Skip to main content

AIDS and Time Travel: 12 Monkeys and Philadelphia

Essay by Rachel Lapides '23 for Popular Music and Media Course

At the end of the 20th century, the AIDS epidemic was deeply embedded in the Philadelphian — and national — psyche. In this essay, I will examine two films about pandemics set in Philadelphia and produced only two years apart: Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993) and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). At first glance, the courtroom drama and the science-fiction apocalyptic romance seem to be vastly different films, occupying distinct genres and opposing styles. Philadelphia’s protagonist operates within the legal system while 12 Monkeys openly evades and challenges both metaphysics and the establishment. However, I will argue that Jonathan Demme actually takes us further out of the establishment than suspected, by problematizing the audience and character’s relationship to time. Moreover, a deep analysis of 12 Monkeys and its Philadelphia setting will reveal the potential for the mysterious virus of the film to be a stand-in for AIDS. In conclusion, Philadelphia and 12 Monkeys offer two responses to the AIDS pandemic, imagining different forms of time travel through the medium of film.

In order to analyze these films, I will begin with a brief summary of their content. Philadelphia tells the story of HIV-positive and gay lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), who believes he has been wrongfully fired for his homosexuality and illness. He attempts to enlist another lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), to take his former company to court. At first, Joe Miller declines due to his anxiety surrounding Andrew’s AIDS and queerness. He eventually accepts and together, they win the case, but Andrew’s illness gradually worsens and the movie concludes with his death. While the film was critically acclaimed — Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for the lead role — many critics found the film reductive. For example, in The AIDS Movie: Representing a Pandemic on American Theater and Television Screens, Kylo-Patrick Hart suggests that Andrew’s relationship with his partner Miguel seems to be more reflective of friendship than romantic or sexual desire. He writes: “the representation of gay male sexuality in this offering remains largely at the level of television-movie-like touches” (54). Similarly, in “Nationalizing the Gay Body: AIDS and Sentimental Pedagogy in ‘Philadelphia’” Robert J. Corber argues that Andrew Beckett’s body is sentimentalized under the authority of the legal system and the film neglects the more militant activism that was present at the time.

Terry Gilliam’s steampunk post-apocalyptic film certainly constructs a different aesthetic experience to the comparative realism of Philadelphia. This retelling of Chris Marker’s classic short film La Jetée changes the setting from Paris to Philadelphia and reimagines nuclear holocaust as a pandemic. In the year 2035, 5 billion people have died from this virus, and the remainder of humanity lives underground under the rule of tyrannic scientist overlords. Prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) is chosen to travel back in time to 1996, when the virus emerged, in an attempt to find a “pure” version of the virus for a vaccine. He accidentally finds himself in a mental hospital in 1990 Baltimore under the care of psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). After being retrieved by the scientists, he is sent back correctly to 1996, where he finds Kathryn Railly and forces her to drive him to Philadelphia, where he believes the virus has started, under the influence of a mysterious group named the Army of the 12 Monkeys. For most of the film, Kathryn is convinced James is suffering from delusions and schizophrenia, but she eventually becomes convinced by his story. Throughout the film, James is besieged by a vision that’s haunted him since childhood: seeing a man killed in an airport. In the final scene, he attempts to stop Dr. Peters, the man carrying the virus, and is shot in front of his younger self. All along, his vision was that of his own death.

