Twelve Monkeys is science fiction film that involves time travel. It stars Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe in lead roles. The film was directed by Terry Gilliam who gave us hard to watch movies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas & The Zero Theorem. The story is set in a future where a deadly virus has killed most living things on the planet. The remaining humans live underground. A group of scientists are trying to find a cure to the virus that is plaguing the planet. But they need to get more information on the virus before the strain mutated. This means they need to send someone back in time to the year the virus initially spread. Watching the movie after all these years does lower the impact but is definitely a good watch. Here’s the explanation of the plot and ending of the film 12 Monkeys.
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12 Monkeys: Plot Explained
Let’s get the basic facts out of the way
Events in 2035 in 12 Monkeys:
- The surviving human race lives underground because the virus is still rampant on the surface.
- Scientists are still trying to find a cure for the virus.
- They need more information on the virus before it mutated.
- The world believes that The Army of the Twelve Monkeys was responsible for the virus. This is from a broken voice transmission saying something about the Army.
- Cole (Bruce) is a prisoner who the scientists want to train and send back in time to get more information on the virus.
- Using that information they can create the cure.
- The scientists are NOT trying to change the past by sending Cole there. They know that changing the past is not possible because it has happened and it will always continue to have happened (a predestination approach to time travel). They only want some information from the past to help fix their present.
Events in 1996 in 12 Monkeys:
- Jeffrey Goines (Brad) is the founder of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.
- The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is NOT responsible for the virus epidemic, they only want to free animals from a zoo.
- Dr. Peters is an assistant at Jeffrey’s dad’s virology lab. He is the one who is responsible for the virus epidemic.
- Why does Dr. Peters do it? Well, he hates the world for what it has become and wants to destroy it. That’s about it. He is an apocalypse nut.
Let’s walk through the story through the life events of Cole.
Young Cole in 12 Monkeys
Cole is a small boy in 1996 and is in the same airport where Dr.Peters is leaving with the strain of the virus. Young Cole sees a dude running with a gun in the airport and the authorities shoot the dude. A blonde woman sits crying over the dead dude. Cole continues to see this imagery for years as a recurring dream. He doesn’t know who the dude or the blonde woman are. But for a kid it is quite traumatic to see someone getting killed.
* the dude with the gun is Cole’s older self who has traveled back in time to 1996. As the audience, we are shown this only at the climax of the film. We’ll come back to this later.
12 Monkeys: Virus Outbreak
Dr. Peters comfortably gets cleared at the security. The virus is in the form of a colourless and odourless gas. After this, he travels to a couple of the major capital cities of the world and releases the virus there. Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Kinshasa, Karachi, Bangkok, then Peking. The virus starts to infect, spread and kill people world wide. Effectively Dr. Peters creates doomsday.
Years pass, the surviving humans live underground. Over the years, the virus has mutated and the scientists are unable to find the original strain and come up with a cure. Finally the time machine is invented. The scientists in this movie theorize that events of the past are immutable. They can not be altered. So, they don’t try and stop the virus from being created. However, they do want to get more details on the original strain of the virus in 1996 and use that information to make the cure.
Prisoner Cole (Old Cole) in 12 Monkeys
In 2035, Cole is a prisoner. They don’t explain what leads him to become a prisoner. But they give him the opportunity to go back in time and help them getting details on where the original strain of the virus emerged. After that, they plan on sending a scientist to that very location in time to study the strain more. The scientists are monitoring one particular voice mail number in 1996 to get information anyone leaves on it. This is supposed to be the mode of communication for Cole with the scientists of 2035. They attempt to send Cole to 1996 but due to a machine glitch, Cole ends up in 1990 in Baltimore. Due to the reasons that Cole is giving about time travel, they throw him in a mental asylum under Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine). Cole tries to make the call to the voicemail number but it is 6 years too soon and the number belongs to another person. Cole is unable to prove that he’s from the future.
Sent to 1990. Jeffrey Goines
In the asylum, Cole meets Jeffrey Goines. Jeffrey has some radical ideas about the world and he wants to inspire a change. Cole tries to escape but gets caught and thrown into solitary confinement. Cole is pulled back into 2035 leaving the folks of 1990 confused about Cole’s disappearance. Cole begins to hallucinate a voice that calls him Bob. This voice appears many times through the film. It is merely a voice from within Cole’s head, not a real person or fellow time traveler. The scientists ask Cole the meaning of a message they intercepted from 1996. The message is a woman saying:
The Freedom for Animals Association on Second Avenue is the secret headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. They are the ones who are going to do it. I can’t do any more. I have to go now. Have a merry Christmas.
Sent to 1996
Cole obviously has no idea what this message is and explains to the scientists that he was sent to the wrong time, to 1990 instead of 1996. They show Cole some photographs of possible suspects from their other research. One of the photos is of Jeffrey which Cole identifies. They send Cole back again, this time to 1996. But again a glitch sends Cole back to the middle of World War I (pre 1920s). His leg gets shot at the war. A fellow traveler Jose is also transported to the same time by mistake. But the glitch gets corrected and Cole is transported instantaneously to 1996. We don’t know what happens to Jose at this point.
in 1996, Cole finds Kathryn and kidnaps her. She recollects him from the asylum. He gets her to drive them to Philadelphia saying that is where the attack is going to happen. They head to the Animal’s Association and ask for the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Over there they learn that Jeffery is the head of this underground army. Cole and Kathryn leave and she helps get the bullet out of his leg. Cole eventually meets Jeffrey and tells him that he’s not here to change anything and that he just wants some information. He asks him for the location of the pure virus. Jeffrey tells him that he knows of this virus idea because Cole told this to him in the asylum. Looks like Cole coming back in time to 1990 caused him to be put in the asylum. In his heavily drugged state, Cole mumbled about the virus and the death of 99% of the world to Jeffrey. It is possible that Jeffrey later talked about it in front of Dr. Peters. Dr. Peters may have got the idea from hearing Jeffrey talk about it. But there is no such connection made in the movie.
