Mad as a Hamster

Jacqueline Furby, Southampton Solent University |

Terry Gilliam studied physics at Occidental College (later transferring to politics), and his appreciation of the absurd poetics of science is evident in his handling of scientific subjects such as time and time-travel. His films also reveal his fascination with the workings of the human mind, perhaps none more so than Twelve Monkeys (1996), in which the narrative around protagonist James Cole (Bruce Willis) questions whether he is a time-traveller, or perhaps suffering from the psychotic delusion that he is a time-traveller, or even both mad and a time-traveller.

Ostensibly the diegetic present is the year 2035, an Orwellian, post-apocalyptic dystopia where Cole has been imprisoned for crimes against authority. In this reality attention is focused on the past when the global population was devastated by a viral plague, forcing the one-percent who survived to seek refuge underground.  Cole is ‘volunteered’, by a panel of scientists, to go back to 1996, before the virus was released, in order to trace a sample of the ‘pure’ virus before it mutates, so that the population of 2035 might find a cure. Cole has a series of false starts where he arrives, by accident, first in 1990, and then in 1917, before arriving in 1996.

On one level, then, this is a story that charts Cole’s difficult navigation of the vicissitudes of time travel, culture-shock, reality testing, consumerism, and detective-type investigation.  On another level the film also explores Cole’s internal mental landscape.  He has a memory fragment, which repeatedly returns to him as a dream, in which he witnesses, as an eight-year-old child, the killing of a man in an airport.  This is the scene with which the film opens, and to which it returns throughout, each time with a slightly new perspective and/or different details; supplying (or withholding) another piece of the patchwork of information. The dream-memory is thought to provide clues about the perpetrator of the viral attack, but is tantalisingly presented in fragments, with subtle alterations introduced at each iteration.

Young Cole's eyesAs the fragments gradually coalesce, Cole and his psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), ‘accidentally’ locate the source of the virus but in doing so Cole meets his own fate. The film closes, as it opens, on the eyes of a boy who we now know to be Cole himself, who has just witnessed, in the final playing of the dream-memory sequence, his own death.  It appears to be this event which provides the catalyst for Cole’s development into the rebellious character who ends up imprisoned and is consequently volunteered to return to the past, in which the boy-Cole witnesses the death of the man-Cole. The traumatic death scene, and what happens ‘afterwards’ describes a complete circle.

Cole_fallenCole’s diagnosis by a group of doctors in 1990 as a paranoid schizophrenic is based upon his, apparently delusional, conviction that he is a time-traveler, his obvious anxiety and anger, and his (persecutory) belief in the apocalyptic plague. In the ‘madness’ narrative, Cole’s psychotic phantasy is constructed, apparently, from fragments of information filed away in his unconscious, or, as Railly tells him, “You’re not going to save the world. You’re delusional, you made all this up out of bits and pieces in your head.” Nearly all of Cole’s actions that seem to confirm his insanity can be explained as the actions of a sane, and rational, time-traveller, but he is considered mad precisely because he says he is a time-traveller and may therefore be actively refusing reality and replacing it with an alternative fantasy existence, a practice referred to by Sigmund Freud as definitive of psychosis (see Freud 1924: 181-8).

As Railly comes to believe that Cole’s ‘delusion’ represents reality, he comes to want to believe that it doesn’t, and that he is therefore mad, in order to escape from the ‘reality’ presented by his ‘delusion’. This point is reached when Cole believes that he himself might have unwittingly caused the viral apocalypse because whilst he was in the Baltimore County Hospital, he remarked to fellow inmate Geoffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who is thought to be responsible for the plague, that, “maybe people deserve to be wiped out”. In order to escape from this reality, in which he (possibly) killed five billion people, Cole prefers to believe himself mad, because if he is mad, then the plague does not exist, and he is innocent of global annihilation. There is a delicious paradox here, because his time-travel story was the indicator that he was mad; when he no longer believes in it himself, he should be sane, but instead he becomes mad. In this way the time-travel and madness narratives collide; Cole returns to the future world that should no longer exist, and convinces the scientists, whom he now believes to be a symptom of his psychosis, to send him back to 1996. From now on, as Cole becomes more convinced of his insanity, the evidence in favour of the time-travel narrative becomes more convincing. Railly comes to believe him to be a time-traveller, and so, within the logic of the film, because she believes in time-travel, she is mad, and Cole is not (although he now is).

