12 Monkeys (1995) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • 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.

  • An intense film about time travel, this Sci-Fi entry was directed by Terry Gilliam, a member of the comedy troupe Monty Python. The film stars Bruce Willis as James Cole, a prisoner of the state in the year 2035 who can earn parole if he agrees to travel back in time and thwart a devastating plague. The virus has wiped out most of the Earth's population and the remainder live underground because the air is poisonous. Returning to the year 1990, six years before the start of the plague, Cole is soon imprisoned in a psychiatric facility because his warnings sound like mad ravings. There he meets a scientist named Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the mad son of an eminent virologist (Christopher Plummer). Cole is returned by the authorities to the year 2035, and finally ends up at his intended destination in 1996. He kidnaps Dr. Railly in order to enlist her help in his quest. Cole discovers graffiti by an apparent animal rights group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, but as he delves into the mystery, he hears voices, loses his bearings, and doubts his own sanity. He must figure out if Goines, who seems to be a raving lunatic, holds the key to the puzzle.

  • Claiming to be a time traveller from the distant 2035, James Cole--a delusional patient hospitalised in a 1990 mental institution--feels compelled to carry out his important mission: to save the world from a devastating virulent agent capable of annihilating billions. However, as Cole's psychiatrist, Dr Kathryn Railly, senses that there is more to him than meets the eye, a fateful encounter with another inmate--the unhinged, Jeffrey Goines--will trigger a string of unfathomable events, balancing between the past and the present, sanity and insanity. Now, all clues point to the extreme activist group known only as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys; nevertheless, is the reality Cole so eloquently describes, indeed, true, or is it only a disturbing but subjective hallucination?

  • 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.

  • When Cole, a convict volunteer, is sent back in time to find information on a deadly virus that will destroy 5,000,000,000 members of the human race in 1996-1997, he mistakenly arrives in 1990. After explaining his plea to Dr. Kathryn Railly, he is placed in a mental institution. In 1996, he kidnaps Railly, using her to find the 12 Monkeys, a group of revolutionists that are planning to release the virus into select cities. But, he is wanted by the authorities for murder and kidnapping, plus he refuses to return to the future; he is in love with Railly.

  • Terry Gilliam's nightmarish low-tech/high-tech future vision takes place in 1997, after a deadly virus has killed 99% of the human population--forcing the survivors to flee beneath our planet's surface. This leaves the (other) animals topside, to rule the Earth once again. The scientists select James Cole, an imprisoned sociopath, to return to the past and gather information useful in the defense against this contagion. Once back in time, he is to investigate the mysterious 'Army of the Twelve Monkeys' and report his findings. Scientific, social, and political themes like time travel (and its inherent paradoxes and nested loops), mental illness, the nature of reality, animal rights, and the Armageddon-potential of unchecked technological advances are artfully and cleverly explored.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The story is set in the indeterminate future. A virus, deliberately released in 1996 in multiple locations around the world, has killed off nearly all of the Earth's population, at least five billion people. Survivors have established an elaborate underground civilization because the earth's surface is considered uninhabitable by humans. Animals roam freely having re-inherited the surface. From time to time prisoners "volunteer" to don protective gear and gather specimens of insects from the surface to test for the presence of the virus.

    One such prisoner is James Cole, who after retrieving samples is given the chance to go back in time to 1996 and find information about the group believed responsible, known as "The Army of 12 Monkeys." Throughout the ensuing episodes, Cole finds himself remembering, as if he were dreaming, various things that he witnessed as a child, including the killing of a man in an airport, a theme that persists through the story.

    Miscalculation sends Cole to 1990, and he finds himself incarcerated in an insane asylum after severely beating his arresting officers. His psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly, thinks she has met him before, but his ravings are incoherent to her. Eventually Cole is sent to an insane asylum where he is locked up with other mental patients. When he stands for evaluation by the hospital's board, including Railly, he asks if he can make one telephone call, a communication with the scientists of his time to retrieve him. The phone is answered by a random woman who has a bunch of crying children and knows nothing about any scientists.

    While he's in the asylum, Cole meets Jeffrey Goines, an off-the-wall patient who tries to help him escape, handing him a key to the day room's barred gate. Cole is quickly recaptured and restrained in an isolation room. When Railly & her boss, Dr Fletcher, enter the room to check on Cole, he has vanished, snatched back to his present time by the scientists who sent him there. He is interrogated by the scientists and given a second chance to complete his mission after telling the scientists that he was sent to the wrong year, institutionalized and drugged. A second miscalculation sends him to the battlefields of World War I, where he is shot in the leg. As he crawls around the trenches, naked and in pain from his wound, he spots a friend, Jose, who is wounded and being carried on a stretcher. Before he can talk to Jose, Cole is suddenly propelled into the future.

