Study Guide for 12 Monkeys

1. Citation

12 Monkeys Directed by Terry Gilliam. USA: Universal Pictures, 1995. Script by David and Janet
        Peoples, inspired by La Jetée.

La Jetee (The Jetway). Written, directed and produced by Chris Marker. France: Argos Films, 1963.

2. Major Cast

James Cole: Bruce Willis Dr. Kathryn Railly: Madeline Stowe
Jeffrey Goines: Brad Pitt Dr. Goines: Christopher Plummer
Dr. Peters (Dr. Goines's assistant): David Morse Jose: Jon Seda
Young Cole: Joseph Melito

Scientists in 2035: H. Michael Walls, Bob Adrian, Simon Jones, Carol Florence, Bill Raymond, Ernest Abuba

3. Plot Summary

In 1996 a deadly virus swept across the earth, killing 5 billion people. The survivors moved underground, leaving the surface of the earth to be ruled by wild animals. Now, in 2035, prisoner James Cole has "volunteered" to return to 1996 as part of a scientific research, in hopes that man will be able to re-inhabit the surface of the earth. His mission: to find the "Army of the 12 Monkeys" who, it is believed, were responsible for the release of the virus.

But Cole is sent to the wrong time--1990. Ranting about a deadly virus, he is institutionalized and put under the care of Dr. Railly, a beautiful psychiatrist. In the institution he meets Jeffrey Goines, a truly insane troublemaker. Cole is brought back to 2035 before he can find out anything useful. He is given another chance, and sent back in time again.

After appearing during World War I just long enough for plot development, Cole emerges in 1996. He kidnaps Railly and the two of them take off for Philadelphia, the origin of the virus and home of the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Cole locates them, and their leader, Goines, before disappearing to 2035 again. In 2035 Cole is regarded as a hero, and given a pardon, but his only desire is to return to 1996--the air, the sky, and Railly. Now believing himself to be "mentally divergent," he convinces the scientists to allow him to return to 1996 where he and Railly plan an escape. But it is not meant to be; forced to follow orders from the future in hopes of stopping the spread of the virus, Cole is gunned down (as an 8-year-old Cole watches).

4. Comments and Questions

Opening sequence of Cole preparing to search for specimens--arming of knight/ascent into hell. Note it is an ascent, not a descent, though. What makes Cole an ideal "volunteer" is his ability to remember. He's a good observer and strong mentally. He will later label himself "mentally divergent"--is there a connection between being mentally strong and mentally divergent?

Televisions figure prominently in the film. What do we see on TV? Cartoons, animal rights programs, advertisements (Florida Keys), Marx Brothers, news updates. What purpose do TVs play in terms of plot development? What does it say about 1990's television habits? What purpose does the giant globe with screens in 2035 play?

Contrast Goines's story about germs and Cole's eating of the spider. It's too much for even Goines to take. Compare Goines's facial reaction to that of Madame Scientist when Cole tells her about eating the spider.

During Cole's escape attempt, the security guard tells him to use the other elevator. But the guard who talks to him is not the same person who is there a moment later--it's the prison guard from 2035. What's going on here? Is Cole imagining this, is he insane, or are the scientists of the future following him?

The only time we see the actual time travel mechanism is when Cole goes to WWI/1996 the first time. Does it matter that we don't really understand how the mechanism "works"? Note that we never actually get to witness his arrival or departure. What does this do for the argument that Cole is just crazy?

Cole's "dream" sequences are not all alike (or accurate for that matter). The point of view changes, so they are not purely his memories. During one sequence he will remember Goines at the airport--another distortion of the truth. How does this figure in our understanding of his memory? What does this do for Railly's argument that he has constructed the dream sequence (and his insanity) out of bits and pieces of reality?

The street evangelist quotes the same passage Railly did in her speech, and he looks remarkably like the illustration she shows. What does his singling Cole out as "one of us," show?

There are Hitchcock references throughout the film -- Cole and Railly are in the theater during a Hitchcock marathon, where extended sequences of Hitchcock films are played; music from Vertigo is used; the title sequence is similar to Vertigo -- what statement is being made through all of this? What is the effect of having a movie character utter the line, "the movie never changes, it can't change. But every time you see it, it seems different because you're different"?

What should we make of Railly's insistence that she's met Cole before? She may recognize him from the picture taken during WWI, but note her line as they leave the movie theater, "This is how I remember you." For Cole, it really has been Railly all the time, but she can't have known him.

What should we make of Madame Scientist's appearance on the plane at the end? Has she too, traveled in time? If so, does this indicate that the future may be changed? Will she stop the virus from spreading or just get a sample of the virus in order to study it and re-inhabit the surface of planet? Do we think about what will happen to Railly next?

Does this film really care about animal rights or animal rights activists? Goines says a lot about how ineffectual the peaceful protesters are... he may be crazy, but Goines has a lot of important things in this film (see below). Or is it just a convenient backdrop?

How much do we want to make of the Christ figure images? Cole's initials are JC, he dies in order to save humanity (does he?), and he does open his arms awful wide before hitting the floor at the airport. Any other indications?

Some other random questions . . .