Kathryn believes Cole
Cole, who has put Kathryn in the trunk of the car, releases her and disappears. Kathryn returns home. She also finds out about a boy on the news, a boy who is been trapped in a mine shaft. Cole mentions earlier that this was old news for him. The boy was never in the mine shaft. The whole thing was a prank and boy was hiding in the barn. Just as Cole “prophesied”, the current news is that the boy was hiding in the barn. Kathryn now begins to realize that Cole was not insane, but could actually be from the future. She gets a call saying that the bullet she removed from Cole’s leg was from the pre-1920s. Now fully convinced, Kathryn meets Jeffrey’s dad and checks to see if his son had access to the virology lab. His dad says there is no such access.
12 Monkeys: Hunt for Jeffrey
Kathryn finds Cole and at this point both of them assume that Jeffrey’s responsible for the virus. Kathryn remembers the phone call that Cole was trying to make in 1990. Though that number was wrong in 1990, it would be the right one in 1996. So they make their way to a pay phone. She comes back happily saying that it was just a carpet cleaning company and it was nothing. She also says that she couldn’t help leaving a message – “The Freedom for Animals Association on Second Avenue is the secret headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. They are the ones who are going to do it. I can’t do any more. I have to go now. Have a merry Christmas”. This is the same message that they intercept in 2035. This message that gave the scientists a lead that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is in Philadelphia.
12 monkeys: Animal Rights Activists
Meanwhile, Jeffrey kidnaps his dad. His dad tells him that he doesn’t have access to the virus. He too thinks his son is responsible for the virus attack. Cole and Kathryn decide nothing can be done now and they decide to leave town. But the cab driver tells them about the Twelve Monkeys. That they are actually animal rights activists and have released all the animals from a zoo and have locked Jeffrey’s dad in a cage in the zoo. That was their plan all along. Nothing to do with the virus. At the airport, Cole begins to recollect his dream. He calls the carpet cleaning company’s number and says:
Maybe you just clean carpets. If you do, you’re lucky. You’re gonna live a long, happy life. But if you other guys are out there, if you’re picking this up, forget about the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. They didn’t do it. It was a mistake. Someone else did it.The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is just a bunch of dumb kids playin’ revolutionaries. Listen. I’ve done my job. I did what you wanted. Good luck. I’m not coming back.
12 Monkeys: Ending Explained
Right after this Kathryn is standing in line behind a traveler who is going to San Francisco, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Kinshasa, Karachi, Bangkok and Peking. That is the same list order as the spread location of the virus. Kathryn identifies Dr.Peters. The other time traveler, Jose, shows up in front of Cole. Jose says that the phone call Cole makes got intercepted. They got the message. Jose gives Cole a gun and tells him that if he refuses to take the gun, he will have to kill Kathryn. Cole reluctantly takes the gun and asks who he needs to kill. Jose doesn’t reply.
Here’s the point… The future already knows about the incident that happened at the airport with a guy getting shot. This is history according to the future. Cole has sent a message saying he’s not coming back. The scientists in the future don’t want Cole staying over and messing things up. That’s why they send Jose with the gun. They probably know, from old news, that Cole was shot dead at the airport in 1996. For all you know, that’s probably why he was chosen. All they needed to do was hand him the gun and history would take care of the rest.
Kathryn shows up and tells Cole about this traveler whose identity is Dr. Peters, a scientist in Jeffrey’s father’s virology lab. Jose is there when she comes. This is enough information that the future needs to know. Jose leaves the scene, he has the information on who the reason for the virus is. This news will be relayed back to the future. The scientists from the future now go to part B of their plan, sending the scientist back to the past to study the virus in its original form. Cole and Kathryn go looking for Dr. Peters. Cole (the dude) runs after Dr. Peters with this gun in the airport and the authorities shoot him. Kathryn (who has her hair dyed blonde now) sits crying over the dead dude. A young Cole is watching on. Kathryn sees young Cole. What has happened will always continue to have happened. Predestination Paradox.
Dr. Jones saves the future, not the past in 12 Monkeys
Back in the future, the scientists know the location of the virus. They don’t want to stop the virus from spreading. That has already happened. They send Dr. Jones back in time to follow Dr. Peters to study the virus in its original form. Dr. Peters meets Dr. Jones in the flight. She starts a conversation saying “It’s obscene, all the violence, all the lunacy. Shootings even at airports now. You might say that we’re the next… endangered species”. After this she introduces herself by saying “I’m in insurance”. What she means by that is that she’s not there to disturb the events that cause the virus to spread. Insurance is not one that protects life but compensates the living. She’s not there to save the billions who are going to die but compensate the remaining 1% with a cure to the virus in 2035.