344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

AKA 12 Monkeys

Must See

“I think we should try to avoid defining things precisely. Too many films are packaging the world too neatly for us, and I don’t think the world should be packaged neatly. But hidden things and unknowns… The more you can encourage that on the screen, the better for the mental state of the world.” –Terry Gilliam, “FilmScouts” interview


FEATURING: , Madeleine Stowe,

PLOT: The future is a grim world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus and the rest live underground. James Cole, a prisoner in this future, is recruited to travel back in time on a mission to discover the source of this virus and help his present time develop an antidote. Thanks to unforeseen mishaps and the shaky technology of time travel, his mission goes off track.

Still from Twelve Monkeys (1995)


  • This feature was inspired by La Jetee, ‘s 1962 experimental science fiction short film done almost entirely with black and white still photographs and narration. Terry Gilliam knew the structure of the film, but did not view it before making Twelve Monkeys (obviously, screenwriters David and Janet Peoples were intimately familiar with the earlier film). The core story of James Cole witnessing an execution while stuck in a time loop is the main element surviving from La Jetee. The virus, Brad Pitt’s character, and Madeline Stowe’s role are all the scriptwriters’ invention, as well as an updating and cultural shift to an American setting.
  • One scene that does survive from La Jetee is a character tracing the timeline of their existence on a cross-cut tree stump. Gilliam makes a double-homage by showing the scene from Vertigo during a convenient film marathon showing at the theater where Willis and Stowe hide out.
  • Gilliam cites a trip to the dentists’ office, with its multiple layers of protection for everything to keep it sterile, as inspiration for the protective gear—including the “body condom”—Bruce Willis wears in his trips to the world’s surface.
  • Brad Pitt had never played an unhinged lunatic before Twelve Monkeys; Gilliam was excited at the prospect of casting him against type. Later, Pitt would become known for his manic portrayals in films such as 1999’s Fight Club.
  • On-set rumor has it that Gilliam got Pitt to be a more convincing crazy person by confiscating his cigarettes during filming; Pitt was acting while experiencing nicotine fits.
  • There are TV screens present at some point or another in nearly every scene of the film; Gilliam’s intended to show us as dehumanized by media. Gilliam firmly asserts his place in the cyberpunk genre with the quote: “I’ve always had a problem with the belief that technology was going to solve all of our problems.” Twelve Monkeys continues this theme from 1985’s Brazil.
  • Twelve Monkeys received two Oscar nominations: Pitt for Best Supporting Actor and Julie Weiss for Costume Deign. It won neither.
  • The SyFy Channel original series 12 Monkeys is a spinoff of this movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Insert the obligatory lament that there are so many indelible scenes that it’s hard to pick one. We’ll go with the giant “video ball,” a metal sphere festooned with lenses and video screens, which is always hovering in front of James Cole as the scientists interrogate him in between time hops. It’s a signature of the film’s “complex style over function” motif and the most sure moment where you can walk into the film cold and still say “Aha, this must be a Terry Gilliam movie!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS:  “Mentally divergent” Cassandra Complex; tooth surgery;  giraffes galloping down the freeway

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Besides Terry Gilliam’s trademark rococco visuals, off-the-wall plotting, and larger-than-life characters, Twelve Monkeys has something else that sets it apart from other time travel movies: it is completely without plot holes, and even without paradoxes except that of the stable time loop which gives us the story. Upon first viewing, the story seems to be chaos. Repeat viewings are necessary to assemble a clear story out of the puzzle pieces, every single one of which fits perfectly down to the tiniest details. It’s such a flawless whole when fully mapped that constructing it was a cerebral feat on the order of Fields-medal mathematics.

Original trailer for Twelve Monkeys

COMMENTS: Warning: this review contains spoilers.

