It is not a movie to rush out and watch; if you have seen it, the analysis might help you spot points you missed, but if you have not, you'll have a pretty thorough understanding of it once you've read the series.
If you talk about the time travel movie 12 Monkeys enough, someone will mention a little-known 1963 French short film entitled La Jetée, which is said to be its inspiration. Unfortunately, if you have seen 12 Monkeys, La Jetée is completely obvious from the beginning, and the more so if you are aware of the connection. That is not a fair criticism of this film, of course; the original filmmakers could not have known that someone would develop their core idea into something better known. More difficult are the stylistic elements of the film, which is slow to the point of glacial. Save for one brief sequence in which the woman smiles, the imagery is a shifting montage of stills, and the action given in the perpetually calm voice of a narrator. It has the virtue of being short, and disappoints even in this, as we find ourselves wishing there were more to the story, or at least more to the telling. It is almost as if they attempted to make the story as short as possible, no longer than necessary, and their one clever idea on which their plot was based is now so blatantly obvious that it is impossible to talk about the film without giving away what is undoubtedly already deduced by most readers of these columns.
It begins in Paris, apparently a very short time before the nuclear holocaust known as World War III which in 1963 seemed inevitable. A young boy is visiting the main pier at Orley airport, his mother having brought him for an entertaining afternoon watching the planes. He sees a woman, and she smiles at someone, and it is a very peaceful smile; the smile stays with him for decades thereafter, in part because he sees it vanish as a man near her crumples to the ground. He does not realize until later that he just saw a man die.
The victors in the war use survivors as guinea pigs for experiments they claim are vital. Our nameless boy is now a nameless man, and because the scientists in the new regime are able to spy on their captives' dreams they are aware that he has this fixed image in his mind. They have concluded that humanity cannot survive the present without help, perhaps from the past or more likely from the future, and have been experimenting with some form of time travel. However, travelers thus far have been unable to make the transition to another time without death or madness, and they are hoping that someone fixated on an image from an earlier time will be able to move to that other time more easily. They work with him, and gradually he connects with the woman in the past, becoming a successful time traveler.
This being accomplished, they redirect him to the future. Those he meets in the future oppose him, but he suggests that since humanity survived to reach the future they must provide to their ancestors the means of that survival. He manages to bring back with him a power plant that will adequately power the planet and restore the means of production. The work his captors intended for him now finished, they plan to execute him; but suddenly those from the future, whose time travel abilities are superior to those in the present, offer to enable him to escape to their time. He asks if he might rather return to the girl in the past, and they let him do so. He arrives on the pier at Orley airport, sees her, and starts toward her, but then recognizes that he has been followed by an assassin from his own time, and he dies on the pier, witnessed by his younger self.
It is a much simpler story than the one based on it, but fraught with its own problems. Some of these will be obvious to the reader from the synopsis; some are complications based on details omitted from this summary. Although there are several trips to the past, the details are unclear and it will take some effort to reconstruct everything, but we will begin doing so in our next article.
Our analyses do not usually concern themselves with the method of time travel; however, in this instance the method raises questions about the outcome.
Our time traveler seems to travel to the past by means of his dreams, or something very like that, perhaps prefiguring the psychic time travel method used in Somewhere In Time. What is perhaps more disturbing is that the (also nameless) girl refers to him as her "ghost". That might be because he not only abruptly appears (which you would only realize were you looking at the arrival point when he arrived) but also abruptly disappears; but it might suggest that his presence, at least in his early contact with her, is insubstantial, that he is a non-corporeal image, perhaps partially translucent. At issue, then, is in what sense he is actually in the past.
This matters because of its relationship to a second problem, one which we covered in some detail in examining 12 Monkeys: when a person makes multiple trips to the past, whether in or out of sequence, each trip creates a new history from the moment of arrival in the past to the moment of departure from the future, and those trips become interwoven. That is, supposing based on a 1963 date at the pier that the war occurs later that year, our time traveler initially departs from perhaps 1973 and travels to 1958, and his arrival in 1958 rewrites history through 1973; then he departs from 1974 and arrives in 1959, but he has already departed from 1973 and arrived in 1958 so that history is replaying as he alters it again to include his 1959 arrival, and presumably his 1973 departure, until he confirms the 1974 departure. If he then departs from 1975 and arrives in 1956, he again rewrites history, a history in which he again arrives in 1958 and 1959, and again departs from 1973 and 1974. Each trip interacts with all sequentially previous trips to create a new history, and the potential for disaster increases.