First, I will investigate the reasons for reimagining La Jetée in Philadelphia. There are two Philadelphias shows in the film — pre and post-apocalyptic. Our first image of Philadelphia is that of its ruin in the year 2035. Since humanity is living underground, we don’t know that the setting is Philadelphia until James is forced to venture aboveground to obtain data samples. After donning extensive PPE, he makes his way through a sewer system, holding a laminated map of the underground of familiar Center City. The camera focuses on a ladder, communicating ascent. The next shot is of a completely white screen, as if he has transcended. Then, we see a gloved hand clumsily punch through, and it is revealed that we are looking at snow over a manhole cover, returning us to the world of man. A sideways pan situates us in the battle between nature and manmade structure: from the foreground car subsumed by vines and branches to skyscrapers in the background and finally the grand structure of City Hall in the midfield where the camera rests. The lighting is dim and blue-tinted, in sharp contrast with the sepia tones of the neo-Victorian underground. Within City Hall, we see the ruins of capitalism: Christmas sales, discarded high heels. “Silent Night” plays in the background as James moves his light onto a statue of an angel, foreshadowing his own martyrdom. His — and our — journey aboveground concludes with an exterior shot of skyscrapers in a menacing Dutch angle. This apocalyptic vision represents the city in a frightening light through the angles, lighting, and content. Moreover, this introduction of decay sets up the expectation that the Philadelphia of the past will be in sharp contrast, but this is not exactly the case.

The film’s representation of pre-pandemic Philadelphia also suggests dystopia. Like Terry Gilliam’s previous film, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys reckons with the issue of homelessness. In both films, homeless characters occupy a space outside of the system in which they can serve simultaneously as threats and saviors. Time travel being an inexact science, we aren’t introduced to the Philadelphia of 1996 until an hour into the film. When Kathryn and Cole first reach the city, we see angled shots of skyscrapers, paralleling the previous camerawork of future collapse. Simultaneously, we hear the lyrics “Well, the Earth died” from the song “The Earth Died Screaming” and then the disembodied voice of a homeless evangelical preacher: “There are omens and divinations. One of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God.” Like our post-apocalypse glimpse of Philadelphia, skyscrapers are depicted here from a slanted angle, creating a threatening sensation of vertigo. Moreover, the diegetic lyrics of the world ending and the preacher’s voice predicting beasts establishes a troubling atmosphere and foreshadows the virus, which is contained in several “vials.” Then, in a shaky handheld shot, we finally see the preacher, who appears homeless and holds a cross behind a fire that occupies the bottom half of the screen. James, suddenly seeing the graffiti sign of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, tells Kathryn to pull over and then rips off posters and papers amidst scattered graffiti in an environment suggesting urban decay. We then hear another disembodied voice say, “You can’t hide from them, Bob.” The next shot reveals sewage smoke, which, when clearing, reveals a homeless man lying in the street. “They hear everything. They got that tracking device on you. It’s in the tooth.” This man then laughs, revealing his missing front teeth. While James and Kathryn display revulsion toward this man, moving away as if he is contagious, they both later turn to him for help. The disembodied prophetic voices of these two homeless men appearing before their physical selves suggest that they possess almost supernatural control over their surroundings — and the camera. After all, the second man’s warning to James is one of truth. We the audience are watching and listening to James’s every move. Together, James and Kathryn follow the paint trail of the graffiti to an abandoned theater filled with more homeless people. Here, again, these people seem to possess some control over the world of theater. One attacks James and another attempts to rape Kathryn before James kills them both. This entire excursion has little to do with the larger plot. It doesn’t lead James Cole any closer to the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Instead, it creates an introduction to the pre-apocalyptic version of James’s world as one of violence and poverty — of those disenfranchised by the system. After the vision of the underground future, James expects a comparative utopia in the past, but many of the same tyrannies of the establishment remain.

It is no accident that Philadelphia is made the setting of time travel. Walking through Old City can feel like a step into the past, filled with signposts referencing historical landmarks. Indeed, 12 Monkeys uses City Hall, an old and impressive building, as a marker of pre and post-apocalypse. But Philadelphia at the end of the 20th century was a city in decline. According to Roger D. Simon and Brian Alnutt in “Philadelphia 1982 - 2007: Towards the Postindustrial City,” homelessness had increased significantly in the 1980s and thousands of people lived in shelters by 1985. In addition, crime and unemployment were high. Indeed, the first four people James and Kathryn meet in Philadelphia are homeless. Simon and Alnutt note that despite the prevalence of homelessness, many buildings were left vacant, which we can see in the abandoned theater. Margery Simkin, the film’s casting director, said in an interview that “their downtown hadn't been torn down and rebuilt like many other American cities, so it still had all of these amazingly stunning old buildings downtown. There was something about that energy – of this beautiful, slightly crumbling place that was being energized.” The very space of Philadelphia is one with an ambiguous relationship to time.