Why doesn't anyone in 1990/1996 question Cole about his bar code tattoo?

Why the Florida Keys?

When we see the beds in the mental hospital they are in a circle. But there are 13 of them, not 12, which would make sense. Why?

Why does Railly change the radio station when Cole asks her to turn the volume up?

Since when does a psychiatry degree make one qualified to remove bullets?

Why a teddy bear blanket when Cole is in the hospital in 2035?

How does Cole know which teeth to cut out?

The Hitchcock marathon marquee shows Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho . . . but we see The Birds playing.

What's with Dr. Peters's blue underwear at the airport?

5. Visuals

Gilliam uses duplicated/repeated images in different contexts. Especially interesting is the use of photographs and newspaper clippings which Cole sees in 2035 and then again in 1996 (ex. the photograph of Dr. Goines he shows to the animal rights activists is the same one the scientists had shown him). The irony of the shopping sequence depends upon our memory that we've seen those images before (ex. the angel in the department store).

Some other parallel images:

  • Disaffection at Prison / delousing at mental institution

  • Cole's interview by scientists in 2035 / review board in mental institution
  • Bear on TV / bear in wasteland Philadelphia / bear in store window
  • Locked room in mental hospital / holding cell in 2035
  • MRI machine / time travel apparatus
  • Cole's hand on Railly's cheek in car jacking / at airport
  • Foliage at "Army" HQ / foliage at Dr. Goines's party
  • Cole's time travel experience / first few seconds of him running in the forest
  • Young Cole's eyes at beginning / end

Other repeated visual motifs:

  • Glasses/goggles
  • Plastics
  • Tubes and tunnels
  • Statues (especially of animals)

For the most part, the cinematography is straightforward shots. Note, however, the use of high angle shots when Cole is trapped or pursued, and angled, off-kilter shots in the mental institution.

12 Monkeys is also important for its vision of the future. 2035 is clearly visualized as a dystopia, it's not a happy place to be, very gray and dirty feeling. While the underground world is very emphatically mechanized, note that it's not very high tech. Everything looks as though it was pieced together out of things available in 1996 (intentional, considering plot line and possibility it's all in Cole's head). Note that when Cole goes above ground, it's winter. There were no nuclear weapons involved here... the world has (presumably) gone on as normal, just minus humans. What is the significance of depicting the world above ground covered in snow?

In terms of a hierarchical structure, note that the animals are above ground while humans are bellow--if higher is commensurate with power (Blade Runner, Metropolis), are the animals more powerful? Do they have control over humans? Within the human world there are also hierarchies. The prisoners must be lifted up in order to participate in "volunteer duty", and we are told that those who have returned from duty are kept on the 7th floor--is this above or below the regular prisoners? When he sits before the scientists, Cole's chair is elevated--presumably to intimidate him and increase feeling of helplessness--but it places him above them. He has a power which they do not.

6. 12 Monkeys and La Jetee

Chris Marker's 1963 film La Jetee is the story of a man with a vision. Only 28 minutes long, it is made up of entirely in black and white still shots (with one exception). In this future, the world has been destroyed by World War III, and the survivors have moved underground. They look to time travel to save their lives--going into the future in hopes that the future will provide them with much needed supplies. But time travel has its drawbacks--it drives people insane.

Enter our hero, a man with a memory. It is his memory of a day spent at the airport (la jetee) as a young boy when he saw a man die. What he remembers most, however, is the face of a woman at the end of the concourse. The scientists seize upon this memory and send him back in time to meet this woman, and "practice" for his eventual mission into the future. The man falls in love with the woman, of course, and is upset when the scientists no longer have a need for him. The people of the future contact him and send him back to be with the woman he loves. But, as the narrator explains, "One cannot escape time"; he is followed by scientists of his own time who kill him... at the airport, while he (as a young boy) and the woman of his memory watch.

In La Jetee, the image of the past play an all important role-- it is this memory which singles the man out as an ideal candidate for time travel. For Cole, his memory is a "dream," which haunts him, but does not necessitate his travel. The man knows he is finally getting to meet the woman of his memory; for Cole it seems a coincidence. The time paradox, too, is further spelled out in La Jetee--the man realizes he had seen the moment of his own death. We don't know if Cole has understood his situation (we can guess that Railly has). 12 Monkeys takes the same basic structure and uses it to look at madness and science, whereas in La Jetee the story line is the impetus for an exploration of memory and time.

7. Themes

Authority: Though perhaps a minor theme, there are a lot of examples of authority, most of them portraying negative images. They are manipulative ("not to volunteer would be a bad idea"), brutal (the police beat up Cole; mental institution orderlies beat up Goines), apathetic (one of the mental institution board sprays breath freshener during Cole's interview), patronizing (the police detective's attitude towards Railly), and give orders without much care about the people whom they oversee. Jeffrey Goines questions the role of authority ("crazy is majority rules"), and Cole (and eventually Railly) sees them as a hindrance to what needs to be done. They all seem fairly effective at their jobs, but this may be the problem--their jobs invariably involve keeping themselves in power and keeping everyone else out of power.