However, although it seems as if he is traveling to the past, it is not clear whether on his initial trips he has any presence beyond a sensory observer. If he is not seen, has no physical form, makes no noise, impacts nothing, and perhaps does not even interfere with the photons which deliver images to his mind, then he has not changed the past, merely (as the scientists thought they were doing in Deja Vu) observed it. He had as much impact on history as he would have had reading about it in the library. This is not merely that he goes unnoticed; it is that he is unnoticeable, that there is no presence of him in the past and therefore no way in which he altered history.
We cannot say with certainty that this is the way it begins; we know that in the end he is visibly and physically present, as witnesses see him die on the pier. At some point the transition must be made to some kind of actual presence, and once that happens he is changing history. It is possible (it is unclear in the film) that at first only the girl sees him, but that is not a significant point--if he changes history for one individual, he has changed history and the world must reconcile to the changes. It is also evident that he visits her numerous times, and thus the problem of cumulative visits is again engaged. We might also have the problem we encountered in The Time Traveler's Wife, that he might experience his visits with her in a different order than she experiences her visits from him. Here, though, the film is vague, and in its vagueness protects itself from any demonstrable problem. It is possible that his first visit took him to the earliest moment in the past, and he worked forward from there; we simply do not have any information.
However, we have information about their first meeting, at least from his perspective, and it creates a different problem for us.
Already the story of La Jetée has hit a serious problem, from a replacement theory perspective, because of a well-disguised predestination paradox, an uncaused cause, an event which can only happen if it happens, which causes itself and cannot happen without that cause, and therefore cannot happen. It is very subtle, but it is also entirely catastrophic: the man is selected to be the time traveler because as a boy he saw himself as a time traveler. Had he never traveled to the past, he would never have been selected to travel to the past.
It is a bit more subtle than that, of course, because it is not exactly that he sees himself; he sees the girl who is seeing him. She apparently hears the man as he approaches, turns, smiles, sees him fall, and changes her expression to fear and horror; and it is that smile he remembers, in part because it changed. Yet both her smile and her change in expression are based on the fact that she saw him approach and fall. Had he never traveled to the past, she never would have seen him or known him, would not have turned, would not have smiled, would not have stopped smiling; and he would never have seen that smile, never have fixed the image in his mind, and never would have been chosen for the time travel experiment. Further, since he would not have traveled to the past, he would not have been pursued by an assassin, and would not have been killed there.
In resolving predestination paradoxes under replacement theory, we attempt to find an original cause, a sequence of events that might have resulted in the same outcome. Here, though, we are vexed at every turn. She might have been smiling at some other man who came to see her, but if so we lose the important point that the man was assassinated and the woman's smile vanished, unless we suppose that this other man also was killed at the pier; we also face the problem of what happened to this real man when the ghost started visiting. It might be that the boy remembered some other image, and only incidentally encountered the woman on his time travel trips; but all his trips were targeted at meeting the woman, and if they were targeted at some other image it is incomprehensible that he would have stumbled upon her.
Our only hope is that for some reason the woman turned and smiled, not at his older self, but at someone or something, and that she then lost her smile abruptly for reasons we cannot know. Perhaps she recognized someone, and then realized she was mistaken, and the disconnection brought harsh memories. It is a leap which is highly improbable, but without it we cannot reach the events of the film. Even here, though, we face a problem, which will emerge later in our consideration.
It is then not difficult to explain how he replaces that. Of all the places she will ever be, this is the one of which he is certain, the one he knows, because it is the one he remembers. This is the place he would come, and since she has in this history met him she would smile, and his younger self would see that. It is still complicated, but it does not yet fail completely.
Some readers will object that this is a fixed time theory story, and that everything works under that theory. That will be addressed once we have completed our examination of the remaining details in the film.
It is only a throwaway line, and it might mean something different from what it says given that we are analyzing the film based on two English translations of the French (one the dubbed narration, the other the English subtitles). However, we are told that on day thirty of the experiment he meets her and then loses her as he becomes overwhelmed by the rich realities of his surroundings, and instead of saying that he then met her again later, we are told that the
moment happens once more.If this means what it appears to mean, it means that they sent him to the same point in the past to relive the moment of their first meeting after they had already done so.