12 Monkeys uses parallel editing to suggest that the pre and post-apocalyptic worlds aren’t that different, problematizing our conception of time travel. City Hall is not the only example of an image that appears in both times. We see Cole stripped naked and scrubbed violently in 2035, after he ventures aboveground, potentially exposing himself to the virus. In a practically identical scene, he is again scrubbed naked when he is taken to the psychiatric hospital in 1990. In “‘You can’t change anything’: Freedom and Control in Twelve Monkeys.” George Canavan writes, “Gilliam quite deliberately bleeds the mise-en-scène of the post-apocalyptic future into that of the present. The same actors appear in both time periods, performing the same functions; particular incidents and visual sequences are repeated to drive the point home ... Repeated lines of dialogue and mirrored layouts of rooms ... make clear that Cole’s ‘bad future’ is not to come but already here. Cole is always under surveillance, watched at every turn in his present as in his future” (95). While Canavan is referring to the scientists and police watching James, I would push this point even further and argue that James Cole is always surveilled as Bruce Willis — on camera, as an actor in a movie.

This leaves the question of why the apocalypse scenario from La Jetée is changed to a pandemic rather than the original nuclear destruction of WWIII. In 1995, a decade after the outbreak of HIV, pandemic anxiety had become an ingrained component of culture. In the film, Gilliam, like in his critique of homelessness, critiques the disrepair of the prison and psychiatric hospital system. Jeffrey Goines, another patient, says: “A telephone call? That’s communication with the outside world! Doctor’s discretion. No, no – if all of these nuts could just make phone calls, it could spread: insanity oozing through telephone cables, oozing into the ears of all those poor sane people, infecting them. Wackos everywhere, plague of madness.” The fear of contagion is everywhere. Here, pandemic anxiety — “plague” — is echoed even over mental states. In fact, insanity is continually intertwined with homosexuality with the usage of the word “fruitcake,” a derogatory word that can both refer to queerness and insanity. This, of course, pulls from a long history of homosexuality being considered a mental illness.

In “The Future is History: 12 Monkeys and the Origin of AIDS,” David Lashmet argues that the film’s connection to AIDS goes even deeper. Lashmet goes into considerable detail outlining the connections of Philadelphia to the Wistar Institute and thus the Belgian Congo vaccine’s source, which was thought to be a potential factor in the origin of HIV. Lashmet writes that one effort to find an AIDS vaccine was to investigate the simian predecessor to find the “archival strain.” This is exactly James Cole’s mission in 12 Monkeys: to find the original virus. Interestingly, the assumed connection between HIV and monkeys in the Belgian Congo vaccine could be a reason for the emphasis on monkeys in the film. Lashmet offers too many cross-references between the Wistar panel and 12 Monkeys to outline all of here. For example, he argues that a photograph of two scientists in the film is identical to a famous photograph of two scientists making the polio vaccine. He also notes that James’s biohazard suit looks significantly like an oversized condom, referencing protection against sex, one of the ways in which HIV is spread. From there, Lashmet compares James’s appearance throughout the film to someone suffering from AIDS: “At his first appearance, in 1990, he has purple lesions on his forehead, and later in the film he acquires a deep tissue wound, both of which might imply Kaposis sarcoma. Cole also gradually loses his sanity, and so the repudiation of psychiatric "reason" in this film also remarks on AIDS dementia. In addition, his status as an experimental subject could reflect the use of AIDS patients as pharmaceutical guinea pigs” (70). Lashmet does not mention another important factor: James Cole is haunted by images of his own death. This can be seen as a meditation on the experience of a man dying from a terminal illness. Yet the film is not necessarily sad; I would argue that it represents a fantasy that HIV came from a single identifiable source that with the right amount of futuristic science could be completely eradicated. In other words, what if we could just turn back time so AIDS never began? Similarly, James Cole’s visions of his death end up affirming his life as he seizes control of the present. The film challenges Western notions of metaphysics to create a world in which life and death are not simple binaries.

