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Film / 12 Monkeys

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"...Five 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 a 1995 science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam and written by David and Janet Peoples. It is based on the famous French experimental short film La Jetée. It stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt, who won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor and was nominated for an Academy Award in the same category.

There is a chance that asylum patient James Cole (Willis) is not insane. That he might really be a time traveler from a post-apocalyptic future. That the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, and the deadly virus he claims they plan to release, are all real. The only trouble is, if Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe) accepts this, she will have to accept an even more terrifying truth: that The End of the World as We Know It is coming, and soon.

Beware of spoilers.

The film was adapted into a television series for Syfy, which premiered in January 2015.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Lots, when updating a 28-minute short to a 129-minute movie. Notably, the entire Army of the Twelve Monkeys plot is new to the movie.
  • Adaptation Title Change: AS mentioned above, the movie is an American remake of the 1962 French short film La Jetée.
  • 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 an air vent that has not been forced open and into which he could not possibly fit.
  • After the End: Cole's 'present'.
  • All Just a Dream: Played with for the central protagonist. There are some hints:
    • 1. James believes he may be delusional and his lack of social skills and ability to remember minute details are evidence. Likewise we get no explanation as to where the voice he hears is coming from and why people from his present keep showing up at random times.
    • 2. There are a lot of similarities between the present prison and the past hospital, most notably the guards and panel of doctors from each timeline. Plus, the time machine is strikingly similar to the CT Scanner the camera focuses on for longer than seems necessary.
    • 3. We never get any explanation as to how the few remaining survivors, who have no immunity to the virus, managed to build an intricate underground city and have the capability of building a time machine but have no apparent source of food, water, or even breathable air.
    • At the very end of the story, it is subverted when James gets over his mental breakdown and tries to attack Peters, which ends with him dead and Peters still alive to spread the virus, completing the Stable Time Loop.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: WE DID IT! They're not confessing to the virus, but to the animals they released as a protest.
  • Animal Motifs: Monkeys, which appear in the mysterious graffiti throughout the city.
  • Animal Wrongs Group: The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is an animal rights group blamed for the spread of a deadly super-virus that killed most of humanity. They end up having nothing to do with it.
  • 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 it was developed.
  • Apocalypse How: Billions die to a killer virus, released by a mad scientist named Dr. Peters.
  • 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.
  • Big Bad: Dr. Peters is the one who releases the plague on humanity.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The French soldiers in the WW1 scene are not subtitled.
  • 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.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Discussed. Cole can't get people to believe that he's from the future and needs to find the virus sample to save humanity.
    • During Dr. Railly's lecture, her audience has a good chuckle when she talks of a doomsayer in the Middle Ages who foretold that the world would be destroyed by a virus in the same year the lecture is taking place in. It's implied this is another time traveller who got stranded in the wrong century.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Brad Pitt goes somewhat over-the-top in his scenes in the madhouse, but it works.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • The medieval alarmist mentioned by Dr. Railly in her lecture appears later in 1996 Philadelphia as an apocalypse evangelist, who reveals to Cole that he, like Cole, is a time traveler. He turns out to be unimportant to the plot.
    • Dr. Peters is introduced as someone who attended Dr. Railly's lecture "Madness and Apocalyptic Visions" and turns out to be the guy who spread the virus.
    • Jose at first seems just like a guy to give Cole some exposition on forced volunteering. Then, he shows up on the WW1 battlefield to highlight the the multiple missions and dangers of time travel. Finally, he shows up at the end as the messenger to force Cole onto the suicide mission.
    • The three animal rights protestors operating Freedom for Animals Association—Teddy, Fale, and Bee—initially seem to be unrelated to the Army of the Twelve Monkeys but later show up helping Jeffrey.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Jeffrey. It is implied that it is at least somewhat Obfuscating Insanity.
  • 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.
  • Convenient Photograph: Dr. Kathryn Railly is giving a lecture on the psychology of doomsday predictions, and pulls up a photograph of a delirious man in a World War One field hospital who claimed to be a time traveler from the future, trying to prevent an apocalypse. Then Dr. Railly meets James Cole, who similarly claims to be from the future, on a mission to prevent The End of the World as We Know It. She initially dismisses this as a delusion, but the consistent details of Cole's story make her start to think he might be right. Eventually she reexamines the materials from her lecture—and recognizes Cole as a background figure in photograph of the World War One patient, convincing her that he really is a time traveller.
  • 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.
  • Crapsack World: The future, where a plague has killed 99% of humanity and the rest live in an underground Dystopia where prisoners are treated like animals.
  • 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.
  • Cuckoo Nest: After arriving to 1990 Baltimore, Cole quickly ends up in an asylum, whose doctors believe that his warnings of the virus are just delusions. Much later, after returning to the future from the year of 1996, he finds himself in a hospital bed and comes to believe that he is still at the asylum.