Make no mistake: Twelve Monkeys is a very clear, coherent narrative. You just need a wall of pushpin charts, a ball of yarn to connect all the points, and a gallon of espresso to prove it. It’s also one of the few movies to build such a complete universe that it conveys the sense of extending beyond the story’s boundaries. Why does “Bob” torment James Cole in both the past and present? Because he’s been sent back and forth so many times that his mind is scrambled. How does Cole know to find the Army of the Twelve Monkeys’ animal rights activism headquarters? Because their office is in a building with a concrete pig head over the door, a clue which flashes for a microsecond in the slide-show during the scientists’ briefing earlier. Why does the street preacher with the cross yell to Cole “You! You’re one of us!”? Because he’s another stranded time traveler who apparently turned to preaching biblical prophecy on street corners in an attempt to make himself useful. Why does Cole gulp down a spider in the mental hospital? He’s attempting to preserve a specimen to take back to the future, and traveling in time has the unfortunate side effect of forcing you to travel naked. This also explains why for Cole’s first trip, he’s beset by five cops whom he takes on “like he was dusted to the eyeballs” in an offscreen fight. (This leaves us to visualize the scene of a confused naked man on the streets of Baltimore being apprehended by the cops.) Why does Cole hesitate at the room with the MRI machine in the hospital? Because it looks just like time machine rigging in the future and he was momentarily disoriented. Twelve Monkeys has no mercy for the lazy viewer; you either do the homework to unravel the knotted events or you’re lost.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves (haha, meta-self-referencing flashback humor!). James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner in the future where the remnants of humanity live underground after a deadly virus wiped out most of humanity, is “volunteered” into traveling back in time to gather information in the hopes of finding the cure. The trouble is, the team of scientists training him and deploying him on these missions are smugly overconfident in their technology, while sending him back to the wrong years. Likewise, Cole lands in the late 20th century several years off and ends up in a mental hospital because mental health professionals don’t believe his story of being a time traveler, which leads him to meet Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), an examining physician who mentions Cole looks familiar to her. It turns out later that Cole was also sent back to World War I, and Cole’s photograph from that time period appears in the book she writes about “the Cassandra complex,” a mental condition where the sufferer has delusions of future doom. While in the psychiatric system, Cole also meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a truly nutty patient who’s the son of biologist Dr. Goines (). Goines befriends Cole and assists his escape, but not before raving about his activist crusade against animal cruelty.

The chief circles of influences start from this first time trip. In subsequent hops back and forth in time, Cole and Goines’ relationship leads Cole to suspect Goines of engineering the virus, while Goines internalizes off-the-cuff comments from Cole to justify his activist stunts with the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, a PETA-like group which raids labs and zoos. Meanwhile Cole kidnaps Railly in further attempts to unravel the mystery of the virus, while the psychiatrist at first sticks with the theory that Cole is delusional but later comes around after discovering Cole’s part of World War I history in the research materials for her book, together with the WWI bullet lodged in his leg. Unfortunately, she switches to believing Cole at the exact same time Cole himself begins to think that he’s imagining the future and time travel, insisting he really is crazy, and their roles switch. Staying astride of these events is Dr. Peters (David Morse), who works at Dr. Goines’ lab and also attends a lecture of Dr. Railly’s. He grows in importance as eventually everybody uncovers the fact that the virus was engineered as a biological weapon and implemented as an act of terrorism.

Doing your homework so far? Good, because besides everything we’ve mentioned there are galaxies of side plots and cameos ( as Railly’s supervisor is a special gem) that we won’t have room to discuss here. Twelve Monkeys acts as a police procedural with people from the future trying to solve a crime from pieced-together, unreliable information gathered by people hopping back and forth in time, sometimes triggering the very events they’re trying to investigate. A distorted phone message recording played for Cole near the beginning of the movie turns out to be placed by Railly at the end of the movie. Encounters with “Bob,” a homeless man in the past and patient/prisoner in the future, reference transmitters hidden in teeth to track the time traveler team, which prompts Cole to cut out some teeth later in hopes of shaking the supervision, but that doesn’t stop his former cellmate Jose (John Seda) from finding him in each time period, including the final confrontation at the airport. And then there’s Railly, spray-painting a desperate message to the future on the outside of the Army’s headquarters, knowing that this message will be preserved into the future and thus practically guaranteeing that Cole will appear on the street in front of her as the investigation from the future hunts down every clue. What do you know, they sent him to the right place and time for once.

