherent philosophy behind his death-dealing, a kind of twisted altruism. Our real-life villain is simply a soulless charlatan who has miraculously ridden a wave of rage and racism into the highest office in the land and proceeded to use it to enrich himself, dismantle oversight and regulation, and punish his enemies while his party refuses even the remotest accountability as long as he fills the courts with their contemptible cohort.

South Korea had its first recorded case on the same day as the United States, and squashed it despite having a super carrier in the form of a cult leader who infected thousands of people (which is a whole insane story in and of itself). Other countries from Australia to Norway managed to get the situation under control relatively quickly and save untold lives. Our federal government on the other hand ignored the problem until it was too late, and even now is confiscating PPE on the way to individual states, handing it over to for-profit businesses, and then making the states bid on it again no matter the state’s actual need. Maryland has taken to literally hiding the Covid tests it’s bought with the National Guard to defend it against the Federal Government.

Writer Ted Chiang says we wouldn’t believe this story if we read it in a book because it’s an “idiot plot” where everyone acts like a fool. I think he’s off the mark. We wouldn’t believe this story if we read it in a book because the antagonists are too one-dimensionally evil, because we wouldn’t believe that the system could be so utterly corrupted, because we wouldn’t be able to believe that it could all go so wrong so easily. 

Trump is one inheritance and an obsession with big cats away from being a character on Tiger King; which is to say, someone without moral scruples and an almost psychotic need for attention. You don’t identify with characters on Tiger King so much as you gape at them in disbelief. Reality consistently makes a less satisfying story, because real people are often horrible and inhuman to one another in a way that the average movie audience would find ‘unsatisfying’.

And yet you write all this, only to discover that a disturbing percentage of people have a positive opinion of the Tiger King subjects–between 30-40% of viewers—with the lowest approval ratings going for the most innocent character, who happens to be a woman. Something which one wry Twitter user notes, is why Trump won.

You can’t even.

It’s 1996. Cole and Railly arrive at the airport and buy plane tickets under assumed names without any ID, and you remember how innocent a time this really was. Railly discovers that Dr. Peters is in the airport, remembers him from the lecture, coincidentally sees in the newspaper a picture of him with Goines’ father (recently tied up in a monkey cage at the zoo by his son), and puts the pieces together. Peters has a bag full of virus samples and he’s on his way on a world tour of death. Symptoms won’t even begin to appear for a week, this incubation period giving the plague ample time to spread among the populace.

A fellow time traveller arrives at the airport to give Cole a gun. “Who am I supposed to shoot?” he asks, just as Railly runs up to tell him the news. On first viewing, you think maybe they might actually stop Dr. Peters and give the whole story a different shape. This is their chance.

If you’ve been paying attention, though, you know this isn’t going to happen. Throughout the film, Cole is haunted by a dream in which a man is gunned down in an airport. But it isn’t a dream; as a child, Cole watched it happen but repressed the whole thing. The man is Cole himself, shot dead by the police while running with his gun towards Dr. Peters.

It took a Google search for me to figure out why the scientists had set him up this way. They needed him to identify Dr. Peters as the culprit. Though couldn’t the fellow time traveller have just waited until he found out and asked him?

But as Cole had said before, this all already happened. He couldn’t change it, he couldn’t escape, he couldn’t save anyone. Dr. Peters doesn’t even notice him.

It’s 2020. In one week, three people commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of the 7 train, which goes through your neighborhood. Economic collapse has a vivid human cost.

While other countries cover 70-80% of laid off workers’ income, we pat ourselves on the back for giving billions to wealthy corporations while giving most people a one-time check equal to a month’s worth of our absurdly low Federal minimum wage, excluding students, the elderly, and many of the disabled. Republican officials and pundits alike tell us that we should reopen the economy as soon as we can even if it means hundreds of thousands of deaths, because not to do so will ‘kill the country’. Astroturfed protestors even storm state capitals demanding the right to get infected. Never before have we seen so clearly that the Right cannot conceive of any system that takes care of people without demanding they work for it, no matter how many lives it costs.

