These questions, some of them already posed at other sites, Usenet messages, Amazon.com reviews, etc., would arise in the mind of any perceptive viewer of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. Lynn Gibson, who is intimately familiar with the Egyptian mysteries (e.g., the Book of the Dead), explores below how various 'irregularities' in the movie are transpositions of the death-union-resurrection scenario of Osiris presided over by his consort Isis. Supplying his own hermeneutic insights based on ongoing researches into other ancient religions, Sunthar has also worked with Lynn to help ensure that the responses are accessible to laymen and are formulated in a manner applicable to similar motifs in other religions (e.g., Vedic sacrifice). He has also contributed towards clarifying the human interest of the drama.
If you are newcomer, we recommend that you go through the FAQ in the order listed, the questions have been presented in the most logical sequence possible, often following the evolution of the plot, and the answers have sought to minimize repetition of facts and observations offered earlier. You may also want to read the production draft of the 12 Monkeys shooting script as of 27 June 1994; however, it doesn't seem to match the final cuts (for example, is Kathryn is blonde, not brunette, in the airport scene).
The movie begins with James Cole's vivid dream in 2035 of having witnessed a shooting at an airport followed by a beautiful woman lamenting over the body of the dead man. The overpowering 'memory' of this recurrent dream, that reveals increasingly significant details as the plot marches towards its denouement, and his (not so) 'unshakeable' mission to save his future world are perhaps the only 2 moorings for his increasingly 'insane' psychic life as he returns to 1996 in order to retrieve a sample of the deadly virus. He gradually falls in love with his psychiatrist not only because Kathryn literally 'mothers' her patient and eventually becomes the only one in his new 'past' to really believe in him (more than he himself does towards the end...), but also because he 'recognizes' her even before he is able to identify her as the woman at the airport. For her part, Kathryn too (vaguely) remembers him when they first meet (when he was mis-transported further back into 1990) even before she confirms his identity (in 1996) from the photograph of the World War I trench (through which the time-machine dragged him by error). The movie moves us at the most fundamental 'human' level as it is all about the deepening, consolidation and implications of this mystery of recognition. James really (re-) finds his lost woman in the (replay of the) airport shooting scene at the moment of his death when, as the finally revealed victim, he does so only at the cost of losing her again. Yet, this is also the very moment when, as his own childhood alter ego, he finds her for the very first time. So too does Kathryn finally recognize that the traumatized young boy at the airport, who is moved to tears by her loss, is indeed her future 'husband' who had just died all too soon. Her beautiful smile of acknowledgement (re-) launches the interminable plot of this 'science-fiction' narrative and we are 'taken in' by the cyclic depth of our own desire.
Does the 'resurrected' hero of this 'psychoanalytic' narrative really share the fullness of our own recognition of this cycle of 'undying' love? The adult Cole never sees the boy and, for all we know, dies without ever knowing (except through the 'hallucinations' of a half-buried memory) of his already being there. Even as the seed of his future love is being planted, the young Cole, bewitched by this woman's face, cannot know that he is already dead as an adult. It is this eternal dream-woman, impregnated by the love of the adult, who gives birth to the love of the child, mediating like Isis between death and life. It's most significant that the face of the boy's 'real' mother is never revealed even when her arms are shown wrapped around him from behind as he gazes through tearful compassionate eyes at his lamenting future lover. Whose is the most beautiful face that a man could ever recollect? Do we recognize that this movie is really about the obscure object of our own desire? Could we bear to live if we really remembered everything?
The overwhelming sentiment of impending loss that seems to ooze from the depths of any all-consuming love, is the reflection, within the emotional life, of the mystery of personal identity that (not just) archaic religion has sought to formalize and relive through the reenactment of a mythico-ritual scenario. Though, caught up in the narrative action, we can't help participating through its actors in this drama of procuring eternal life through death, 12 monkeys begins to make complete sense only as a (re-)scripting of the death of Osiris, his re-union with Isis, and his rebirth from her womb. Though there are allusions to other (including, like psychoanalysis, pseudo-) religious traditions, the plot, naming-conventions, dialogue and symbolism as a whole has been mined from and systematically constructed around the specifics of ancient Egyptian eschatology, such as expressed in The Book of the Dead. Like those of the pharaoh in the after-life, the adventures of James Cole translate into states of consciousness that an initiate would undergo under the supervision of the priests.