We have fought with this problem in a slightly different context in analyzing Butterfly Effect and Butterfly Effect 2: if you have already traveled to a specific moment in the past, and you travel to that same moment again, would it not be the case that both of you are there? It is, though, more complicated in that franchise, because the time traveler is in essence borrowing his own body, so he must be fighting himself for control of it. Here the problem is simpler and the answer more obvious: when he arrives the second time, his first self is already there. It is not different from when Pack in 11 Minutes Ago makes his last trip to the earliest moment of the night, he then stays to observe and record the arrivals and actions of all his previous selves. In the same way, if the man left from day thirty to an afternoon early in 1963 and met the girl, when he then again leaves from day thirty-one to that same afternoon, either he finds a way to prevent his other self from meeting her without making his self aware that this happened, or she meets both of him and the younger becomes aware of the presence of the older. The trip made on the thirty-first day will not erase the departure on the thirtieth, and therefore will not erase the arrival of that traveler to meet the girl.
Perhaps, though, this is not what they meant. Perhaps they only meant that he was present and he saw her for the first time in motion in a setting in which he could have met her, but that he did not, and that to remedy this they sent him back again, and while his earlier self was distracted and disoriented his later self met the girl and whisked her away. That means that he later becomes the reason he earlier lost her--a predestination paradox in which he missed her in his past because in his future he removed her, which he did in the future because in the past he missed her. It is simple to resolve, that he missed her for some other reason in the past and then when he interferes with their meeting on his next trip they would not have met anyway, even though he becomes the reason they had not met previously.
Thus we do not know how serious a problem it is when they say that they returned him to repeat the moment, but we must conclude at least that there were two of him in the market, and the one who departed later managed to meet the girl and keep her from the one who departed sooner.
Normally when a time traveler moves to the future, it does not create a serious anomaly because he has not changed history. Many fans fail to grasp this, but it is simple to see it if we consider Buck Rogers, who like Rip Van Winkle took a nap for what turned out to be centuries and awoke out of time and place. It is not different than being out of the office for an extended vacation, and so when the man leaps to the future, this does not concern us.
What does concern us is that he returns to his own time, and when he does he brings something from the future that changes his own time drastically--drastically enough that it must change the future. Here the film courts disaster.
We are told first that when he arrives in the future, the people in the future do not want to help him. He persuades them with an argument that ought to have had the opposite effect: he says that since they survived, it is their responsibility to provide the means of survival to their ancestors so that they will. This in essence is saying that only a predestination paradox can save humanity: humanity will survive because having survived we will send the means of survival to ourselves. Something like that certainly worked in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, but the solution there requires that the time travelers resolve their situation sufficiently without help from the future so that they can have the opportunity in the future to send the help they need. In the present case, the people in the future must have survived in the past without help from people in the future in order to be there at all; if they now send help to the past, they change their own history, possibly drastically, possibly sufficiently that they undo the aid they now render to themselves.
The specific aid is that they send back a compact power plant capable of restoring full industrial production to the entire world. We might doubt whether this will be so much help, particularly given that the top of their list of problems is the radiation poisoning that makes most of the surface uninhabitable and probably also drastically limits food production; but it does not matter whether the filmmakers' notion of how to save the world is feasible, only that something major was done that the filmmakers decided would save the world. That same aid could not have been sent until our time traveler managed to return from the future. Let us reconstruct, however. In we supposed 1973 our time traveler learned to travel to the past, and later that same year he left for the future. His handlers are awaiting his return, but they must wait, and wait, and wait, and while they are waiting they will undoubtedly abandon hope of his return and begin new experiments--because before he can arrive in, say, 2100, all of history from 1973 to 2100 must be written, a history from which he departed and to which he does not return until he reaches 2100. The scientists overseeing the time travel experiment will all die long before they get their answer.
However, while they are waiting, they, or others, will begin to develop means of survival. We can suggest programs of underground hydroponic food production with ultraviolet lights, microfiltration to remove radioactive solutes from water, geothermal energy, but what matters is that they find ways to overcome their problems and so to survive. Long before our time traveler reaches the humanity of the future, the humanity of his time will find those solutions and will become those people whom he will meet.
