"...5 billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997... The survivors will abandon the surface of the planet... Once again the animals will rule the world..."
— Excerpts from interview with clinically diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, April 12, 1990 — Baltimore County Hospital.
12 Monkeys is an Academy Award-nominated 1995 science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam and written by David and Janet Peoples. The film was inspired by the French short film La Jetée. It stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt, who won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor; Pitt was also nominated for an Academy Award in the same category.There is a chance that James Cole is not insane. His paranoid ravings about a post-apocalyptic future in which the world has been ravaged by a deadly virus might be true, and the Army of the Twelve Monkeys might be real. The only trouble is, if Dr. Kathryn Railly accepts this, she will have to accept a terrifying truth: The End of the World as We Know It is coming... very soon.Beware of spoilers.
This film provides examples of:
Air-Vent Passageway: The absurdity of this in real life is lampshaded when Cole vanishes from a locked room, the only other exit from which is a air vent that has not been forced open and into which he could not possibly fit.
Apocalypse Cult: The film follows a time traveler from plague-devastated 2035 sent back to 1996 to prevent an apocalyptic group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys from releasing the virus. The Army of the Twelve Monkeys didn't actually release the virus; their great act of subversion was freeing animals from a zoo. The virus was actually released by an assistant at the lab where the it was developed.
Arc Words: "The Keys are lovely this time of year."
Beauty Inversion: Brad Pitt manages to look convincingly homely and unkempt for the majority of the film.
Bedlam House: Averted. The protagonist is confined to a regular psychiatric hospital, and not to some sort of Arkham Asylum.
Bittersweet Ending: Cole is killed and 99% of humanity is about to go with him, but he did successfully locate the pure sample of the virus, and one of the scientists was able to collect it (although only through contaminating herself with it, and she could well die from it if it takes more than a few weeks to create a cure).
Book Ends: The film begins and concludes with closeups of the main character when he was a child.
Can't Take Anything With You: It seems the rule is you can't take anything that is external to your body. Cole gets the spider he swallowed back to the future just fine and the bullet that gets lodged in his leg time travels with him as well.
Contagious Cassandra Truth: The film has an interesting variation of this trope. Dr. Railly doesn't believe James Cole's claims that he's from the future, but when he disappears she investigates his claims and finds corroborating evidence. When Cole returns Dr. Railly has difficulty convincing Cole of the truth, as he has accepted her explanation that he is delusional.
Covers Always Lie: At first glance it sure looks like a cyborg on the cover. It's not until you look closer that you see it's the symbol of the Army of the 12 Monkeys.
Crying Wolf: Part of what convinces Kathryn that Cole's telling the truth is he remembers hearing as a child about a boy who pretended to be lost in a well, only to turn out to have been hiding in a barn. The event plays out as he remembers, indicating he's probably telling the truth.
Demoted Memories: Late in the film, Cole starts to believe he really is just an escaped schizophrenic and not a time-traveler.
Depraved Dentist: Cole inflicts this on himself because he believes that they track time travelers with devices implanted in their teeth. A subsequent conversation with another time-traveler implies he was right, but that they're able to locate Cole without his teeth, and the time traveler is confused as to why Cole pulled them out in the first place. It also seriously confuses the crook whom Cole had beaten up earlier:
Hey... is that the cops? I'm an innocent victim in here! I was attacked by a coked up whore and a - a fuckin' crazy dentist!
Doomsayer: Several of these, who may or may not be time travelers who have gone insane.
The End Is Nigh: One of these people stops his ranting to address the main character whilst in '96. It's implied that many doomsayers are actually time travelers scattered throughout history who have gone insane.
Gaia's Vengeance: The Army of the Twelve Monkeys—the Gaia's Avengers—release a plague that will kill all humans, including themselves, and return the earth to the care of animals.
Girl of My Dreams: Cole has repeating dreams of a woman who resembles his psychiatrist, but the recurring dream was caused by a childhood memory of seeing something horrible happen to his time-traveling future self and his lover.
Generic Graffiti: The Army of the 12 Monkeys tags the walls around their base with graffiti shaped like a ring of 12 monkeys.