  • Demoted Memories: Late in the film, Cole starts to believe he really is just an escaped schizophrenic and not a time-traveler. He gets over it.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: Who is the leader of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys? None other than Cole's fellow mental hospital inmate Jeffrey Goines. Ultimately subverted, since he and his Army had nothing to do with releasing the virus.
  • Doomsayer: 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.
  • Dramatic Irony: The man who is really behind the release of the virus gets on the airplane and is seated next to a woman who, decades later, will send Cole on his mission into the past. When the man asks what she does for a living, she replies, "I'm in insurance."
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Kinda.
  • Dull Surprise: Bruce Willis, which is very well justified by his character being either heavily sedated or emotionally traumatized for most of the movie. In addition, it provides a perfect contrast for Brad Pitt's maniacal bombast.
  • Eco-Terrorist: Evidence points to The Army of the 12 Monkeys being responsible for the release of the virus, but they're just the Red Herring. The actual creator of the plague was Dr. Peters, an assistant at a virology lab — who had spoken before about the "lunacy" of mankind's environmental destruction.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Philadelphia's skyline, particularly Liberty Place, is seen quite a bit, it's also rather large. The Benjamin Franklin Bridge is inevitably featured as well.
  • "End Is Nigh" Ending: Downplayed. The pandemic's aftermath is amply depicted in scenes of the future, and the movie ends with the post-apocalyptic time traveler failing to change events in the slightest, although his boss appears at the end to collect a viral sample and thus, make the more distant future less grim. The person carrying the deadly virus is then forced to open the canister by airport security, which is the exact moment that dooms mankind. We never get to see the virus spread, but we already know that it's inevitable.
  • Escaped Animal Rampage: The final act shows the eponymous Animal Wrongs Group releasing the animals of the local zoo, causing all sorts of pandemonium and their "we did it!" message spray-painted all over the city setting them up as the Red Herring for the cause of The End of the World as We Know It.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In her lecture on doomsayers, Dr. Railly mentions that Jose disappeared from the WW1 hospital, which hints that he’ll show up again.
    • Dr. Peters first appears at Dr. Railly's lecture and at the autograph session, tells Dr. Railly that the doomsayers have a point since mankind is destroying the Earth with atomic bombs, pollution, etc. Subsequently, it is revealed that Peters is the assistant to Dr. Leland Goines, the virologist.
  • Gaia's Vengeance: The purpose of the virus is to restore the natural world by eradicating mankind. The Army of the Twelve Monkeys, an Animal Wrongs Group, are the culprits. Only they aren't. The real culprit is a creepy assistant in Christopher Plummer's virology lab.
  • Gas Mask Mooks: The French soldiers when James is accidentally sent to 1917. It's mentioned later that they were countering a mustard gas attack that killed thousands.
  • 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.
  • Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke: The nuclear war from La Jetée is replaced by a bioengineered virus as the cause of the end of civilization.
  • 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.
  • Got Volunteered: The movie opens with Cole being selected for Volunteer Duty, which involves him going up to the virus-infected surface in a Hazmat Suit to gather samples. While ostensibly the prisoners are offered a reduction in sentence, those 'volunteered' either go insane or simply disappear — Cole finds out why when he's asked to join a special program.
    Scientist: For a man in your position, an opportunity not to volunteer would be a mistake...
    Scientist 2: Definitely a mistake...
  • Graffiti of the Resistance: The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is a terrorist organization blamed for spreading a deadly super-virus that caused the destruction of most of humanity. When James Cole is sent back in time for intelligence and attempts to stop them against orders, he uses the Army's graffiti depicting twelve monkeys in a ring to locate them. In the end this trope gets subverted, since the Army is actually just an animal rights group that had nothing to do with the virus.
  • The Hero Dies: Cole is killed before he can stop the virus from being unleashed on the world.
  • Hospital Hottie: Dr. Kathryn Railly.
  • 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.
  • Irony: "I've done my job, I did what you wanted. Good luck. I'm not coming back."
  • Just Before the End: 1996 is the year the killer virus was released, so Cole's trips to it are just before the end.
  • 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 1995. 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.
  • Madness Shared by Two: Dr. Kathryn Railly fears this is happening to her when she gets involved with her psychiatric patient James Cole, who claims to be from the future when most of humanity has been wiped out by a man-made plague. Ultimately subverted when he recites a phone call she made he couldn't possibly have overheard; he's telling the truth, and the world is about to end.
  • 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!"
  • A Match Made in Stockholm: Cole hooks up with Kathryn, who he kidnapped when he was sent to 1996. Although they fall in love long after the kidnapping, during which Kathryn is nothing but terrified of him and tries everything to escape.
  • 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.
  • Messianic Archetype: James Cole's initials are no coincidence. He gives his life trying (and failing) to stop The End of the World as We Know It, but his work provides a complete sample of the virus so the scientists of the future can create a vaccine. The Cassandra Truth and True Companions elements of this trope are also played completely straight.
  • Mickey Mousing: When he's introduced, Jeffrey Goines pops his head out of the collar of his shirt synchronized to a BOING sound effect from a cartoon playing on TV.