The artistry of the profane 'science-fiction' movie ought to be appreciated by the skill with which it
that may be appreciated without being initiated into its esoteric allusions to the details of Egyptian religion,
Intimately familiar with Egyptian religion on which she has read more than a hundred books, Lynn Gibson began to notice increasing allusions to these mysteries in 12 Monkeys: wherever she went, it seemed that Terry Gilliam had been there before her! She persuaded Sunthar, who was beginning to notice striking parallels between Vedic sacrifice and Egyptian eschatology, to watch the movie in late March 2002. We felt that 12 Monkeys might serve as an excellent introduction to archaic, particularly Egyptian, religion through an apocalyptic science-fiction theme that's sure to resonate with contemporary viewers. Moreover, Sunthar had done a similar analysis about 20 years on the Sanskrit play "The Little Clay Cart" along the same lines as a transposition of Vedic sacrificial themes, but had difficulties presenting his findings in a coherent linear essay-like exposition. He intends to use this 12 Monkeys FAQ as a model for a similar Clay-Cart FAQ.
Interweaving several frames of reference into a single narrative, however complex, taxes all the symbolic resources available to an art-form and especially ends up 'distorting' the dialogue by over-burdening it with multiple meanings. The ancient Egyptians (and Indians) handled this by exploiting (even visual) puns, (mixed) metaphors, sound associations, metonymy, etc., already in their myths and rituals. When transposed into the profane drama or the cinema, the deeper religious level cannot be maintained without resorting to apparently irrelevant and even nonsensical remarks. In the Sanskrit drama, this license is accorded to the incongruous Fool (equivalent of the trickster-god in myth), whose incomprehensible babbling we tolerate only at the price of comic relief. The same role is played in 12 Monkeys by Jeffrey Goines, incarnating Thoth, the baboon-god of wisdom, speech, hieroglyphics, etc., whom we meet with fittingly for the first time very much at home in a lunatic asylum. Like the brahmin clown, also assimilated to a brown monkey, of the Sanskrit theater, Jeffrey concentrates in himself the verbal excess the overflows into all the other characters and situations, including James who, in his agony, keeps saying things whose meaning seems to escape everyone including himself. Our task as hermeneutists is to assume that there's a method to all the madness by revealing, as best we can, the aptness of every otherwise 'irregular' detail.
The title is probably inspired by the twelve baboons portrayed on the west wall of the tomb of Ay, the vizier of Tutankhamun, who replaced the latter as pharaoh. When Belzoni first stumbled upon the chamber, he called it the "Tomb of the 12 Monkeys." They are depicted adoring the sun in the tomb of Tutankhamen (who is believed to have been assassinated) and also appear in the tomb of Thutmose III (literally 'son of Thoth'). The movie dramatizes, in modern (and futuristic) garb, the events that were supposed to take place in the After-Life (Am-Duat). Its logo, which is also that of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, represents them as the hour markings on a clock, and is even shown spiraling. Each monkey represented an hour of the night during which the soul of the dead pharaoh traversed, with the sun, the darkness of the after-world. In the movie, there are clock prompts all along James itinerary (the first is on the ladder as he is about to climb up out of the sewer to the ruined dead city and department store), as if he has a schedule and if he is the night sun (Af-Re / Ka of Osiris) he would be on a tight schedule to make it through to the dawn. From late Egyptian (Denderah) perspective of cosmic order, the monkeys could additionally represent the 12 animal-constellations through which the sun traversed. The baboon par excellence is Thoth, who guides the soul, teaching him through various clues the secrets of the various entities he'll encounter. To the extent that these other characters play a similar role, they are all monkeys. Since the initiate has to assimilate their 'essences' one-by-one of every entity he encounters and addresses by its correct name, James is perhaps the greatest monkey of all, the fullness of (cyclic) Time.