Of course, a percentage of homeless people starving in the street was always considered a viable cost to them, so this position isn’t new, it’s just exposed on a grander scale. The minimum required to survive in this world should be a right, but it isn’t, and so we accept an economic system where farmers are plowing over fresh produce and dumping milk and eggs they can’t sell to restaurants while food banks don’t have enough to provide for the needy, because all that matters is whether one can turn a profit.

The real solution is obvious and simple. Putting aside the fact that the Federal Reserve can literally print money and that it’s unlikely to cause the dreaded hyper-inflation in this particular situation, fantastically few people are still hoarding massive amounts of wealth. The government can simply take this wealth (in the form of taxes) and redistribute it in the form of a UBI [https://qz.com/1355729/universal-basic-income-ubi-costs-far-less-than-you-think/] or whatever [https://www.iftf.org/uba/] and keep people alive. Rich people will be a little poorer, and poor people will survive.

But elements of our society have spent generations convincing poor people to hate other poor people and think anything that smells like socialism is the same as Stalinism. And so Trump keeps poor whites hating immigrants to distract them while he raids the government apparatus for the profit of himself and his friends. This is hardly a new observation, and its age actually makes having to restate it again and again all the more exhausting.

It’s 1996. Dr. Peters gets on a plane to San Francisco with his suitcase full of virus samples, embarking on his voyage of global cleansing. Next to him is a woman you recognize as one of the scientists who sent Cole back in time. They make small talk. She tells him,

Scientist

I’m in insurance.

The film ends. The assumption is that, thanks to Cole’s information, she gets the pure virus sample the scientists have been after so that they can synthesize a cure. Cole did make a difference after all. Yes, the bulk of humanity still dies, but on the other side of unthinkable trauma there’s hope for the future. They can rebuild.

It’s 2020. A pandemic has largely stilled the machinery of capitalism. For a brief, terrifying moment, homo sapiens’ lunaticcry of ‘let’s go shopping’ has been put to bed. The air is clear and clean. Dr. Peters would smile.

Further, the ethos that one must work to survive, even if no work is forthcoming, has been shown a murderous lie. It should now be clear to all that a for-profit health care system is one that considers the poor expendable. We may now be ‘living like worms’ and the streets ‘belong to the dogs and cats’, but we have a unique moment to consider–to demand–that things be different.

There’s a Medium essay going around about how we can build a better world out of this if we only overcome the inevitable gaslighting that the corporate interests will engage in once this is over, to try and convince us that everything can go back to ‘normal’ and that’s okay because ‘normal’ was good.

But ‘normal’ didn’t address the fundamental problem, called out in this movie 25 years ago. Capitalism is still destroying the planet and consuming our lives.

It’s justifiable to ask how much we can realistically hope for. How much we can realistically do. The reigns of power are still held by the most contemptible, and our best hope is a presumed Democratic nominee who promises “nothing will fundamentally change” and thinks he can work with the same Republicans who refused to give an inch to the previous administration (of which he was part).

And while stay-at-home orders have caused the disease to plateau nation-wide, it’s not declining, and experts say it won’t decline without much more aggressive testing and contact tracing which we don’t seem to be ramping up nearly fast enough. Meanwhile, suicidal states are already opening back up, which will only make things so much worse.

You give to charity, for what it’s worth. It’s not like you can lead a revolution, raise your pitchfork high while you drag the billionaires from their mansions and lead them to the guillotines. You’ve got enough to worry about paying the mortgage and keeping your family safe.

And so like Cole, we’re all caught in a system beyond our comprehension, manipulated by forces we cannot understand, barreling towards a future we cannot control. And like Cole we do the best we can with what we’re given, and hope we’re making a bigger difference than we understand in the moment.

And so you’ll put on your mask, and your gloves, and head out to the grocery store.


Sorry this episode is later than usual, it’s longer and was difficult to write.

 I’d like to thank my Patrons Arthur Rosenfield, Jason Quackenbush, IndustrialRobot, and Not Invader Zim. You can become a patron of this show for as little as $1 an episode and help support it at patreon.com/ericrosenfield.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Unfortunately, the film 12 Monkeys is not on any streaming service as far as I know, but you can rent and buy digital and physical copies from the usual locations.

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