Now he departs from the future with a boon, a gift that will accelerate the recovery drastically. As with Terminator, we have the potential problem of escalating technology--the next time the time traveler reaches the future, their technology will be more advanced, because they benefited from the provision of that gift; the gift they give will be more advanced than the gift they received. There are, however, several significant potential outcomes of this, all of them problematic.
We observed that although a trip to the future would not be a problem for time travel, the return trip to the past can have significant repercussions, and in the case of this film when he brings back with him a miniature super power generating plant, we have potentially serious repercussions.
We also observed that since the time traveler cannot reach the future, and thus cannot return from the future, until history has advanced to the future, the people he left behind in his own time are going to despair of his return and will turn their attention to solving the problems for which he is to bring a solution; and only if they solve those problems will he be able to bring a solution from the future, which then gives a boost to their efforts to solve them in their own time. As he returns with his boon from the future, there are at least three significant potential technology outcomes that threaten.
The first is that the receipt of this gift is going to change the work being done in the present. The power problem is no longer a problem and no one is working on it. This means that it is entirely possible that when it comes time to send the power plant to the past, no one in the future will know how to build it, because no one had to learn. Instead, they focused on their other problems, energy having been solved. They will be more advanced in other areas because of it.
That gives us the second problem. The time traveler does not appear to have asked for specific help; he has asked for whatever help they believe will enable their ancestors to survive. On this first trip it is energy; but the people he visits in the next history--the future history created by him obtaining the power plant--never had any trouble with energy because their ancestors had been given the solution, so to them the great need of their ancestors, the one they struggled to solve, might be food, or water, or reclamation of the surface, and instead of a power plant they might send something to address these needs. That again changes who they are, such that the next future people will send something different again. That timeline might never stabilize, unless somehow the people in the future shift from not wanting to help to knowing what it is they gave and having it ready to give again.
The third problem, also seen in Terminator, is the reverse engineering problem. If someone had given Thomas Edison a television from the nineteen fifties, he probably could have determined by study what each component was and did and how they worked together. If instead he was given a modern laptop computer, it is doubtful whether he could understand anything beyond the switches that are the keyboard, from the liquid crystal display screen to the laser disc reader to the integrated circuits. There comes a point at which advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, not because we think it to be magic, but because it is beyond our ability to examine. If the power plant is that advanced, its help might prevent us from ever designing such a power plant, because we won't be able to determine how it works. Instead of stimulating our technology, it could stifle it.
Yet this might stabilize eventually. It is not impossible for the time traveler to bring back something from the future and, after a difficult sawtooth snap create a final history of that period. Thus while it is a challenging anomaly, it does not cripple the story.
However, the technology also creates a political problem.
We looked at several problems which would arise from our time traveler acquiring technology from the future, but there is yet another that is obscured by the treatment of the film. In the story, we are given to envision a monolithic one-world authority in the time from which the time traveler is leaving; it seems that following World War III someone emerged as the ruler of the world. It is also suggested that there is a monolithic future "they" whom the traveler meets and from whom he acquires his technology. Both of these suggestions are doubtful, but more importantly the fact that they are doubtful creates another potential problem.
Even if we suppose that there is a single world government, it is certain that there will be factions within it. The very nature of this particular government, as reflected in the scientists' actions, is one of seeking power, and thus it will breed politicians who accrue and protect their power. Some of those factions will be more moderate, some more totalitarian, but each of them will be working on ways to solve problems, and each will be using their solutions in part as a way to advance their programs.
One of those factions is eventually going to solve the power problem, making possible the creation of the compact power generating station. Control of power generation will be a major chip in the political game, and that faction will rise in power. We do not know which faction it is. However, odds are good that it is not the faction that is working on time travel, because that faction is invested so heavily in time travel. When the traveler brings his power generator to his own time, they will have control of it--a significant shift in the political situation of the time.
As we pointed out in connection with Bender's Big Score, such changes have long-range repercussions. One change in executive succession will almost certainly change the succession of power ever after. In giving the power generating station to his time travel handlers, he not only gives them a bargaining chip that will boost their political base, he strips it from the people who are developing such a device. He changes the balance of power in his own time drastically, and in doing so he changes the power in the future.