James Cole (J.C. = 'Jesus Christ'?) is the Egyptian Osiris, who must die annually in order to be reborn as his own son, the solar Horus. In Egyptian mythology, the dead pharaoh is identified with Osiris while his living son, the next pharaoh, who must perform his funeral rites, represents Horus. The mutating virus is the manifold disruption of death which was introduced originally by the evil Seth through the murder of his brother Osiris, who ruled over the Golden Age. Osiris must travel back in time to moment of his own birth, even conception, to find the virus of death in its 'pure' form. The quest is for immortality.
They are the 'future' equivalents of the ancient Egyptian priests seating Horus on the elevated throne of his father Osiris. The globular contraption in which their various images appear is the luminous sun, the Eye of Re, through which the pharaoh looks down sees the whole world: "He is Babai, eldest son of Osiris and all the gods appear in his eye." They follow his destiny in the after-life and seek to guide him by sending messengers in disguise with cryptic clues to be deciphered and acted upon. Likewise, Osiris maintains a 'life-line' with his mentors by calling to leave voice-mail.
Cole is perhaps the last of a line of convicts who undertake the critical mission to the past, and is selected because of his superior powers of observation, memory, alertness and intelligence. Though publicly addressed as a 'volunteer', it's made apparent from the start that he never 'chose' to be one. However, he seems to gradually accept his heavy new responsibility and invests himself in the mission not only to redeem himself but also from a genuine desire to save the world. His last return, after having already received his 'full pardon', is wholly 'voluntary' but apparently for the wrong reasons (to remain in the past with his beloved Kathryn). Yet, he finally dashes to his death 'voluntarily' obeying superior orders. This constant ambiguity that opens up the metaphysical issue of free-will versus fate, seems to ultimately derive from the juxtaposition of two frames of reference upon the narrative: the inevitability of death (destiny) and the initiatic conquest of death (freedom).
Since we are all under the sentence of death, life itself is a form of conviction embodied by James and also manifested in other ways in the movie: e.g., the confinement of the asylum and the captivity of the animals. At the same time, the initiated voluntarily sought immortality by undergoing a conscious process of inner death (and rebirth). So much so that in many archaic religions, including the Indian and the Egyptian, the funerary rituals themselves were transformed to symbolize the more 'essential' initiatic death. On the one hand, as the personification of our mortality, James
As he comes out of the store into the first rays of the sun, he sees spray-painted on the wall a stenciled logo of twelve monkeys holding hands in a circle. Over it is written, "WE DID IT!" When James looks up, he sees high up on a building across the street, a lion that patrols a ledge, pauses, and then looks out majestically over his world. James is himself the reborn solar lion (remember the sphinx?) released from the deathly grip of the underworld. The rest of the movie is a detailed commentary on how exactly the 12 monkeys succeeded in delivering him on schedule through the dark hours of the night. The re-birth is also suggested by the immediately following scene where the stark naked James holds up his hands in the slimy shower-room as he's washed clean by the two hulky figures in protective suits against (the) pollution (of death/birth). That's why the microbiologist interrogates James (on our behalf): "Right now, we want to know everything that you saw."
James is completely embalmed like a mummy when he first forces himself into Kathryn's van, and at other times too only his hands are shown wrapped in bandages. He is even putrefying like corpse: "I smell bad" says Cole. Another reference to his putrefaction is a play on this line from the Book of the Dead: "A man has come up from Egypt. I smell his odor as one of our own." In the film, the medieval street preacher 'smells' James out and yells: "Hey, you're one of ours!" Attempting to re-awaken in the after-life, the dead pharaoh yawns and stretches his limbs as he tries to shake of the weariness of his long sleep. This is why he enjoys the fresh air (note how he sticks his head out of the van), the stars and the sky.