Twelve Monkeys’ narrative folds back and into itself repeatedly, and again appears chaotic at first, but every characters’ thought processes are clearly explained as the movie hands you just enough clues to infer the rest of the story, but not a shred more. Even the allegedly crazy characters among the major cast make sense in their own logic and motivations. Meanwhile as bits of information are absorbed in the future, they’re distorted by misunderstandings, poor record preservation, and lack of insight into which clues are important and which are red herrings. This is part of Gilliam’s theme of media technology being untrustworthy, and there’s many more of his pet themes marched out besides: the horrors of war, biological weapons, the folly of science if scientists don’t stay rigorous, empty consumerism, and the misanthropic question of whether mankind itself deserves its place at the top of the food chain. It also insinuates a theory that religious prophecies, perhaps all of them, could be explained by stranded time travelers. Twelve Monkeys has ten movies’ worth of heavy thinking packed into its kaleidoscopic gaze. It’s a challenging movie that never runs out of new angles no matter how many times you view it. But first, you have to get past the natural human discomfort with non-linear time events; if you get lost in the nested loops of backwards effects and causes, it’s because you weren’t thinking far enough behind.


“…a spectacular mess, an excessively complicated film that attempts to be timely by blending a ‘virus’ thriller with a post-apocalyptic anti-science drama… The few joys to be had are in observing the majestic peculiarities of Gilliam’s ever-fanciful universe.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“There are relatively few shots in this movie that would look normal in any other film; everything is skewed to express the vision… Wild overacting takes place on bizarre sets that are photographed with tilt shots and wideangle lenses, and we begin to share the confusion and exhaustion of Cole. Like him, we’re wrenched back and forth through time, and dumped on the concrete floor of reality.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“…a weird meditation on time and apocalyptic possibilities.”–Frederic and Mary Anne Brussat, Spirituality and Practice


12 Monkeys | Movie Page – Universal’s official site serves double-duty for the film and TV series; it has a synopsis, some stills, the trailer, and a clip from the series

12 Monkeys – The movie’s official Facebook page is somewhat active, occasionally posting links of interest

IMDB LINK: Twelve Monkeys  (1995)


Twelve MonkeysDreams Facts – A huge compendium of articles on the film from the Gilliam fansite, including interviews with Gilliam and others, program notes, a transcription of Gilliam comments on time travel, and more links for you to follow

Terry Gilliam: Going Mainstream (Sort Of) – Contemporaneous profile of Gilliam and the film in The New York Times

Episode 368: Twelve Monkeys (1995) – The Projection Booth’s podcast on the film, with special guest Dahlia Schweitze, who discusses the disease narrative

Film locations for Twelve Monkeys (1995) – A look back at the film’s locations today


’12 Monkeys’, Explained – An attempt to explain the timeline of Twelve Monkeys. Gets most details right, but Jose is definitely screaming “I gotta find him!” in the WWI scene and then sees Cole and yells “Where are we?” So Jose isn’t glitched; Cole is, and Jose was sent back to recover him.

What was the story of 12 monkeys really about? -The denizens of Stack Exchange try puzzling out the movie. These are computer programmers and they’re struggling to figure out the recursive loops, so don’t feel bad if you don’t get it the first time.

Here’s The Most Mind-Blowing Theory About Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys – Video attempting to construct a theory that James Cole was sent back in time to be the scapegoat for starting the virus. Wrong again, because the people from the future didn’t initially know the virus was deliberately engineered, they were still collecting spiders for samples. The video starts out confidently asserting Cole “was sent back to find” Dr. Goines. Wrong wrong wrong.


12 Monkeys – Novelization of the film by Elizabeth Hand

HOME VIDEO INFO: Universal Studios released a packed special edition DVD in 2005 (buy). It features a commentary from Gilliam and producer Charles Roven, the feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary Hamster Factor & Other Tales of 12 Monkeys, the trailer, production notes, and a slideshow of concept art. A Blu-ray was released in 2009 (buy) with the same features, in higher definition.

A new, restored “Collector’s Edition” Blu-ray from Arrow Video (pre-order) has been announced for release in October 2018. It ports over all the old features and promises some new ones (although these have not been announced yet, except for new reversible artwork and an illustrated booklet with an essay from critic Nathan Rabin).

Naturally, Twelve Monkeys is available on-demand.

5 thoughts on “344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)”

  1. I was extremely fortunate to see this at a press screening about a month before its general release. I had a film critic friend who knew I was a Gilliam fanatic and who had already seen it at a press premier in New York (and who had interviewd Gilliam there!). He gave me his Philadelphia screening pass and a promotional photo signed “To Brad, Safe Dreams! Terry Gilliam.” Best gift ever!

  2. Your numbering seems to be off, or are you trying to sneak in extra movies into the 366?

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