That change in the power in the future is also important, because it means that when he reaches the future, he will be dealing with a different, possibly very different, world. What they will do for him is in serious question. They are, one way or another, the legacy of the shift in power created by this trip. They might be political heirs of the time travel group, but they might be political heirs of those who overthrew the time travel group after a great struggle. Whether they are more or less amenable to his request is a serious matter which could well change history yet again.
We are told that the experimenters are planning to kill their guinea pig once they have their power plant, but that the people in the future offer to rescue him by taking him to their own time; that he asks if instead he can return to the girl in the past, and they accommodate him; finally that an assassin from his own time kills him on that pier before he can be reunited with her. This gives us the story's irony, that he remembered the face of the girl because she was witnessing his death at that moment. That all sounds simple enough, but it is not.
The first problem is the rescue from the future. It makes very limited sense that the experimenters would execute him, but if they will, they will do so long before anyone from the future can leave to travel to the past--the history created by that last trip must stabilize before they can act, and in that new history the time traveler would have died of old age had they not killed him, and their plan to kill him is certain to succeed. So in this history he died, and then someone from the future decided to save him. That's not entirely unreasonable, since apparently he is the world's first time traveler and time travel has become more reliable thanks in part to his pioneering efforts, so they might well want to honor him in that way. It also would have only minimal effect on history, as he would be gone, although the difference between executed and vanished might be debated.
Once our future time travelers visit him, they create another anomaly, because they send him further into the past. He is about to meet the girl, and his younger self is about to see himself meet the girl--something which in the movie does not happen, but we must ask why not. The answer is that since he escaped custody in his own time his handlers sent an assassin after him. However, the assassin cannot arrive in the past until he leaves from the future, and he cannot leave from the future until the escape has been discovered and the destination confirmed, and these things cannot happen until the history of the world is written from the moment of the man's arrival in the past until the moment of his departure from the future. That means once our assassin knows that the man was on the pier, he also knows that the man met the girl, and what they did from then until the present, whether they lived or died. Then the assassin travels to the past, changing history once more in order to kill the man who escaped custody.
Why do they bother? The man is gone from the time that matters--whether they executed him or he escaped to the past, he is no longer part of history at that point. For him, the war is about to begin, and the majority of everyone is going to die, so the man probably will die, too. It seems a waste of resources.
On the other hand, the man knows the war is coming, and when; he may know safe places, and he has a companion who trusts him enough that she will join him. He also knows something of the future organization of the enemy, having been a prisoner and a test subject. Like John and Kate Conner, they could become leaders of the resistance. Further, the victors in the future would know that they had, and would have reason to want to prevent that, and so might send an assassin.
That reason fails, however, because if the assassin succeeds we have an infinity loop: the man dies on the pier and never becomes a leader in the resistance, so his escape is inconsequential and the assassin is not sent, so the man lives and becomes a resistance leader, so the assassin is sent. History is trapped, destroyed by the assassin.
We must surmise that the assassin was sent as a matter of principle, that no one escapes and so the man will be killed. He would as certainly have been sent to the future, if that were necessary and possible. They killed him because he was no longer necessary, and that made him a liability.
The arrival of the assassin gives us another problem, though, related to the previously recognized predestination paradox and the problem of his non-arrival.
The problem lies in his non-arrival; as we observed, the assassin cannot pursue him to the past until he has arrived in the past and the history that flows from that has reached the moment of departure for the assassin. That means that there is a history of the universe in which the man arrives at the pier, the girl sees him and smiles, and they unite with each other, living at least until the war begins and possibly for years thereafter if he knows how to help her escape the war.
The problem comes back to that memory. The boy saw the woman smile, and then saw her stop smiling, and he remembered the smile in part because of the change that followed it immediately. We have proposed that perhaps she happened to have turned and smiled for some reason entirely within her own mind, perhaps the mistaken recognition of someone she knew, and then lost the smile because of some harsh memory that it recalled. That then gives us an original cause for the memory, in which he sees her smile and cease smiling for a reason completely unrelated to his time travel. His memory of her smile and the cessation thereof become the focal point in his mind that causes the experimenters to choose him, and he thus meets her, and ultimately (after resolving the problem of his rescue from his present by those in the future) arrives on the pier. She sees him, and she smiles.