Kathryn Railly is the Egyptian Isis-Hathor, whose womb the dying Osiris must impregnate in order to be reborn as the solar Horus. In Egyptian mythology, Isis is at the same time the sister-wife of Osiris and also his mother insofar as he is identical with his son Horus. The choice is between biological death and a mystical cycle of inner death and rebirth, that amounts to an immortality of sorts, for which the mediation of the eternal virgin-mother Isis is indispensable. Though Osiris must die, their reunion is assured in the 'next' life as it had been in the 'previous'. Depicted as a (celestial) cow or a human 'Aphrodite' bearing the sun-disk between her two cow-horns, Hat-hor has also been understood as meaning the 'House of Horus', i.e., as bearing the sun-child. Insofar as Railly gives (re-) birth to the new James, she is also the goddess of the Night Sky, Nut, mother of Osiris.
His first return to past is assimilated to a birth, which is why he is shown huddled up in white, drooling saliva and screaming inarticulately at being imprisoned within his new ineffectual body. Kathryn, who crouches over him in the manner typical of an Egyptian woman giving birth, assumes the role here of the mother of Osiris, namely the night-sky-goddess Nut, as indicated by her black purse decorated with stars. This 'error' is basically a plot-device that helps separate the more 'philosophical' theme of madness from the fast-paced hunt for the virus and the romance theme that predominates in Cole's second return. According to the June 94 script, the young Cole is already 9 years old when he appears in the airport to take over from his adult alter ego. The script might have been more consistent symbolically, if there had been a 9-year interval between the second and the first return, which would have then coincided with the actual birth of the baby James. However, that would have introduced a further complication as Kathryn herself would have been 9 years older the second time he meets and falls in love with her. 6 years might have been a compromise between these two 'real-world' constraints. When Kathryn identifies James as having escaped from the asylum 6 years ago, he answers: "six years for you!" The whisper dude says in hospital: "When did you see me, in 1892 [BC]?" This is one of the few dates that all Egyptologists agree on (has to do with an inscription on the Temple of Luhan). There are indications that, despite all the widely disparate references to years (1990, 1917?, 1996, 1892, etc.), the entire mythical action is taking place in the course of a single night (12 hours = 12 Monkeys).
Egyptian children generally ran around naked and were shaved bald with just a lock of hair left on the side of the head. The washing, here shown as hosing, seems to be reflection of purification rites: for the newborn, the priest, and the corpse. Egyptian priests were washed three times a day and shaved before entering the temple. In addition, it refers to the cleaning of the corpse - the body of Osiris is washed and anointed to be preserved from putrefaction and incensed. Cole is washed underground "that I might be with Horus on the day of the clothing of the Dismembered One and of the opening of the caverns for the washing of the inert one and the throwing open of the door of the secret things in Rosetjau...." (chap. 1, Book of the Dead). Similarly, after Cole's 'birth' in the prison, he is washed before being admitted to the asylum: "...I was cleansed on the day of my birth in those two great and noble marshes which are in Heracleopolis on the day of the oblation by the common-folk to the great god who is in them.....they are the lake of Natron and the lake of Maet...." (ibid., chap. 17).
James is naked in the trench because he is undergoing, once more, the trauma of birth. The World War I battle is between death and life, the chthonic and the vernal...the explosions are blue (chthonic = death) and green (vernal = life). James is fighting his way back from death and inertness to life and mobility. His babyhood is also suggested by the older woman scientist tucking him in with a baby blanket with bears after they have sung to him a lullaby. When Kathryn disguises him with a wig and moustache in the cinema, he has as it were metamorphosed into adulthood. It's almost as if time had accelerated before the movie screen. [James is to enter the temple (airport) at the end for annual Osiris festival.???]