Like 12 Monkeys, Philadelphia investigates the threat of a pandemic. In fact, in the very first lines, Andrew Beckett argues, “And this pestilence dust that Councilor refers to has only appeared on three occasions.” The usage of pestilence has a biblical connotation as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Miller responds by calling the dust “toxic.” After this meeting, they are separated in the elevator by a man with crutches (a symbol of disability) who has to press the button. These opening scenes foreshadow the illness to come, as well as the dividing and isolating effect of AIDS at the time. While 12 Monkeys has a much more outright criticism of the hospital system, small details in Philadelphia reveal this possibility as well. Our first view of the doctor is one of a busy waiting room, in which several men, presumably all HIV-positive, are receiving treatment. We first meet Miguel as he runs to the hospital after Andrew suffers acute stomach pain in his home. Andrew’s usual doctor is on leave and Miguel begins arguing with her replacement over the threat of a colonoscopy. Andrew reveals that “he keeps records of all my hospital visits,” suggesting an overworked system in which health data is easily misplaced or confused and individuals must rely on their own personal labor.

Philadelphia, too, is a story about time travel. Like James Cole, Andrew Beckett is haunted by the specter of his death. Andrew’s first mention of his death comes in an interaction with Joe Miller in the library, where he quotes from a legal case: “the prejudice surrounding AIDS exacts a social death which precedes,” and then he pauses with a deeply troubled look, before continuing, “the actual physical one.” Near the end of the film, Andrew hosts an event which is essentially a memorial service while he is still alive. This celebration of life is simultaneously a costume party, in which participants span time periods, ranging from Campbell soup to Cleopatra. Here, queer culture is indeed performing a kind of time travel. Firstly, there are references to different eras of the past through costuming. Further, the party itself is engaging in an imaginative time leap forward to Andrew’s upcoming death. Kylo-Patrick Hart’s book, The AIDS Movie: Representing a Pandemic on American Theater and Television Screens, reveals that a connection between an AIDS movie and time travel is not as unexpected as one might think. In fact, he argues that queer culture in general is adjacent to science fiction, as both examine the role of the Other. Patrick compares the physical and social transformation of a healthy person with AIDS to the common science fiction trope of body replacement, such as in the case of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Patrick explicitly references Philadelphia as an example of this phenomenon: “When the viewer first glimpses Beckett, he is a remarkably vibrant and healthy-looking man; little does the viewer know that the other, in the form of HIV, has already invaded his body. ... As the narrative proceeds, and the other becomes increasingly powerful within Beckett's system, the character's body physically deteriorates and appears as though it has aged the equivalent of several decades in only a few months, with his dark brown hair becoming as white as an elderly man's, and his physique becoming increasingly frail. On his hospital deathbed, Beckett is but a shadow of his former self — a second form of the other — and he is so weak that he can barely move or speak” (20). Patrick’s description of Andrew’s advanced aging again involves the phenomenon of time travel, as his body changes more quickly than the world around him.

Immediately after the party, we are introduced to a second type of time travel: the pause. In one of the most beautiful and striking scenes of the film, Andrew plays Joe the aria “La Mamma Morta” by Umberto Giordano and sung by Maria Callas. The aria itself as a phenomenon is worth exploring here. In an opera, the aria functions as an intermission from the plot, an emotional interlude, an aside. Music itself can often make us feel as if time is moving differently. Maria Callas has this effect both for Andrew and Joe within the scene and for us the viewer, as if the surrounding world is on hold and time does not exist.