However, for this to be the right memory, she must stop smiling, which she does because the assassin strikes; and in this history, the assassin has not arrived. Thus he will see her smile, and then he will see her perhaps embrace the man he does not recognize, and they will leave together. The memory is altered.
Certainly we might suppose that he remembers the woman who smiled; it might have been the brightest glimpse of sunshine a few days before the world descended into the chaos of the war; however, we are told that the smile stayed with him precisely because it was so quickly effaced, replaced by that other look. Thus the timeline in which the man arrives and the assassin does not yet follow erases the critical memory, and so undoes the choice of this man as the time traveler, and this woman as the contact person in the past, and everything that happens in the film, restoring the original history in a complex multi-history infinity loop.
Perhaps the narrator is mistaken; perhaps the smile was such that it held the fascination of the young boy despite not having been eradicated so immediately and utterly. If so, the film is saved on this point. We cannot be certain that it is not so, and thus we may conclude that it is.
There is perhaps another question, but it is speculative. The man arrived on the pier and lived happily for some unknown time with the girl; then history was erased and rewritten as the assassin departed from the future and killed him on the pier. If that did not cause an infinity loop (if the assassination was a matter of principle, not consequence), then why is it that those in the yet further future did not send someone back to stop the assassination? That in its turn would likely have caused an infinity loop, but given that these time travelers make changes without considering the potential consequences that is unlikely to have stopped them. Their intent in removing him from his own time was to save him from execution; they would have known of the assassination as surely as they would have known of the execution, and could have changed it as easily. Apparently, though, they did not.
So there is a story here with some interesting temporal turns in it, but overall it is difficult, possibly impossible, and its most interesting ideas have been redone, probably better, by later filmmakers.
There is still the question of whether it is a fixed time story.
We have examined La Jetée from a replacement theory perspective, in significant part because this series assumes replacement theory is the only truly functional theory of time, which retains freedom of choice and allows a time traveler to alter his own past. Some, though, will argue that fixed time theory is the true nature of time, and thus that free choice is entirely illusory. They would also argue that whether or not that is the reality, in some cases it is the theory that is used in a particular story, and the story should be respected on that basis. La Jetée is said to be such a story.
In order for it to be a fixed time story, it must be agreed that nothing in history ever actually changes, that everything is as it always was and always will be. In a replacement theory story, the history of the world changes as the time traveler alters the past; in a fixed time story, the traveler does what he was fated to do, what he already did. The end result can look very much the same; but the process is very different. The question then is whether there is any evidence that the time traveler altered history.
This can be tricky. Clearly he met the girl; but then, ultimately any history in which he never met the girl was erased, and arguably might never have existed. He was killed on the pier, but the point might be that he was always killed on the pier. Returning from the future he brought a gift, but it might be that that gift was always what saved them. Every change we assert was made could have been the way it always was--save for one. The problem we had when they sent him again to meet the girl breaks the mold.
It again depends on what we think they meant when the narrator said that the
moment happens once more.We debated what this might mean, and it might mean that they sent him to the same moment in the same place, attempting to replace him with himself, and succeeded in doing so. That presents many complications we cannot resolve; but if they mean that, they quite intentionally and knowingly altered history by replacing the unsuccessful rendezvous with a successful one.
Even if we deny that they replaced him with himself, but only that since he failed to connect with the girl they sent him again to succeed, it still appears that they were trying to change history. They wanted him to meet the girl, and he did not do so, so they tried again; but they tried the same time and place, interfering with their previous effort. It is hard to imagine what the narrator meant by that statement if he did not mean that they attempted to change the events of that time and succeeded in doing so.
It is not impossible to suggest that it is a fixed time story, and that whatever the narrator meant he did not mean that they changed history; it is just very difficult to know what he meant if not that. Fixed time faces a wealth of objections quite apart from this, but in this case it appears that the time travel team successfully altered their own past, and having done so means they do not exist in fixed time.
It is perhaps unfortunate that 12 Monkeys stole the one truly interesting idea this movie had and did it so much better; on the other hand, despite the accolades this 1963 French film receives it is unlikely most of us would have known it existed absent that minor plagiarism. It is still a temporal disaster, and a dull film to watch, but it is an important entry in the time travel movie genre despite these failings.