12 Monkeys: the last 30 seconds
I don't think there's any doubt that 12 Monkeys is one of the best science fiction films of the 90s. It is a well-constructed time-travel tale that gets the paradoxes and logic right. What I do find surprising is that so many people insist it has a happy ending.
What causes this hope is, of course, the final scene. What we see is the interior of an airplane. The scientist who is spreading the virus walks to his seat; the window seat is already taken by a woman drinking champagne. We recognize the woman: she is one of the scientists that have sent Cole into the past. She makes a remark indicating that she does much care for the people outside, calling them "insects." The scientist indicates he has similar feelings and they introduce themselves. The woman gives her name and then says, "I'm in insurance."
The Pollyanna interpretation of the scene is that the final line means she was there to ensure that Cole's mission was successful; she will get the pure culture that Cole was supposed to get and then can go back to the future and save humanity. How nice.
Except for one thing: the scientists who sent Cole back were never nice to him. They kept him -- and most of humanity, it seems -- in cages. They torture him when asking him about what he had done. And they keep vital information from him (more on this later). In short, they seem heartless bastards.
Why should we trust them? What do they do to make them trustworthy and to counteract the cruel way they treat Cole? The answer is: nothing.
Certainly Cole believes in them. But the more important question is why should we believe what they tell him? Cole is browbeaten enough to not ask any questions, but as viewers, we should.
So the second interpretation of the final line -- "I'm in insurance" -- is that she is there to ensure that Cole fails and the virus is spread. After all, they are in charge in the future, and the virus put them there. If they come up with a vaccine, their power is threatened. So why not send people on wild goose chases to pretend they're working on something and use it as a way to eliminate those who cause trouble (as Cole had done)?
And it is a wild goose chase. A close look at the movie shows that the scientists in the future had a good idea where the virus came from -- and not from the 12 Monkeys. In one scene, when Cole is being interrogated, take a look at the newspaper clippings on the wall. They show Dr. Goines. Why those clippings? Since they were talking about finding the source of the virus at the time, the only conclusion is that they knew that Dr. Goines (or his lab) was the source. Yet this essential fact is never communicated to Cole. He is told about the 12 Monkeys (and there is no newspaper clipping mentioning them), but the most likely source of the virus isn't even mentioned to him. With a plot as well constructed as this one, that omission is a key one. They are sending Cole off chasing after the 12 Monkeys, when they know the source of the virus wasn't there. (Even if they made a connection between the 12 Monkeys and Dr. Goines's lab, they should have told Cole if they were on the up-and-up).
As a matter of fact, there is no reason to trust anything Cole is told. Maybe you can change time. If you can't trust the scientists, then there's no reason to take on faith anything they say.
The final scene also points to the woman not being there to help. Take how she is shown: drinking champagne. We know that beverages are not served on the plane until after takeoff; since the scientist from Goines's lab is not in his seat, the plane hasn't taken off. The champagne was put in her hand for a reason. And what do we think of when we see someone drinking champagne? Celebration. New Years, a birthday, an anniversary -- we drink champagne to celebrate. And what was the last scene we saw before the one on the plane?
The juxtaposition is clear: Cole dies, she celebrates.
Further, notice that she makes her comments about the people before the scientist from Goines's lab sits down. She is facing the window and has no reason to know he is there. Yet she makes the comment that they're like insects. The simplest interpretation is that the comment tells exactly how she feels*.
A further twist on the "I'm in insurance" line: What if it is meant literally? That the "scientists" in the future are actually from the insurance industry. With massive deaths like that, they would have a large amount of money and a very small number of claims -- and money is a good way to gain power.
It's very clear to me that this is the intention. After all, Terry Gilliam is not one to shy away from a downbeat ending (see Brazil). Further, a happy ending goes so much against the dark vision of the film that it's like grasping for ways to explain how Hamlet never really died in the end. The leaders remove a troublemaker and can tell the people that they were really trying hard.
*She may, of course, be making the comment to draw in the scientist, only the scene doesn't indicate that. She does not see the scientist approaching and if you argue it happens off-screen, I'll just quote Rothman's sixth law of movies: "If you don't see or hear it happen, it didn't happen."
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