  • 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.)
  • Misanthrope Supreme: The villains, who engineer a lethal virus.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: Cole encounters a bear in the city while collecting samples in the future. Releasing zoo animals was the Army Of The Twelve Monkeys' real plan.
  • Mobstacle Course: The climax takes place in such a scene at the airport.
  • Mooning: Jeffrey Goines does this to the security staff at a mental institution while acting up.
  • Musical Spoiler: The first clue of Brad Pitt's involvement with the Army of the 12 Monkeys is when the "12 Monkeys" leitmotif plays during one of his rants.
  • Never My Fault: Cole has no control over what year the machine sends him to, but when he ends up in 1990 instead of 1996, the scientists blame that mistake on him.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Cole delivers one to an aggressive pimp for threatening Reilly, which horrifies her even more.
  • Non-Indicative Name: The film isn't about twelve monkeys, nor is it about the Army of the Twelve Monkeys that the title alludes to. The organization and the title itself are red herrings.
  • No-Tell Motel: Cole and Railly visit an hourly hotel to work out just what the hell is going on with their lives in privacy. The clerk assumes that she's a prostitute and that they're role playing some sort of doctor/patient fetish. Later, a pimp arrives and accuses her of turning tricks in his territory.
  • Oh, Crap!: Near the end of the film, Railly calls the phone number Cole gave her. She comes back and starts reciting the message she left...only for Cole to remember it as the tape recording in the future, reciting it with her. This causes both of them to realize that he was telling the truth and that the world is about to end.
  • Ominous Multiple Screens
    • Cole is questioned and briefed by the panel of scientists while strapped to a Shackle Seat Trap as a sinister globe holding a confusing array of cameras, microphones and video screens is held in front of his face.
    Terry Gilliam: You try to see the faces on the screens in front of you, but the real faces and voices are down there and you have these tiny voices in your ear. To me that's the world we live in, the way we communicate these days, through technical devices that pretend to be about communication but may not be.
  • Once More, with Clarity!:
    • The damaged phone recording is cryptic and eerily distorted, but later we watch it being made, revealing who recorded it and why.
    • The ending is a repeat of the beginning, cluing the audience in that the film is a Stable Time Loop.
  • 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.
  • Population Control: Suggested by the fact that Cole lives in an Underground City with limited resources, and his rap sheet lists "anti-social sex" as an offense.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: NO! MORE! MONKEY! BUSINESS!!!
  • "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.
  • Reluctant Psycho: Cole's generally relatively calm, if confused, but he has some violent outbursts that suggest that he might be a prisoner for good reason.
  • Ruins of the Modern Age: James' trip into the ruins of Philadelphia.
  • 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: Subverted. James does not stop the virus and dies in front of his child self; however, the ending hints that his actions might have made all the difference for the future development of the cure.
  • Shout-Out: Cole and Railly attend an Alfred Hitchcock movie marathon just before they go to the airport and catch a viewing of Vertigo. It gives Railly the idea to dye her hair blonde.
  • Significant Monogram: James Cole.
  • Sinister Tango Music: The title theme is also the leitmotif of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, the Animal Wrongs Group believed responsible for causing the apocalypse. It's written and performed by legendary tango musician Astor Piazzolla.
  • Sole Surviving Scientist: Averted as there's a committee of them that 'volunteers' Cole for the time travel program. Though not all of them may be scientists, as Jones later identifies herself as working in the insurance business.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: One of the most glorious examples.
  • Stable Time Loop: As a child, Cole witnessed his own death, showing that everything that he does was already going to happen.
  • 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.
  • Temporal Sickness: The process of time travel seems to cause psychological harm. Cole shares rumors with Jose that the other inmates who Got Volunteered for the trip wound up in the psych ward. His own trips through time seem to strain Cole's mind.
  • 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.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The longer Cole stays in one timeline, the more he begins to doubt his memories of the other one.
  • Tracking Chip: Cole is told by a Crazy Homeless Person that he has a tracking chip in his teeth. He removes them just in case this is true, but Jose is later able to track him down without difficulty, and asks why he took his teeth out.
  • The Unreveal: Who, or what, the voice who keep addressing Cole as "Bob" are is never revealed.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Cole's memory of what happened at the airport is hazy because he was a boy at the time.
  • Unstuck in Time: Happens with Cole getting lost in the past because the time machine used is very unreliable and unpredictable.
  • The Virus: Cole's mission is to get an original sample of the virus that wiped out nearly all of humanity so that the people of the future can cure it and return to the surface.
  • What Year Is This?: Cole gets sent to the wrong year several times, so he has to figure out when he is a few times.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: To La Jetée, a French New Wave film made up entirely of still images.
  • 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.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: All the time travelers go insane from the stresses involved in time travel; hence government use of expendable prisoners for this task.
  • 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.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Played straight.
  • You Are Too Late: Even if Cole hadn't been shot down by airport security and had succeeded in taking down the rogue scientist, the virus had already been released to the Airport Security Guard.