A recent comment inspired me to tackle this movie.
First off, the movie is about fate and inevitability; time travel is merely used as a device to explore that idea. I chose to look at the movie optimistically: Cole wishes to stay in a world he knows will end so that he can be with the woman he loves, which is a symbol for how we need to cherish the present since death is unavoidable for all of us. If you prefer, you can look at it cynically: we are all stagnant and miserably chasing our own tales and no matter what we do we cannot avoid suffering and destruction.
These important themes of the movie are firmly established when the audience realizes that Cole cannot prevent the catastrophe and that he has, in fact, already witnessed his own failure. This is a “Slaughterhouse Five” view of time travel in which all events happen more or less independently from each other and Cole has simply become “unstuck” when he travels backwards.
And it’s with that approach to time travel that the movie establishes its theme and provides an entertaining, exhilarating experience. But all this generalization and appreciation is getting in the way of my nitpicking: the characters suck at time travel.
First Cole is 6 years early and then he’s 80 years early! He loses the ability to distinguish between temporary trips to the past and the present. He’s a convict. Remember, when we’re dealing with time travel, you are in a situation in which you literally cannot fail. The scientists screw up and send Cole back 80 years too far? No problem! Just go back in time yourself and fix your calculation error.
What the ruling council needed to do was wait longer until the time travel technology was perfected and then send back the best and brightest in a team to prevent the release of the virus. In fact, after the events of the movie, they might have done that exact thing! They can just keep trying until they get it right, and with 5 billion lives at stake, they should definitely keep trying.
I try not to hold this against 12 Monkeys because its depiction of time travel is absolutely fundamental to the themes of the movie. This isn’t like Star Trek or Harry Potter where it’s only part of the plot. If they indeed keep trying until they get it right, the movie loses its power and meaning. So I just try to appreciate the emotion the film evokes in me and I worry about time travel mechanics later when I’m at the bar trying to impress chicks. Because that’s what impresses chicks, right?