Go Among Mad People: The protagonist (a man from the post-apocalyptic future sent back in time to try to prevent an unprecedented disaster) can't function in modern society and is quickly institutionalized, where his claims of being a time traveler from the future don't really help. He spends much of the rest of the movie more than half convinced that his memories of time travel are just a fantasy.
Idiot Ball: The Airport Security Guard. When a scientist has a specially sealed case and tells you the vials inside contain "biological samples", what in the name of sanity would make you want him to open it?
Especially if one can see that there is nothing but colorless gas inside.
Large Ham: Brad Pitt's acting is gloriously over-the-top.
The Law of Conservation of Detail: During Dr. Railly's speech she briefly shows an etching of a man from the 1100s proclaiming the end of the world in 1996. Later on when James arrives in 1996 you see that man preaching on the side of a street corner. Also another example is a phone message heard by Cole in the 'present' is later found out to be made by Dr. Railly.
Mad Oracle: It's implied that at least one such oracle is actually a time traveler who landed in the wrong era, since he sees James and says: "You! You are one of us!"
Meanwhile, in the Future: There are characters communicating with scientists in the future with a business's answering machine in the "present", which a team of scientists spend months and years recovering from the decayed magnetic tape. While the continuity is well-explained, the interaction between future and present, even with the time machine, is relatively sequential.
Mind Screw: For the viewer, although by the end it becomes comprehensible. Also, for James, who starts to think he really is insane and that he imagined traveling from the future. It's mentioned that this happens to all time travelers. Finally, for Katherine, first as she starts to realize that James must have come from the future, and later when she starts to "remember" things that never actually happened (when they put on the disguises and she says he looks familiar.)
Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Dr. Railly pronounces "advertisement" in a way no American ever would. Ironic since the actress, Madeleine Stowe, is American.
Person as Verb: Cole is referred to as having "pulled a Houdini." He was a time traveler, and got pulled back out of impossible-to-escape restraints.
Photographic Memory: Or something like it. Cole is selected for the expeditions because, although mentally disturbed, he possesses an extremely accurate memory for details and information, and at one point is able to recite a distorted message word-for-word after hearing it once, days earlier.
The Plague: The virus, which is virulent enough to force the remaining survivors underground.
Plague Master: The antagonist released a deadly plague in multiple cities across the world which ended up causing the human survivors to live underground.
Poke the Poodle: It is revealed that the horrifyingly evil plot of The Army of the Twelve Monkeys amounts to releasing some animals from a zoo, which stops traffic, but no more.
Ray of Hope Ending: Protagonist James Cole, a time traveler from After the End, dies trying (and failing) to stop the villain from releasing the virus that triggers The End of the World as We Know It. But in the next scene, another time traveler appears in disguise to speak with the villain — implying that, thanks to Cole's work, the scientists of the future will finally get a pure sample of the virus so they can make a vaccine. The past can't be changed, but the future can still be saved.
Red Herring: The Army of the Twelve Monkeys didn't release the virus.
The Schizophrenia Conspiracy: Jeffrey Goines is a paranoid schizophrenic, while James Cole is a man sent back in time to save the Future from a viral plague but everyone assumes he's a paranoid schizophrenic because he claims he was sent back in time to save the Future from a viral plague. Additionally, most of the other patients at the hospital Cole was at were quite paranoid or delusional.
Shaggy Dog Story: Ultimately, James does not stop the virus and dies in front of his child self.
Stockholm Syndrome: Someone suggests to Kathryn Railly that she is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after she puts James Cole's multiple killings in context by saying that the victims were thugs who had tried to kill them both.
Subtitles Always Spoil: Some versions of the movie have subtitles that label the voice on the recording "Kathryn's voice", despite Cole specifically saying the voice was unidentifiable later in the movie.
This Is My Chair: Candidate for Trope Namer is the mentally insane Jeffrey Goines, who reacts like the loon he is when he sees another patient seated in his favorite chair.
Wig, Dress, Accent: Used at the end, when the protagonists use store bought disguises (a glued on mustache for the man and a blonde wig for the woman) to get through airport security and escape to Florida.
Write Back to the Future: As Cole prepares to travel from the future, he is given the telephone number of an answering machine whose tape was found in archaeological research; the whole end-of-the-world problem ensured the tape was not erased for reuse (say that ten times fast).