Twelve Monkeys
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A Note Regarding Spoilers

The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.

For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for Twelve Monkeys can be found here.

No. Twelve Monkeys is based on a screenplay by American science fiction writers David and Janet Peoples, which was inspired by the French short film La jetée (1962).

Twelve Monkeys preserves most of the major plot points of La Jetee. In both films, the hero lives in a dystopian future, where the powers that be give him an "offer he can't refuse" to travel back in time. In both, the hero meets a woman in the past with whom he falls in love, and the hero decides he wants to stay in the past with her. And in both, the hero is instead killed at an airport in front of the younger self of the hero, who is there to watch planes. But the films are markedly different. The two films differ in the type of catastrophe that puts humanity in peril. Also, in La Jetee, the hero travels into the future as well as the past. But the most important difference is that La Jetee is a 26 minute long narrated story told over a series of black and white photographs, while Twelve Monkeys is an action movie. Twelve Monkeys' greater length allows for a much more detailed treatment of the subject matter.

Why 12? And why monkeys?

The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is inspired by a passage in L. Frank Baum's novel, "The Magic of Oz," in which the Nome King and Kiki Aru convince twelve monkeys that they will have an endless supply of food if they become human soldiers for them.

It does, according to director Terry Gilliam. Cole's mission was never to change the past, which he repeatedly states cannot be done, but rather to find a sample of the pure virus which could be sent back to his time for analysis, in hopes that they could at least create a cure for al the virus' mutations, and make the Earth habitable again in that future. At the end of the film, Cole identifies the carrier of the virus, and although Cole himself dies, his information allowed one of the scientists to go to the past from the future, and obtain a sample of the virus, thereby making the hope for an eventual cure possible. Note that the female scientist is clearly the same age in the modern setting as she is in the future scenes, ruling out the notion that her younger self just happens to have been on the plane with the carrier. It is strongly implied that the scientists from the future planned Cole's death because he refused to return to his own time, and they could not allow him to disturb the past any further. They send Jose (Jon Seda) through time to give Cole an ancient gun and instructions to complete his mission. They might have intended that Cole try to use the gun in a(n) (futile) attempt to kill the carrier of the virus. The scientists probably knew it would not work and would cause security personnel to neutralize him, while the female scientist herself made sure the mission was completed.

There are roughly two major schools of thought on the subject of time travel in (science) fiction. One is that a timeline is 'flexible' and can be changed. When a certain outcome is undesireable, one needs to travel back to a point in the past, and change whatever caused the undesiarable outcome to happen. For instance, in order to save your mother from being run over by a car, you travel back in time so that you can push her out of the car's way and save her life. Most popular movies about time-travel adhere to this principle (e.g. Back to the Future (1985), Donnie Darko (2001) and The Butterfly Effect) (2004).

Another theory is that the timeline is 'fixed' and can't be changed. The present is already the result of the past plus all attempts to try and manipulate the present. This implies that whatever you try to prevent by traveling back in time will be unsuccesful, or, worse, instrumental in causing whatever you tried to prevent. In case of the mother example, according to this theory, you can travel back in time to a moment before she was hit, but any action you might take will not be succesful in saving her. Possible scenarios are that you don't make it in time for some reason: perhaps in your hurry, you are hit by a car yourself, or you could shout at her to watch out for the car, thereby distracting her from the traffic, and thus causing her death. Movies following this principle are Sphere (1998), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), The Time Machine (1960), and Twelve Monkeys.

Cole says that the future can't be changed, which proves to be true. Throughout the movie we see and hear about things that are said to happen in the future, and they all inevitably happen. Of course, the main event is that the global virus infection occurs. Cole's mission is not to prevent it, because the scientists know he can't; the very fact that the infection happened is evidence that it could not be prevented anyway. Furthermore, by traveling back into the past, Cole sets in motion a chain of events that lead to the very future he comes from, e.g. the mysterious recording by Kathryn to the future, in which she identifies the Army of the Twelve Monkeys as the source of the virus. Cole and the scientists hear the recording and Cole is sent back in time to investigate; however, because of Cole's interactions with Kathryn Railly, he causes Kathryn to make this recording. In essence, the events that trigger him to travel through time actaully cause them, which is known as a time paradox.

The fact that the future is set does not prevent Cole from trying to change it anyway. It is in his nature to try, simply because he does not know the exact details of what caused that particular future to happen and what his failure in trying was. For instance, it is known in the future that there was an outbreak of a virus, but not who or what started it. After the Army of the Twelve Monkeys appeared to be a dead end, Cole and Kathryn identify the real perpetrator at the airport, and try to stop him. This ends in Cole's death, which is witnessed by the young Cole, explaining the strange dreams he always had. It had never occurred to the young Cole that he actually saw himself dying, so the adult Cole never knew what fate would await him if he would try to prevent the virus outbreak.

Because she has to maintain the timeline, and the future can't be changed. If she would do this, then a grandfather paradox would occur, where the result of a time journey would prevent the time travel itself from occurring: if the scientist were to stop Dr. Peters from releasing the virus in all the other cities, the virus outbreak would be restricted to the United States, and there would (probably) not be a global outbreak. In that case, there would be no need to send anyone back to the past, and in turn this would mean that there would be no one to stop the outbreak from occurring. This would, again, cause a global virus outbreak, which would prompt the scientists again to travel backwards in time, and so on. In short, the world would get stuck in a cause-and-effect loop. One way to get out of this is to let the future run its course. The scientist ensures that she returns to the future that she left behind, with the cure needed to get the remainder of mankind back to the surface of the Earth.

Almost certainly not, though speculation on this subject has popped up now and again. For one, the script refers to this scientist as "the astrophysicist," while Railly was a psychiatrist. The film itself does not tend to suggest this, as the older scientist shows no apparent connection, emotional or otherwise, with James Cole. Terry Gilliam, in various discussions and commentaries appearing on the DVD (and the laserdisc before that) makes no such indication. But the most damning piece of evidence can be found in the screenplay, such as in this final scene, where the female scientist meets Dr. Peters on the airplane:


DR. PETERS' POV: the FELLOW TRAVELER, a silver haired gentleman in a business suit, offering his hand congenially. DR. PETERS doesn't know who this man is, but we do. It's the ASTROPHYSICIST!

ASTROPHYSICIST: Jones is my name. I'm in insurance.
As scripted, the scientist in question was originally written to be a man, indicating that as far as screenwriters David and Janet Peoples were concerned, the character was certainly not meant to be Dr. Railly. The eventual casting of a woman in the part would seem to be purely incidental, as the character's gender was irrelevant to the role.

It's called 'The Earth Died Screaming' by Tom Waits. The complete 12 Monkeys soundtrack can be found here with scene descriptions. Waits had a cameo appearance as a homeless veteran in Gilliam's previous film, The Fisher King.

Page last updated by bj_kuehl, 1 month ago
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