In a future world devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population on the planet.



(film La Jetée), (screenplay) (as David Peoples) | 1 more credit »
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Top Rated Movies #219 | Nominated for 2 Oscars. Another 9 wins & 18 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Joseph Melito ...
Michael Chance ...
H. Michael Walls ...
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Irma St. Paule ...
Bruce Kirkpatrick ...


An unknown and lethal virus has wiped out five billion people in 1996. Only 1% of the population has survived by the year 2035, and is forced to live underground. A convict (James Cole) reluctantly volunteers to be sent back in time to 1996 to gather information about the origin of the epidemic (who he's told was spread by a mysterious "Army of the Twelve Monkeys") and locate the virus before it mutates so that scientists can study it. Unfortunately Cole is mistakenly sent to 1990, six years earlier than expected, and is arrested and locked up in a mental institution, where he meets Dr. Kathryn Railly, a psychiatrist, and Jeffrey Goines, the insane son of a famous scientist and virus expert. Written by Giancarlo Cairella <>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


The future is history. See more »

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for violence and language | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:






Release Date:

5 January 1996 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

12 Monkeys  »

Box Office


$29,000,001 (estimated)

Opening Weekend:

£1,320,430 (UK) (19 April 1996)


$56,882,000 (USA)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

| |



Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


A statue named "The Kiss", by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin can be seen briefly in the movie. A picture of the same statue was used by director Terry Gilliam in an animation he made for the show Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969). See more »


The spider James Cole eats is a Golden Orb Weaver or Banana Spider (Nephila Clavipes). However, that spider inhabits southern regions of the US (mainly Florida), and would never be found in cities in a northern climate like Boston. See more »


[first lines]
James Cole: Jose - psst! Jose, what's going on?
Jose: Bad news, man
James Cole: Volunteers?
Jose: Yeah. And they said your name.
Jose: Hey, maybe they'll give you a pardon, man.
James Cole: [sarcastic] Yeah, that's why none of the volunteers come back. They all get a pardon.
See more »

Crazy Credits

The symbol of the 12 Monkeys provides the backdrop for the opening and closing credits. See more »


from "Suite Punta Del Este" (Twelve Monkeys Theme)
Written by Astor Piazzolla
See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

See more (Spoiler Alert!) »

User Reviews

Gilliam's Masterpiece of Madness
29 November 2000 | by (Los Angeles, CA) – See all my reviews

Terry Gilliam's fantastic, twisted story of a virus destroying all but a handful of people across the Earth and forcing them to move underground and the man sent back in time to gather information about it is a fantastic, dizzying, and highly stylized film that boasts Bruce Willis' best performance ever.

What sets 12 Monkeys apart from most time-travel sci-fi movies is that Bruce Willis character actually deals with what the psychological effects of time-travel, that is, not knowing what reality is actual reality: the place that the time-traveler comes from or goes to. Also, the film recognizes that things that have past cannot be altered and that the prevention of a cataclysmic event, in this case the release of said virus, cannot be stopped or changed. As Willis asserts "It's already happened," while he's in a mental hospital, the major dilemma the film trudges into is not a trite, overdone plot to save the world; instead it's Willis' inner struggle to simply survive himself. It's a fresh, innovative concept, and it works beautifully thanks to a tautly written script by Peoples and Gilliam's unique brand of dementia.

Besides this, 12 Monkey's storytelling is totally non-linear and instead opts to distort and bend the way the story is told skillfully incorporating a bevy of different time sequences: flashbacks, dreams, memories, the present, the past, the future, and even a scene that is lifted out of Hitchcock's Vertigo. All serve to envelop the viewer into its disturbing cacophony of madness and futility.

Visually, Gilliam is a master of desolate umbrage and shadow rivalling Tim Burton in his strikingly despondent scenery and imagery. With cold, wide, and immersing cinematography, Gilliam plunges into the colorless surroundings and darkness of his characters. The scenes are often bathed in a strangely antiseptic, dead white and help serve as a contrast to the often veering-on-madness characters.

Performance-wise, Brad Pitt steals most scenes, filling them with a patented loony, off-the-wall performance that deservedly garnered him an Oscar nomination. As mentioned, Bruce Willis gives the best performance of his career, not reverting to his heroic cliches and cardboard hero and instead portraying Cole as a simple, poignant, tragic everyman. Equally good is Madeline Stowe as Willis' psychologist. She holds her own, injecting her character with both wild energy and strength as she collapses under the weight of what she comes to believe is a false 'religion.'

Gilliam's expert, overwhelming, and complex handling of what could have been a routine action/sci-fi film makes 12 Monkeys a compelling vision of a nightmarish, futuristic landscape. Its rich, well-thought out, intricate storyline along with bravura performances from the entire cast and its brooding, bleak cinematography make it a masterpiece of madness. Ranking in my top 10 of all time, 12 Monkeys is a darkly lavish spectacle of a film brimming with brilliance.

10 out of 10

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One question that's bothered me pferreira86
I'm really underwhelmed. What did I miss? cartesianthought
If Cole knew about the kid in the barn frozenwashcloth
Is this just the 90's? Pr1ceisright
An awfully convenient coincidence? digeridoo-59344
Absolutely Pathetic tsmit67
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