Love and Romance: The love story between Cole and Railly is not secondary to the plot--Cole returns to 1996 in large part because he is in love with Railly. Railly herself does not begin to grow or change (or do anything effective) until she begins to love Cole. But in the end the question remains, Does it matter? Even with their love Cole and Railly are unable to stop the destruction of the human race. That they give up trying in order to try to be together is admirable from the Hopeless Romantic standpoint, but it may not be enough.

Time and Fate: While not necessarily a theme per se, time travel, and all its related trappings, is integral to the movie. Cole's attitude that time can't be changed ("How can I save you, this already happened") seems paradoxical for someone who believes he is acting in the present. Yet this is the attitude he takes up until the final moments, where the implication is that if he shoots Dr. Peters the human race may be saved-- he could make a difference after all. (If this is true, though, what's to stop the scientists from sending back another time traveler to kill him? see below for one suggestion) After all, we have only Cole's word to go on here. Do we ever see Cole change the future? Any impact his appearance in 1990/1996 may have we see in 2035 before that event happens in 1996 (ex. Railly's spray painting). We don't know if Cole ever understands that his dream was actually the truth of his own death--a time loop paradox only if that memory was integral to him being in the airport, which it is not. If we accept the idea that Cole is crazy, it may have been just a dream (or a psychic vision, etc.), after all.

The Dangers of Science: Science and scientists don't exactly get good PR in this film. The scientists in 2035 are manipulative, demanding and shrewish (they are also a source of comedy, at their own expense "We're sending you to 1996 now, right on the money"). While they may somewhat redeem themselves in pardoning Cole, their demands that he cooperate and use of Railly as a hostage at the end earn our dislike right back. After all, why can't he stay there with her? If we disregard the idea that the future can't be changed, does the scientists insistence in curing the surface of the earth have anything to do with their desire to stay in power? Dr. Goines and his assistant also present threats in the name of science. For all his speech about having "no reason to fear the power we have at hand" and Jeffrey's assertion that, "my father's been warning people about the dangers of DNA research for years", it is science which will eventually destroy human life as we know it. True, it may only be one apocalyptic nut with access to science, but all it takes is one. Do we need to be afraid of the power we have at hand? The poet who introduces the 1990 segment seems to be complaining that words have lost their meaning under the weight of science and technology mumbo jumbo. Words are "tinier even than science." Are we in danger of losing our self expression under the oppression of science?

Madness: One of the key issues of this film is the question of Madness. Madness is everywhere--Jose mentions that the "volunteers" all go mad, Cole lands himself in a mental institution, Goines is certainly at least a little bit crazy, Dr. Railly is a shrink; in fact the whole world may be insane. Amidst all this, we have the central question of Cole: is he from the future, or just "mentally divergent"? Cole convinces himself he's mad ("wouldn't it be great if I was crazy") at the same time Dr. Railly is convinced he's from the future--they can't both be right. The evidence is out there, perhaps equally convincing on both sides. If he's from the future (and sane), how do you explain the voice he hears (the bum who calls him Bob), the changing faces of the guard, the fact that no one ever sees him come or go in time, the changes in his dream/memory? If he's mentally divergent, how do you explain his foreknowledge about the boy in the well, his appearance in the WWI photograph and bullet in his leg, his disappearance from the locked room? In either case, the movie seems to be implying that we are no more crazy than the world we live in.

Ambiguity: Is Dr. Goines's assistant part of the Army of the 12 Monkeys? Is Madame Scientist going to save the world? Does Dr. Peters really spread a deadly virus that kills 5 billion people? Is James Cole from the future or is he insane? Why are there so many unanswered questions?

8. The Wisdom of Jeffrey Goines (minus stutters)

  • On Television: "It's all right there... look, listen, kneel, pray."
  • On Consumerism: "We're consumers. Buy a lot of stuff, you're a good citizen. If you don't, you're mentally ill."
  • On Control: "You play the games, you're voluntarily taking a tranquilizer"
  • On Relativism: "There's no right, there's no wrong, there's only popular opinion"
  • On Insanity: "If all these nuts could just make phone calls it could spread insanity, oozing through phone lines, oozing to the ears of all those poor sane people . . . plague of madness"
  • On Boundaries: "They're protecting the people on the outside from us, when the people on the outside are as crazy as us."
  • On Expectations: "I'm a mental patient, I'm supposed to act out."
  • On Planning: "Wiping out the human race... that's a great idea. More of a long term thing."

. . . and they said this guy was crazy.

9. Works Consulted / For More Information

Unfortunately, a lot of this represents virtual sources . . . they are supposedly out there, but Miami doesn't have many of them.

12 Monkeys FAQ (frequently asked questions list)

Cinefantastique 27.6 (February 1996)

Coates, Paul. "Chris Marker and the Cinema as Time Machine," Science Fiction Studies November 1987, p. 307.

Internet Movie Database,

James, Nick. "Time and the Machine," Sight and Sound, April 1996, p. 14.

Morgan, David. "Extremities," Sight and Sound, January 1996, p.18.

Rubin, Sabrina. "Armageddon in our Backyard," Philadelphia Magazine, January 1996, p. 72.