Explain this situation in "12 Monkeys"/"La Jetee" (Spoilers included)

Last night we watched 12 Monkeys, with Bruce Willis playing the role of James Cole, or The Man in La Jetee. The films are broadly similar in that the main character, living in a nightmarish post-apocalyptic world is sent back to the past (our present) for the ultimate purpose of either repairing the damage or preventing the apocalypse in the first place.

In the article about La Jetee it’s clear that The Man’s own early childhood took place before the war, and at the end of this film, he tries to escape back to the pre-war world permanently, but is pursued by an assassin from his own time, who shoots him to death at an airport. In this scene, in his “normal” timeline he is a small boy who looks on while the adult version of himself, as a time traveller, gets assassinated.

But in 12 Monkeys I don’t see where this same connection is made. Throughout this film, the Bruce Willis character has a recurring dream about somebody getting shot at an airport, but it isn’t clear that, in his normal timeline, post-apocalypse, that he remembers having been at the airport. Further, there’s an additional minor twist about a boy who disappeared in our time, supposedly down a well, but Cole states definitively that this is not what happened. Did the scientists from the future somehow yank this kid out of our time and into theirs?

It’s been a while since I saw the movie, but ISTR that the last sequence of the movie has Bruce Willis getting shot at the airport and young Bruce Willis seeing it happen, and that explained why he kept having those flashbacks. Am I misremembering this?

In 12 Monkeys, Cole remembers that the boy in the well thing was a hoax, pretty much like you and I will remember that Balloon Boy was a hoax when we get drafted to go back in time.

The wiki article on La Jetee makes the point that it is the Man’s memory of the woman, and his obsession with that memory, that gives him the mental fortitude to withstand time travel where others had failed.

In 12 Monkeys, I don’t recall that particular point being made. I did, however, take Cole’s dreams/flashbacks to be representative of his actual memory as a child. The disguises he and the woman use prevent what would otherwise be a large plot hole. Without the disguises, Cole would have remembered how much the murder victim and the beautiful woman looked just like him and his lady friend much earlier in the movie.

They both are identical in that particular theme: the protagonist remembers seeing a person being killed and we discover at the end that the person was the protagonist.

The main difference is that in La Jetee, the incident is used to enable the protagonist to go back in time. In 12 Monkeys, it’s an incident that Cole keeps remembering, but it’s not the key to his time travel. And, yes, in the airport scene at the end, you can see a young Cole witnessing his adult self being killed.

No, I think you’re correct. To state my point more precisely, I didn’t understand why the Bruce Willis character doesn’t seem to remember having been a child shortly before the plague, watching his older self – albeit disguised so he could not have known who it was – die. Instead, I got the impression that the “memory” wanders around his subconscious, occasionally surfacing as a mysterious and disturbing recurrent dream.

I suppose psychological trauma experienced by the boy could account for this.

I can’t speak for La Jetee, having never seen it, but in 12 Monkeys he is not sent back to repair or prevent anything. He’s sent to find the source of the virus (or bacteria or whatever the macguffin is) so they can get a non-mutated sample to study in the future and hopefully come up with a cure/vaccine/whatever.

Yeah, but not the trauma of the shooting itself. Within days of that shooting, people are going to start dying by the millions, which’ll kinda make the shooting insignificant by comparison. If anything, the shooting might represent Cole’s last sane memory before the entire world went sideways.