In order to make the annual cycle of lunar months fit the solar year, some archaic religions had occasionally to add an intercalary 13th month, which was universally considered to be the womb of the Year, somehow outside of regular time and with connotations of death and resurrection. For example, the 'inauspicious' consecrated (dîkSita) state of the royal sacrificer in Vedic religion was assimilated to the intercalary month. This chaotic period of birth, death and impurity naturally took on sinister connotations, for which reason '13' became everywhere an unlucky number. Though the Egyptian calendar had 360 days to which they added 5 'epagomenal' days, which represented the birthdays of some (Osiris, Isis, Horus, Seth, and Nephthys) of their major gods (i.e., they did not have the 13th intercalary month), the number 13 was already considered unlucky even during their time. In this sense, the grisly red '13' on the prison wall marks James for 'untimely' death the very moment he is born into our world. The newspaper Kathryn sees at the airport reveals his death to be on December 13th.
The movie plays on our sensibilities by juxtaposing, contrasting and inverting the values of this world in relation to those of the after-life, depicting how James is torn between his love 'here-and-now' for Kathryn and the bondage of earthly life. Having enjoyed the freedom of the disembodied state, to be locked within a finite body is unbearable like being in a prison. The world itself is like a mad-house.
The symmetry between the past/future scientists and the psychiatric priesthood of today provides a further opportunity to explore, juxtapose and play with relation between human folly and esoteric wisdom. If the psychiatrists are indeed all-knowing, then James must be crazy and the 'gods' merely a figment of his imagination. If James is somehow in possession of the truth, then terrestrial life must be absurd and the apostles of sanity the purveyors of a false faith: "We're the new religion. We decide what's right or wrong, who's crazy or not," says Dr. Railly. However, as a specialist of prophetic madness well aware of inexplicable phenomena, Kathryn herself is slipping across the border into a 'Cassandra complex' even as James struggles in the opposite direction, for the sake of her love, to recreate himself as a 'normal' mortal.
The animals are the denizens encountered in the after-life, so much so that their release from the zoo is in a way tantamount to the release of the virus of death. This is why in Cole's recurring dream of the airport shooting scene, the eventual releaser of the virus (actually Dr. Goines' research assistant) once appears as Jeffrey Goines (whom Cole had begun to suspect), who is rather the head of the revolutionary 'animal rights' gang that raids the zoo. From a deeper perspective, mortal life is the equivalent of death, whereas the animals hold the secret to life eternal just as the virus of death is also the elixir of life. The plot is thickened by the superposition of both perspectives such that many of the humans are assimilated to animals.
Jeffrey probably represents Thoth, the Egyptian god of sacred knowledge, one of whose principal manifestations was as a baboon. That's why he claims to be the son of 'god (Atum?), namely Dr. Goines. His speech is so full of double-entendre and esoteric allusions that he seems to be babbling like a madman (just like the clown of the Sanskrit theater, who is likewise always assimilated to an 'evil brown monkey'). Jeffrey (and his pack) imitate monkeys when they crouch around his kidnapped father, and this 'monkey' delivers Cole not just the literal key to liberation from the asylum but also the metaphorical ones for freedom from death. Perhaps his real disobedience towards his father is in sharing these secrets with the human animals, namely ourselves.
'Bob' probably refers to Horus: "He is Babai, eldest son of Osiris and all the gods appear in his eye." The whispering dude would then be the double (Ka) of the dead man (Osiris), which is why Cole sees at most a shadow, while the whisperer even tauntingly suggests he might be speaking from inside Cole's head. This is also why, when Kathryn accosts the dude outside the underground shop, he doesn't seem to know anyone called 'James'. He too has broken his teeth to avoid being tracked by the scientists.