    Arriving in 1996, Cole kidnaps Dr. Railly and tries to convince her that he is from the future. He finds that Jeffrey Goines, whose father is a famous virologist, is now out of the asylum, working for his father, and has formed "The Army of 12 Monkeys." Cole is now racing against time, and after a few mishaps, finally decides that he wants to stay in 1996 with Dr. Railly, surrendering to the inevitable destruction of human life.

    They travel to Philadelphia, eventually finding a shabby storefront, the headquarters of Jeffrey Goines' Army of the 12 Monkeys. The organization is dedicated to animal rights and freeing them from abusive laboratories. The members claim they've severed their ties with Jeffrey because he'd become too unpredictable, radical and went to work for his father, whom they consider their enemy.

    Kathryn and Cole travel to Jeffrey's father's mansion where Railly removes the bullet Cole had picked up in the trenches of World War I from his leg. Dropping his kinder demeanor, Cole locks Railly in the trunk of their car, and leaves her in the woods. In the middle of a fundraising dinner, Cole meets with Jeffrey. Jeffrey rambles about how Cole, while they were both housed in the asylum, had given him the idea to release a virus that would destroy most of humanity. Cole leaves, chased by security from the mansion and finds Railly in the woods. While he rants about wanting to stay in Railly's time, a furious Railly honks the car's horn to try and attract attention from Dr. Goines' security, who are searching for them. When she turns to find Cole, he has disappeared again.

    Dr. Railly soon becomes convinced that somehow Cole knows something--his predictions of the outcome of minor events is too uncanny. The radio had been following the disappearance of a nine-year-old boy believed to have fallen into a mine shaft, but just as Cole said, the boy is found hiding in a barn and the disappearance was a prank played by the boy and his friends. The bullet she'd removed from Cole's leg proves to be pre-1920 and forces her to check a photograph from her own research, taken on the battlefield which, impossibly, shows Cole in the trenches. She becomes convinced that "The Army of 12 Monkeys" indeed poses a threat, and she begins searching for Cole in order to persuades him to take up his cause again.

    Railly continues her investigation of the clues Cole was collecting and makes her way to the same shabby storefront in the western district of Philadelphia she and Cole had visited earlier. While she pounds on their door, Cole suddenly appears. He's now convinced himself that he is delusional and wants Railly to help him. Inside the storefront, with his loyal followers and those who fear him, Jeffrey is rambling about how Railly found him, that she must have processed his thoughts through a complex computer system to predict his next location. He and his loyalists leave with him to carry out their plans. Ultimately, they do not release the deadly virus but kidnap Jeffrey's father and place him in a paddock at the zoo and release all the zoo's animals into the streets of Philadelphia.

    Cole and Kathryn learn the 12 Monkeys plan from the news. Cole realizes that the 12 Monkeys are not the threat, and he leaves a phone message to that effect. Shortly after, Jose appears and approaches Cole with orders for him to complete his mission and hands him a revolver. Cole initially refuses, but then notices a guard from the present glaring at him. Jose makes it clear Dr Railly will be killed if Cole does not comply.

    Meanwhile, the police are after Cole for kidnapping Dr. Railly. In an airport, while attempting with Cole to elude capture, Dr. Railly recognizes Dr Peters, a man who worked with Jeffrey Goines' father in the virology lab and who is "an apocalypse nut." She rushes to inform Cole and frantically identifies him, along with his travel plans, with Jose overhearing her rantings. The man goes through airport screening and manages to persuade security that his biological samples--one for each of the many cities on his itinerary--are harmless, briefly opening one vial and holding it very close to the screener's nose. Dr. Railly alerts Cole, and they attempt to stop the man. To Dr. Railly's horror, Cole is shot by the police while chasing the real perpetrator, who escapes to board his plane. Cole's death is witnessed by a boy named James, who is with his parents: the young James Cole. Cole's dream is finally revealed as a memory of his own death. Young Cole and Dr. Railly lock eyes for a moment. James' mother tells her son to forget about the incident and the family walks out of the airport to their car.

    On the plane, Peters takes his seat and starts a conversation with his fellow passenger. We recognize her as the lead scientist from Cole's present. Cole had stated once the virus was located, a scientist would be sent back to study it in its original unmutated form, so that a cure could be developed in the present. She identifies herself as "Jones" and cryptically says she's "in insurance."

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