The plot of 12 Monkeys can be quite intimidating to one who is not too used to the plot complexities in some films and novels (especially science-fiction). This portion of the site will attempt answer questions regarding the plot, how the characters interact with one another, and the more complicated aspects of how they interact in the space/time continuum. Browse the subjects below...

If you have not watched 12 Monkeys in its entirety,
this page contains what one might call spoilers.

1. Introduction
2. Basics
3. Characters (detailed)
4. End Scene Explained
5. Time
6. The Teeth Scene
7. Religious Correlations
8. Insanity as a Theme
9. Miscellaneous Thoughts

1. Introduction

This is the introduction to the more complicated aspects of the film:
Twelve Monkeys seems to span many times in history almost simultaneously. In actuality, given a couple of viewings of the film, and a read-through of this plot FAQ, the film may not seem so foreign. For some, the plot might have been easy to pick up the first or second time through, but there are still a couple of looming questions. This guide is here to help for that too.

2. Basics

It's important to remember that time is linear, and nothing can change that. When many things take place seemingly at once, it's always linear in the end. 1990 is still before 1996, even though Cole might be experiencing something during the time period when he was ten years old; he experienced life at ten, traveled back to that time period when he was middle-aged, and had yet more experiences.

The basics are extremely simple, as far as a simple, straightforward plot is concerned:
The ending and all the parts in between can start to blur and create a loop in our minds regarding the life and death of James Cole. The truth of the matter is that James' life was more linear than what one might think. At the age of 9 or 10, he witnesses a man get shot in an airport, somehow (which is not described in the movie), he is not affected by the virus and is later in an underground prison. He travels to the year 1990 as an information gatherer for the prison and is put into a mental hospital. He leaves that time era, and is then sent to appear in 1996 (which was the original plan), but somehow arrives in the time period of World War I. Shortly after, he is correctly sent to 1996. There he lives for a while (being sent back to the future at some point but returning to '96 shortly), and then has the confrontation in the airport which he had seen in his dreams so many times. In the airport, James dies. Even though there is time-travel involved, his life was still linear. The loop is introduced to our minds as Cole dies in the airport, yet we see him at age 10; we run through this loop in our minds (he dies, but he's still alive?), but that is really not the truth. In conclusion, James Cole's life was linear.

Other basics concern the roles of some of the other characters (Goines, for example). Some might be unsure that Jeffrey Goines is really only who he turns out to be: an animal rights activist. As far as the facts indicate, Goines is only an activist. He might be a rather eccentric, slightly insane one, but he is still only that. There is nothing in the movie to support that he has any greater link. At one point, Goines is in the airport dream of Cole's. The reason for that was that Cole's dream was evolving a little bit as his life progressed. Goines is never actually at the airport during the end scene of the film.

3. Characters (detailed)

James Cole, the protagonist, is a very "round" character; he isn't one-sided in any, one way. A very interesting question that can be debated is "Was Cole really a man from the future, or was he insane?". As the movie shows, there are good amount of facts to support the theory that he isn't all there (see section on insanity). An example of Cole's insanity, or delusion, is the bathroom scene where Cole hears a man talking to him from one of the stalls. The man's voice is the one he had heard on the street from the bum. A rebuttal to that could be that when James meets the street bum, he walks away mumbling that "they don't have to spy on me. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing", referring to the scientists of the future keeping a watch on James. In many cases, James' reactions/actions can be viewed both as insane and genuine.

As stated before, the character Jeffrey Goines wasn't too complex to understand. Questions are definetely raised regarding why Jeffrey is the way he is, but some things are simply just left unanswered in the plot.

A real question could be brought up regarding Doctor Railly's past: In the scene where James and her go to the movie theater to put on their disguises, he awakens and and leaves to find her. When they meet, she looks at him and says, "This is how I remember you." That is a real question to me, because at what point in the movie or time continuum would she see James like that (other than the end scene which occurs later)? That question, to me, remains unanswered.

Another character whose purpose remains unclear: The apocalyptic preacher on the streets of the inner city. Once again, there is nothing really substantial to prove that he is anything more than he seems: an apocalyptic street-preacher. There is a picture of a preacher on the slide show during the lecture that Dr. Railly gives, though. The only real line he has of any substance is to James: "You! You're one of us!", but that doesn't really seem to indicate anything more than he is a nut of sorts.

4. End Scene Explained

The end scene has a lot happening in it, so let me try to break it down:

First, James and Dr. Railly enter the airport, and James says, "Not just my dream... I was actually here." True, considering he was here as a 9-year-old boy with his parents. This scene plagued his dream(s) for years (only from the 3rd person perspective, of course). The next thing that happens is James and Kathryn break up while Katheryn Railly gets the tickets at the counter. As she walks away, the camera pans down and shows a suitcase with many foreign stickers on it. This is the suitcase of the virus carrier, as shown in James' dream.