When the car-radio is turned on Cole hears a commercial which claims to be a personal message: "Are you at the end of your rope? Are you dying to get away?" The songs that follow are the two hymns at the beginning of the Book of the Dead. Cole "found my thrill on Blue Berry [= Bury] Hill" because he is Osiris buried within the pyramidal mountain before the 20th century BC (the golden age of the pyramids started around 2400 BC). He is 'thrilled' because the pyramid complex, which architecturally encompasses not just death but also sexual union, is where Osiris had his effusion (Rostau). Note that the scientists sing him the same song in chorus while he's in the hospital bed, as if it were "Happy Birthday to You!" while presenting him his Full Pardon. Blue is one of the chthonic (underworld) names of Osiris, and this color is emphasized again in the second song: "I [= Eye] see clouds of blue, red roses too, I [=Eye] see them bloom for me and for you and I [=Eye] say to myself what a wonderful world," etc. The Eye is that of Re, the sun-god. Blue is used repeatedly in various symbolic birth scenes, and re-appears finally as the blue underwear that seems to have been used for wrapping the vials of the virus.
The Ocean (Nun) is the primordial watery chaos (identified with the Milky Way in many archaic religions) from which the primordial mound arose at the dawn of creation and gave birth to the sun. The Egyptian eschatology was modeled on the initiation scenario of the dead pharaoh somehow being guided to re-experience this original moment, which is why the (necropolis of the) Great Pyramid was built over the pre-existing sacred mound on the Giza Plateau. Hence, Cole keeps receiving tantalizing messages through TV in the 1989 asylum, the mental patient as he escapes from the ward with Jeffrey's key, and then again in 1995 the radio in Kathryn's van (just before he's thrilled listening to "Blueberry Hill") to head for the Florida Keys. Of course, this 'ocean' is not to be found the sea-shore, but is itself rather a 'key' to an esoteric destination.
The airshaft corresponds those in the Great Pyramid which project the soul of the dead pharaoh south towards the Duat and north towards the circumpolar region. The descent, which likewise corresponds to the underground shaft that penetrates into the primordial natural mound beneath the stone pyramid, symbolizes the return to the (amniotic waters of the) womb. The return to the nether-worldly womb is often presented as the prelude to the ascent towards the heavens. Cole disappears, while with Kathryn (= having united with Isis), into the brook to re-emerge once more amidst the scientists.
The artificial erect phallus that Isis had to make for Osiris in order for them to have intercourse. It's revealed conspicuously during his ascent because the southern airshafts of the King's and Queen's chambers of the Great Pyramid point respectively to Sirius (Isis) and to the most prominent star (Al Nitak) in Orion's 'belt' (= phallus) that is aimed at Sirius. In other words, the shaft projects not just the pharaoh's soul but also his seed up towards his celestial consort. Note that the invisible whisper dude always talks dirty during these scenes: "You sure [Egyptians pronounced something like 'Yushir' for Wsir = Osiris] fucked up!" "Getting enough pussy?" etc.
The parallel scene is a dramatic device to elucidate the symbolic meaning of what's taking place inside the van/car that Kathryn is driving, which is why James knows all along that the boy is really not in the well at all. Instead, he keeps talking as if he himself were the boy full of fear and trembling. The white monkey with its head-lamp is actually the dead James descending down an inner well back into the maternal womb of his consort (the goddess Nut, in one of her appellations is called Great Well) , which is why the man watching the TV newscast in Dr. Goines' mansion surmises that the monkey would himself eat the roast-beef sandwich intended for the boy. James' pursuers rush in at that very moment saying that he must have come by this way (i.e., traversed the monkey-in-the-well scene)! The thousands of people reportedly at the rescue scene might perhaps refer to the public having gathered to witness the funeral of Osiris.
The World War I scene of soldiers being torn apart in the trenches reflects the dismemberment of Osiris prior to his reconstitution by Isis. Cole's being shot in the thigh alludes to Osiris losing his phallus and virile powers. Kathryn's eventual extraction of the elongated bullet amounts to not only a restoration of his masculinity but also a sexual union and rebirth. When Kathryn opens her palm, the bullet is shown against the blood stain imitating the symbol of Akhet (sun/son on the horizon), which is why James immediately declares "I love the sun!"