The third important form of time travel in Philadelphia is the home video. Home video is first introduced in the film when Miguel records Andrew visiting his home in Lower Merion. Andrew displays his handprints from when he was a boy, a representation of his younger self continuing to exist throughout time. The home video takes on an even greater importance in its role in the ending of the film. At Andrew’s memorial service, children gather around to watch videos of him as a child. I mention that it is children specifically in the audience because they are symbols of Andrew’s past self on screen being transported into the current present world. In “HIV, Multiculturalism, and Popular Narrativity in the United States,” Richard Cante specifically analyzes this ending scene. He points out that childhood Andrew attempts to carry a picnic basket which is too bulky, and argues that “the desire to conquer become clear, as does the extent to which it is entangled with the load, or burden, proverbially attached to such desire ... the nature of a libidinally-charged desire to colonize cultural space, or of the psychotic desire of the self-identified perennial outsider to get in, also become clear” (245). I would also argue that young Andrew’s cowboy costume is a reference to the queer experience of costuming different eras, as discussed concerning Andrew’s celebration of life.

Finally, it is the very nature of film itself that problematizes our understanding of time travel and the binary of life and death. Both films begin with close-ups in which the protagonist looks straight at the camera. Both protagonists die, and yet, both films conclude with the return of their protagonists’ younger self. In 12 Monkeys, only the child self of James Cole is afforded the autonomy of direct confrontation with the audience. On the other hand, Jonathan Demme uses this technique throughout Philadelphia, constantly reminding us that we are watching a film and disrupting the realism of the courtroom drama, thus moving us closer to the world of science fiction. After all, film itself as a genre occupies a form of time travel. We constantly move from one scene to another with significant jumps in time and space. Moreover, films last beyond our lifetimes. In a scene towards the end of 12 Monkeys, James and Kathryn hide in a movie theater showing Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). James says, “I think I’ve seen this movie before. When I was a kid. It was on TV. It’s just like what’s happening to us. The movie never changes—it can’t change—but every time you see it, it seems to be different because you’re different. You notice different things.” In these films, Andrew Beckett and James Cole do end up defeating death and living forever — in our screens.

In conclusion, 12 Monkeys and Philadelphia are more similar films than one might expect. The reimagination of La Jetée as a pandemic in Philadelphia at the end of the 20th century suggests that the mysterious virus which brings about the apocalypse is a symbolic representation of HIV. In another vein, the connection between AIDS movies, the queer experience as the Other, and science fiction reveals that Philadelphia can be read as an endeavor with time travel. Art seems to be posited as a potential reclamation of life. Philadelphia’s beautiful aria scene allows Andrew Beckett to pause time. Home video allows his younger self to continue. His frequent encounters looking directly at the camera suggest that he actually has found a way to exist outside of the reductive establishment, which Corber and Hart argue he occupies. 12 Monkeys also directly confronts surveillance and only disenfranchised characters are able to occupy a prophetic space in which they control the camera. Together, these readings suggest that film itself can function as a kind of time travel and provide a new metaphysical understanding of life and death in the face of pandemics.


Works Cited

Cartwright, Lisa (2016.) “Learning From Philadelphia: Topographies of HIV/AIDS Media Assemblages,” Journal of Homosexuality, 63:3, 369-386, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2016.1124693

Canavan, G. (2013). ‘You can’t change anything’: Freedom and Control in Twelve Monkeys. In J. Birkenstein, A. Froula, & K. Randell (Eds.), The Cinema of Terry Gilliam: It’s a Mad World (pp. 92–103). Columbia University Press.

Cante, R. C. (1999). HIV, Multiculturalism, and Popular Narrativity in the United States: Afterthoughts on “Philadelphia” (And Beyond). Narrative, 7(3), 239–258.

Corber, R. J. (2003). Nationalizing the Gay Body: AIDS and Sentimental Pedagogy in “Philadelphia.” American Literary History, 15(1), 107–133.

Hart, Kylo-Patrick R. The AIDS Movie: Representing a Pandemic on American Theater and Television Screens. Routledge, 1999.

Lashmet, D. (2000). “The Future is History”: “12 Monkeys” and the Origin of AIDS. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 33(4), 55–72.

Twelve Monkeys. Directed by Terry Gilliam, Atlas Entertainment, 1995.

Philadelphia. Directed by Jonathan Demme, TriStar Pictures, 1993.

Simon, R. D., & Alnutt, B. (2007). Philadelphia, 1982-2007: Toward the Postindustrial City. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 131(4), 395–444.