Next, James makes a phone call, using the number he was given in case he had to contact the people of the present/future. He leaves a message telling them that the Army of the 12 Monkeys is just "a bunch of dumb kids playing revolutionaries." He also says that he did his job (debunked the 12 Monkeys myth), and he "won't be coming back [to the future]."

The next shot is of the virus carrier with the red hair getting his tickets checked out at the airport desk. The teller says that "this is some trip you're taking," and the virus carrier says smoothly, "Business."

Now we see James in the bathroom fixing his fake moustache. James hears the bum he had seen in 1996, who could also be James' warped conscious. James yells "this is the present. This is not the past, this is not the future", denying his agreement to work for the government of the future. He shoves open the door to the bathroom stall where the voice was coming from, only to discover a heavy-set man leaving the bathroom stall.

Next, James runs into a man who is really Jose, James old prison inmate. He asks James why he pulled out the tooth when he had a full pardon, referring to the fact that the teeth were indeed tracking devices. Jose informs James that the message he just left was decoded by the doctors of the future. In reality, they had 39 years to decode this message. The reason they put it together so late is that the message was warped and broken (as evidenced by the other message that Railly had left, which was also a puzzle to put together). When they finally pieced together the message, they sent Jose to meet Cole. Jose says, "if only they had gotten the message earlier." Jose then tries to give James a gun.

Then we see James as a child, which is occuring at the same time. The reason James could be a child in 1996 and an adult as well during the same time is because he travelled back in time. Time travel doesn't turn back time, it just travels a person to a place in the time continuum. See section on time.

Railly sees the virus carrier and then a newspaper with a headline about Dr. Goines, the viroligist, and makes the important connection that the real virus carrier was the red-haired man she just saw (she had also seen him ranting to her outside of her lecture a while back).

Then we see Cole and Jose on the escalator and Jose is telling Cole that if he doesn't accept the gun, he would have to kill him. Those were his orders. The next clip shows a man travelling the opposite direction on the other escalator. This man was one of the guards from the prison of the future, apparently keeping a watch on Cole. Cole also once saw him in the mental hospital in 1990 as a guard. Whether this was a delusion or not is unknown. Then Cole says this "isn't about the virus at all all. It's about following orders." Cole then yells, "who am I supposed to shoot?" The funny thing is, Cole doesn't know yet, and neither does Jose. Another strange thing to point out is that since history cannot be altered, it's strange that Jose gives Cole a gun; it's not like he could have killed the virus carrier.

Then we see Railly run up to James telling him that she saw "Dr. Goines assistant, he's an apocalypse nut". She says she "saw him a minute ago and he might be involved". She then says that the flight to San Francisco leaves from gate 38, and that if the "apocolypse nut" is there, he must be involved.

The next scene is interesting. We see the virus carrier put his sticker-covered suitcase on the table to be scanned. They ask if they can open the bag to look at the contents. The nut refers to them as "biological samples", but it is well known to us, the viewers, that these are the viruses that would wipe out 5 billion people within weeks. The guard then instructs the man to open the vial up, which he does, waving the contents under the guard's nose. Apparently, the virus does not spread ridiculously fast, killing everyone in the airport, including Cole as a child. The part where the gaurd holds up the man's underwear is not really important to the plot or anything concerned, but it happens for suspense when the guard tells the nut to "hold it". We instantly think that he discovered that the viruses were a threat, but he obviously does not (as evidenced by the underwear he holds up).

Next, the cops, who were looking for the suspect kidnapper known as James Cole, see Cole with Railly in line. Railly screams that the man is carrying a deadly virus, and at the same time, Cole runs through the security scanner drawing his gun. He points his weapon, but the two cops open fire, shooting Cole in the back, through his chest. The final scene concludes, showing Cole as the center of his dream, which plagued him his whole life, dying in front of Kathryn Railly. We see young James Cole look at himself, dying some 40 years later. Railly's eyes meet young Cole's.

The final scene shows the Apocalyptic Nut on the plane, seated next to none other than the female scientist of the future. She introduces herself as Jones, who's "in insurance". The meaning of this could be that she is here as an "insurance policy" just in case Cole didn't manage to locate the virus. It is also speculated that she steals one of the vials, obtaining a pure sample of the deadly virus.

5. Time

Time is a complicated entity to take on in any film. This movie delves deep into its workings, but can be simplified to a couple of basic rules that the film lays out:

Time travel in 12 Monkeys implies that when one travels back in time, he is not there to change anything (ex: Cole states in the beginning of the movie when he is in the prison that his actions "won't help you... won't change anything.") This implies that time travel is for the sake of the future and not something that can change the past.

Even though the year is 2035, time travel is still a work-in-progress, as shown by the fact that the scientists send Cole to the wrong year twice in a row.

6. The Teeth Scene

This scene can be a little bit confusing:
After James punches the crap out of the pimp, she tells him to put him in the closet, but he drags him into the bathroom instead. We hear screams and James comes comes out with a bloody mouth and a handful of teeth, suggesting that he took teeth only from himself and did not harm the pimp. As to whether or not the teeth are really tracking devices, I offer this: In the final airport scene, Cole meets Jose, and Jose says "Why'd you have to take out the teeth? You already had your pardon" (paraphrased). Since Jose is a man from the present/future, this seems to prove that the teeth are really tracking devices.