The theme here is that of killing the mother: the fatal regression to the womb is also relived as a (psychic) matricide (the presumed strangling and rape of the courtesan-mother, exactly the same narrative device, is central to the initiatic Sanskrit play, the Little Clay Cart). Her van and subsequently the stolen car in which Kathryn drives James is tantamount to her womb (the carriages play the same role in the Clay Cart). This is perhaps underlined by her being locked up in the trunk of the car while James was gate-crashing into Dr. Goines' party. Note that when James is originally presented to the scientists in 2035, the accompanying guards charge him, among other crimes and misdemeanors, with "anti-social sex," which in this case would amount to not just incest but also matricide - all the more reason to seek a full pardon...
The beastly (tape-recorded) cries that startle James when he steps into the 'animal rights' den reveal that in reality it's a butcher-shop. Jeffrey's 'comrades-in arms' complain that their leader has suddenly done an apparent volte-face and is publicly supporting his father's cruel biological experiments with animals. The shop is symbolically presided over by Seth, who once turned himself into a black pig (and when Horus looked at Seth, his eye which had been healed was injured again such that Thoth had to heal him). The more familiar pork-head affixed outside the door marks the (disguised butcher-) shop as the slaughterhouse of the gods, which is mentioned often in the Book of the Dead. That's why when Kathryn returns there looking for James, the bagman warns them of the strange things that are being done there not just to animals but to humans by these 'animal rites' activists. Seth had actually 'freed' his brother Osiris from the bondage of mortal life by dismembering his body into 14 parts (distributed all over Egypt). The name of the shop is Free Bird!
Seth had invited his brother to a feast of the gods where he presented a beautiful sarcophagus, made to the measure of Osiris, that would belong to whoever it might fit. Slamming the lid shut, the murderer threw the coffin into the Nile, to be subsequently retrieved by Isis. In the movie, the body seems to have been already cut up in Jeffrey's butcher's shop before being laid out at Dr. Goines' banquet as dead cow, sheep, etc. That's why Jeffrey pretends that James doesn't exist and asks the security guards to do whatever they will with the intruder. Note that these guards chase James all the way to the kitchen where some (of the actors) helping to prepare the food had already appeared in 2035. When James wakes up from his airport nightmare at the very beginning, José already surmises that the scientists were inviting him to a party (which is why the 'volunteers' don't come back). As master of ceremonies, Jeffrey here takes on some of the attributes of Seth here.
Isis was also incarnated by the temple priestesses (i.e., the sacred hetaera), who seem to have had the privilege on occasion of conceiving pharaohs. Kathryn is not only dressed very seductively, but she could have easily been mistaken for one of the bunch of prostitutes whom she passes in the prison on her way to meet Cole for the first time (i.e., symbolically gives birth to him 1990). This hidden side becomes explicit in the remarks by the hotel manager, and by the pimp who bursts into their room and 'mistakes' her for having provided her services to James without his approval. What we have in Kathryn is a conflation of the unbridled sexuality of the courtesan, the legitimacy of the wife and the fertility of the mother.
As part of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, the living son would knock out some of the teeth of his mummified father with an adze-like tool (shaped after a circumpolar constellation), so that the dead pharaoh might be able to communicate with the gods and monsters he meets in the after-life. That's why, in the cell, the whisper-dude says to the still strapped Cole: "Ah, you can talk!" The blessed dead in Egypt all have Maa-Kheru ('true-of-voice' or 'justified') after their name in the Book of the Dead. Ironically, when the whisperer later shows himself as the bagman, James' double or Ka, he claims that he had pulled out his own teeth to escape being tracked by the scientists, which is the ostensible reason for James subsequently doing the same with a knife. Hence José asks Cole at the end why he took this drastic step after having already received a full pardon. The truth seems to be that Cole was simply "following orders" while we are led to believe that he was breaking them.
