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Existentialist elements in "Jacob's Ladder" and "12 Monkeys" sync/link both films

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OKLAHOMA CITY – Rewatching the 1990 psychological horror film Jacob’s Ladder recently, I was struck by some of the similarities between that film, directed by Adrian Lyne and 1995’s 12 Monkeys, directed by Terry Gilliam.

It’s the 6th of October 1971. The war in Vietnam is winding down but Nixon is determined to pull U.S. troops out of Southeast Asia, but not before darker elements within the shadow government have a little fun and tinker with their minds and souls with their inhumane, secret experiments.

And Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) simply wants to know what happened to the unit when they come under fire. Singer himself is shown being bayoneted in his midsection …

Four years later, Singer is on a New York subway, a copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus in his hand. It’s at this point that the existentialist elements start coming into play. Locked in the subway and trying to escape the “underground” he is nearly hit by an oncoming train – horrific faces staring out at him from the train cars.

What is happening? Where is he? And what of his family and the young son he clearly loves?

In 12 Monkeys, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is being used by sinister scientists in some future dystopia where people live “underground” and Cole is a survivor who will be used to go back in time to find the Army of the 12 Monkeys, the terrorist group the scientists believe were behind the release of the virus that killed 5 billion people in the late 1990’s.

Animals run the surface of the world, now that surviving humans have fled underground. Cole’s mission – via time travel to 1990 and 1996 (with a stop on a World War I battlefield where Cole is shot) – is to find the Army of the 12 Monkeys and stop them before they release the deadly virus.

Monkeys play a roll in both films. It would seem they are a metaphor for human beings. It is taken in a more literal sense when Singer learns that a hallucinogenic drug called “The Ladder” was used on monkeys – animals that tore each other apart after the mind-altering drug was tested on them. Enemy combatants captured in Vietnam by U.S. forces are also dosed with “The Ladder” and the results are even worse. Director Adrian Lyne would later say that the book Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD; The CIA, The Sixties and Beyond was an inspiration for the conspiracy angle included in the film. And we know that the government secretly tested dangerous and deadly substances on unwitting U.S. troops and have for decades.

The monkeys in 12 Monkeys are actually a radical animal-rights group in Philadelphia, led by the maniacal and wealthy Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). They are trying to stop Goines’ father, a world-famous virologist (Christopher Plummer) and his tests while also planning to release animals from the zoo. The group has nothing to do with the evil plans hatched by Goines’s genocidal lab assistant.

Meanwhile, in Jacob’s Ladder, after Singer is grabbed off the street by government agents and threatened to not talk about his experiences in Vietnam, he escapes the car and is picked up and taken to a hospital which turns out to be more of a hellish insane asylum echoing the asylum Cole finds himself in in the year 1990 – the year Jacob’s Ladder was released.

The scientists – mad, evil, deranged – seem to have a grip on the lives and souls of both Cole and Singer. But why? Can they let go? Is there something here having to do with the karmic wheel?

What is real? Why do things have a dreamlike quality? What is the key to the hellish puzzle both men face in 12 Monkeys and Jacob’s Ladder. Love, on the flipside, is pretty powerful in both films. As is acceptance of one’s situation.

Jacob’s Ladder was written by Bruce Joel Rubin. He explained that Jacob’s Ladder is a modern interpretation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Rubin had spent time in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal. And was inspired by how his meditative life there showed that “the world is really far different than what it appears to be. What appears to be finite is really couched in the infinite, and the infinite imbues everything in our lives.”

And the existentialist ideas included in 12 Monkeys (based on the Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetee) life, death, the finite, the infinite … these sync quite effortlessly with those in Jacob’s Ladder

Why are we here? Indeed.

For more on the existentialist elements of Jacob's Ladder, check out James Curcio's "A Long Road Out of Hell: Jacob's Ladder & The Book of the Dead." And for a great list of fine, existentialist films, go here.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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