Twelve MonkeysWhen Cole does believe he’s mad it is because he fears that the fate from which he has come has been created by his actions. The audience also have to accept the time-travel narrative, so they must accept something to be true that he was judged to be mad for believing.  This logic suggests that the audience is also implicated in the delusion. This is not accidental. Cinematographer Roger Pratt says that it was the intention of the film’s authors that the audience should not be clear whether or not what they were seeing was the product of Cole’s unstable mental state. He says, “We didn’t want the audience to be entirely sure which time our hero, Cole, was actually living in” (Pizello 1996: 39). The ambiguity is seen continually throughout. For example, there are similar characters in both main time-zones. Cole is subjected to a strangely brutal and ritualistic shower in 2035 and in 1990. In 2035, on a reconnaissance mission to the surface, Cole sees an angel in a department store, ‘later’, in 1996, while shopping in the same store, he sees the angel again. This clearly might be explained by the time-travel narrative, but also implies that these are images from Cole’s unconscious and may therefore, be a projection of what is inside Cole’s delusion. Once in the delusional narrative one can’t escape because everything may be a delusion.

The lack of escape is built into the film’s aesthetics as well as its narrative. As a time-traveller Cole is able to zip backwards and forwards through time, although he cannot do this at will, and he has no real autonomy. Hidden amongst the crowded mise-en-scène, when Cole takes his own blood sample after returning underground, is a tiny hamster running in a wheel. Cole is like the hamster, going around and around in cyclical time. Unlike the hamster, however, Cole has no choice about leaving his wheel. Any attempt to rebel against the absolute determinism suggested by the time loop is futile. Cole is ‘volunteered’ to take part in the experiment, and he is shot when he tries to break free. The tension between freedom of action and determinism is one of the film’s central paradoxes, and the time-loop expresses it clearly. Although an ability to time-travel might suggest a great freedom, going backwards in time to complete a cycle of events that have already occurred entirely removes any self-determination from the time-traveller. Cole is a renegade character, but his rebellion simply results in his imprisonment and places him at the mercy of the scientists, and ultimately leads to his inevitable death.

We are given evidence in favour of this claustrophobic time-travel narrative. Railly removes a bullet from Cole’s leg which was “fired some time before 1920”. His image appears in a photograph Railly uses in her lecture, believed to be taken in 1917. Cole knows that the child Ricky Newman was not stuck down a well-shaft, but hiding in a barn. The decisive moment, though, is in the penultimate scene when Jones, a scientist from the future, appears and claims that she is “in insurance”. It is at this point that the viewer might conclude that the time travel narrative is real, but this clearly does not rule out the possibility that Cole is also insane. However, the Jones character’s appearance changes the reading of the whole film, because at this point the viewer is forced to review everything in the light of this new knowledge (see Stubbs 1997). The viewer is stuck in Cole’s world continually questioning reality, just as the characters do. Gilliam is quoted as saying:  “It’s one thing to get lost in your own madness, but to become lost in somebody else’s madness is weirder” (Lafrance 1997). And so the question at stake might be whether the film gives us a real choice at all.  Perhaps we are all Gilliam’s hamsters.

Bio: Jacqueline Furby is Course Leader of Film at Southampton Solent University. Her research interests include science-fiction and fantasy film, with an emphasis on the philosophy of time. She is co-author of the Routledge guide to Fantasy film.


Lafrance, J. D.  1997. ‘Dangerous Visions’ Dreams. Available at: / dreams. Accessed 2.2.2014.

Pizello, Stephen. 1996. ‘Twelve Monkeys:  A Dystopian Trip Through Time’. American Cinematographer.   77, 1. January. 36-44, p. 39.

Strachey, J. 1961. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XIX (1923-1925) The Ego and the Id and Other Works. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, pp. 181-8.

Stubbs, P. 1997 ‘Interview with Terry Gilliam’. Dreams. Available at: / dreams. Accessed 2.2.2014.


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