Shown lying in the next convict cage as soon as James wakes up from his assassination nightmare at the very start of the film, José is Seth, the brother and murderer of Osiris. He follows James through the World War I trench exclaiming, "I gotta find him," just as Seth had tried to recover the dead body of Osiris (that Isis eventually made whole). In the final airport scene, José thrusts the gun upon James practically forcing him to go after the man with the virus and knowing full well that he is speeding his 'soul-brother' to his death. Though he menaces to kill Kathryn if James doesn't comply, he is only following orders from above just as James himself is supposed to re-enact the annual death and resurrection of Osiris. However, José in his final appearance also has a conspicuous scar beneath his eye, which would seem to identify him as well with the son of Osiris, Horus, who lost his left eye in his fight with Seth. Lynn suggests that 'Jo-sé' may be a merging of 'Ho (-rus)' and 'Se (-th)' into a composite character. It's important remember that Osiris ultimately encompasses all the others deities (including Isis) to assume their attributes and thus become the Totality.
Philadelphia is today's equivalent of the sacred temple island of Philae in the upper Nile, the last bastion of Egyptian religion that was patronized by the Roman emperors before the ancient worship, including the writing of hieroglyphs, were forbidden. Famous for its temple to Isis, the goddess of rebirth, island itself amounted to a primordial mound within the womb of the Nile. The temple contained a birth-house (mamissi) for Horus where his birthday was annually celebrated. Here the king re-enacted the mysteries of death and rebirth before his people, the temple-body of Isis being assimilated to the tomb. Since it was there that the (Egyptian) world ended, it's only fitting that the suppressed animal-gods be released again in Philadelphia.
Cole is Osiris, the pharaoh who constantly dies and is reborn for himself and on behalf of his (Egyptian) subjects; that's why he is also covered with white bandages like an embalmed mummy. He represents humanity.
Cole is Osiris, the pharaoh who constantly dies and is reborn for himself and on behalf of his (Egyptian) subjects; that's why he is also covered with white bandages like an embalmed mummy. He represents humanity.
The soaring birds represent the soul liberated from the mortal coils of life on earth, which is why Jeffrey's sinister 'animal rights' butcher-shop is named Free Bird. However, this release is made possible only through death followed by the 'surgical' precision of the ritual operations performed on the pharaoh's corpse. Isis copulates in the form of a kite with the dead Osiris, and the latter is reborn as the falcon-headed Horus. This sinister aspect is depicted through the relevant scenes of the woman being pecked all over from the Hitchcock movie, The Birds, that they watch in the cinema. The birds in the deserted department store of 2035, startled like ourselves by Cole, already presage both the ominous and the redemptive significance (especially when juxtaposed to the likewise recurring statue of the winged angel).
On the surface level of the plot, James, who is 'losing his mind', is substituting the image of Jeffrey, whom he suspects of being the perpetrator, within his otherwise 'authentic' recurring dream (which is also the 'clarification' offered by script-writers Janet and David Persons). However, there seems to be something more to the symbolic equation of this savior of the animals with the releaser of the virus. Since the de-population of the world by the virus and its peopling with animals instead, both signify the sovereignty of death and the afterlife, in a sense Jeffrey and the research assistant are 'colluding' willy-nilly towards the same purpose. They did it! Though Thoth seems to be unleashing death on the world as we know it, he is actually redeeming it by resurrecting the animal (-headed-) gods of ancient Egypt.
The 4 vials are the 'scientific' equivalent of the 4 Canopic jars in which the pharaoh's vital organs (liver, intestines, ? ? respectively) were deposited. Often these jars, which were also placed in the tomb, remained empty. The pure virus of death was wrapped as it were in the underwear because it's identical with the seed of life. In an ever deeper sense, the vials are truly empty because both the virus and its antidote are ultimately embodied in the death and rebirth of James Cole.
The action is rather straightforward: James keeps looking back at Kathryn, who is egging him on to stop the would-be perpetrator, and also because of concerns for her safety. Innocent bystanders fall to the ground so as to shield themselves from the expected exchange of firing. However, there might also be an allusion here to Osiris as the 'Wide-Strider', who keeps looking back as he climbs into the celestial realms using the constellation Orion as a foothold. Within such a scenario, those falling to the ground all around would be worshippers paying homage to Osiris, the pharaoh. "Fall on your faces, oh ye snakes" (Book of the Dead)