7. Religious Correlations

According to this site on religious connections within 12 Monkeys, James Cole is Jesus Christ, Jeffrey Goines is Judas Iscariot, Kathryn Railly is Mary (Jesus' Mother), the Apocalyptic Street Prophet is John the Baptist, and Dr. Leland Goines, Jeffrey's father, is Satan, but I'll leave that up to his site for you to read and understand.

8. Insanity as a Theme

The theme of insanity runs strongly within 12 Monkeys. The importance of Cole lies in the fact that he is the protagonist of the film, and we see the events through his eyes. The important thing to remember is that just because the events are shown to us through Cole's perspective, there is still the overwhelming possibility that Cole is really just insane. Stated near the beginning of the film, one of the scientists says to Cole that being a "volunteer" and travelling through time puts great stress on the human body, and many volunteers didn't make it back (metaphorically speaking: they became insane).

If we go even further into this hypothesis, it is possible to say that Cole was insane the whole film. Using that idea, nothing is what it seems; Cole's insanity could have bred delusions, these delusions composing the entire film. Any hypothesis is up for grabs, as Gilliam leaves it open to the viewer (this is my interpretation). Then again, the whole movie could be genuine sci-fi, and Cole could have been a time-traveller and a savior. It all depends on how you look at it. In the end though, it's best to try to watch the movie with each version in mind, for it really adds dimension to the plot.

9. Miscellaneous Thoughts

This section includes some interesting facts regarding the movie and my (as well as others) thoughts on them:

    • When James Cole locks Railly in the car trunk, the news reports that a woman was found strangled, and mutilated. Why was this done?
      My interpretation is that this was nothing more than a minor thing to keep things suspenseful. I noticed that throughout the whole movie, there are similar instances where something that takes place was not true at all, but just used to aid in the suspense. A large section of the movie is there to back up the theory that the 12 Monkeys were really apocalyptic nuts, even though this turns out to be totally bogus; they were animal rights activists.
    • Why doesn't the young James Cole get the virus at the Airport?
      My educated guess is that a virus doesn't spread like wild fire; it spreads more gradually. By the time the virus started to take over, James must have been safe somewhere (i.e. underground). There is the theory that he was immune to it, but I don't see the proof in this.
    • What kind of gun did Jose have?
      All signs point to the fact that it is a World War I revolver. This would make sense considering Jose and Cole both had a run-in with the big WWI.
    • Here's a good question: When Railly met up with Cole after she dyed her hair and he had his fake wig and moustache, why did she say, "This is how I remember you?"
      Here's some ideas that people sent in:

      She had done research and written a book on the "Cassandra Complex."

      (begin screenplay excerpt)
      RAILLY (cont.)
      Cassandra, in Greek legend you will recall, was condemned to know the future but to be disbelieved when she foretold it. Hence, the agony of foreknowledge combined with impotence to do anything about it.
      (end excerpt)

      When she first meets him in the cell she seems to recognize him. Throughout the movie she keeps mentioning that she remembers him. She may have said "This is how I remember you" because she was 'suffering' from her Cassandra Complex, and could 'see' the future. This is how I interpreted this line.

      In regard to the "This is how I remember you" line outside the theatre I think it is from the movie that was playing inside: Vertigo. James Stewart says that line to Kim Novack after he has made her over. At least I think that is what he says. If you watch Vertigo you will see why Gilliam put it in 12 Monkeys.

      Are you sure she doesn't say 'This is how i'll remember you', meaning she will forget the 'insane' image that james had been giving until that point ?

      Not a bad idea, but according to the screenplay and the closed captioning, this is not the case. It would have made a lot more sense this way, though.

      Any other theories? Mail me.

    • How does Railly make the connection that the red-haired man is the apocalyptic nut by looking at the USA Today newspaper?
      The photograph in USA Today is of both Christopher Plummer (Leland Goines) and David Morse (the virus guy). As Railly just saw Morse's character walk by her, and seemed to recognize him, it makes sense that the photo would make her put it all together.

      ... she also had good probable cause considering he ranted and raved at her book-signing about the end of humanity.

    • Other miscellaneous, interesting points:
      As Cole is arguing with Jose on the escalator in the airport the announcer on the PA system says "Volunters boarding at Gate 38". (Duncan McAlester).
      The twelve looney guys sleeping in the circle in the insane asylum refer to the twelve monkeys on the logo? (vaibhav mangrulkar) and (Ed Geles).
      A couple editing glitches I saw: In the end scene, as Cole's hand is reaching for Railly, it is seen as clean. In the following shot, it is smeared with blood. Another glitch: after Cole pulls out his teeths in front of the pimp, later in the film, it is possible to see that his teeth are still intact.

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