Study Guide

12 Monkeys Introduction

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12 Monkeys Introduction

Release Year: 1995

Genre: Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller

Director: Terry Gilliam

Writer: David Peoples and Janet Peoples

Stars: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt

With the way technology is advancing, one of these days you'll be enjoying your very own time machine. Chances are it'll be an app you download to your smartphone—free, of course, but those ads for the Roman Coliseum will be super annoying.

Now, your time-traveling adventures may prove to be a comedic romp where you try to keep your own mother from crushing on you. They may be a rip-roaring adventure where you save humanity from an army of evil robots. But most of your adventures will probably end—or at least start—with everybody in the past thinking you are completely crazy.

Enter 12 Monkeys or, as we like to think of it, The Hitchhiker's Guide to Time Travel.

12 Monkeys tells the tale of James Cole, a time-traveler sent from the year 2035 to the 1990s to gather information on a virus that will wipe out humanity. Or perhaps he's a mentally ill homeless man with a serious case of mental divergence. Who knows? We sure don't, but one thing becomes clear as Cole is incarcerated, beaten, shot, and endures an all-around miserable life in his quest to save humanity from its terrible fate.

Time travel (or mental illness) is not for the faint-hearted.

A modest success upon release in 1995, the film combined scrumptious set design and an eye for unusual shots to join Brazil and Time Bandits as one of director Terry Gilliam's best offerings. Based on an avant-garde French short film from 1962, 12 Monkeys stars Bruce Willis as Cole, a role that required the actor to step out of the shadow of his indestructible-action-man persona and play a character who treats being shot with more gravity than a mosquito bite. He succeeds quite well, and by the end, you'll be so invested in his story that you'll forgive his lack of yippee ki-yays.

The film co-stars the wonderful, yet underappreciated, Madeleine Stowe as Dr. Kathryn Railly and Brad Pitt as Jeffery Goines. Pitt's performance, in particular, is the wholly engrossing kind that makes you think, "Oh, yeah, that's why this guy is so great!" For his efforts, Pitt won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and was nominated for the same at the 1996 Academy Awards.

After its initial run, 12 Monkeys kind of fell out of our cultural consciousness for a while, but was revived thanks to a television show remake on the SyFy channel. But before diving into four seasons of time-traveling shenanigans, let's go back to where the mind-bendingness all started.


What is 12 Monkeys About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and about halfway through thought, "What planet is this guy from?" Whether the subject is politics, religion, sports, or film theories about what the Avengers were doing during Iron Man 3, you'll find people everywhere who have worldviews that are startling different from your own.

But aren't these people getting their facts from the same reality you are? How can two people witness something identical…yet derive different understandings of that same event? They must be wrong. They must be.

Then something unsettling happens. Weeks, months, or even years later, you have the same conversation—maybe with a different person, maybe the same person—and you find your opinion on the matter has changed. (Sure, it makes sense that the Avengers didn't show up; they have their own stuff going on, like curling league or whatever.)

You're still getting your facts from the same reality, so what gives? Are you somehow different?

Folks: Terry Gilliam understands your pain and befuddlement. Because 12 Monkeys is all about questioning your powers of perception and understanding. If you want to break out the ten-dollar words, it's about the fragility of human perspective and the subjectivity of reality.

Take Cole and Dr. Railly. Cole is convinced he's from the future, sent back in time to gather information on a virus that will eradicate humanity. But as he travels through the past, evidence begins to mount that maybe his fear for the future is all a delusion conjured by an ill mind.

On the other hand, Dr. Railly is convinced Cole isn't from the future because…well, obviously that's impossible. Right? But over time she starts to wonder if maybe there isn't something to this future man's deranged story.

Through its characters, the film asks those Big Deal philosophical questions. It's not so much about answering them, though—it's more about getting immersed in our own understanding of the film and puzzling over the many possible realities it inhabits.

Maybe the closest thing we get to an answer is when Cole is watching Vertigo and says:

COLE: It's just like what's happening to us. Like the past. The movie never changes. It can't change. But every time you see it, it seems different because you're different. You see different things.

It is just like what's happening to us, every time we watch 12 Monkeys.


In the film's opening sequence, Cole wears a clear plastic hazmat suit. You know, the one that looks like it belongs on every hypochondriac's Christmas list. Terry Gilliam liked the prop so much that he gave it a name, "the human condition." Jeez, even this guy's pet names come with layers of meaning. (Source: DVD Production Notes)

The Hamster Factor sounds like Fear Factor's cuddly, if ill-conceived, spin-off. But it is actual a term the production crew devised to describe Gilliam's hard-core perfectionism.

As the story goes, Gilliam spent an entire day shooting the scene where Cole draws his own blood. The reason for the delay? The hamster wouldn't spin his hamster wheel, meaning Gilliam couldn't get a shadow effect he wanted on the wall. The reason for the hamster's defiance? That remains a mystery, but our guess is that the beastie's agent didn't properly negotiate its cage bedding. (Source)

Brad Pitt's acting as Jeffery Goines is, well, crazy. To coax Pitt's nervous, manic performance, Gilliam took away the actor's cigarettes while filming. So basically, the production of 12 Monkeys was Gilliam's personal Skinner Box. (Source)

Bruce Willis plays John McClane in the Die Hard series, a man so hard to kill he's survived a tower full of terrorists, an exploding airplane, and four subpar sequels. Given Willis' reputation for playing tough guys, you'd think his death in 12 Monkeys would be the exception to the rule.

Not so fast. Willis has died in a total of eleven movies as of 2010 and several more afterward (does Looper count?). Sure, it doesn't compare to Sean Bean's graveyard of characters…but it's an impressive death count nonetheless. (Source)

12 Monkeys Resources


Electronic Official
The official website of Terry Gilliam—for whenever you need your Gilliam fix.

Data Deluge
Need to find something about 12 Monkeys? Look no further than this IMDB page.

Did You Know?
Mental Floss has collected twelve fun factoids about 12 Monkeys. Why? Because you never know what will be on the board in the Double Jeopardy round, that's why.

Book or TV Adaptations

Smaller Screen, Larger Runtime
Here you'll find the IMDB entry for the 12 Monkeys TV adaptation. Take out all the mystery and crank up the thrills, and you'll have a good idea of what to expect.

A Novel Idea
Did you know there was a 12 Monkeys novelization? Neither did we, but it seems nothing can hide from the all-powerful Google.

Articles and Interviews

Who? What? Where?
And most importantly, when? If you've ever found 12 Monkeys' timeline to be befuddling, then you'll have to check out this Prezi.

A Celebration of Madness and Doom
That's how Roger Ebert sums up 12 Monkeys in his review. Not one for mincing words, that Ebert.

Um, Thank You?
Kim Newman starts her review of 12 Monkeys by noting that "Gilliam's genius as a filmmaker rests in his ability to create movies that are at once masterly and almost impossible to put up with." If that sounds familiar, you should check out the review.

The '90s Weren't All Bad
Den of Geek calls up Gilliam's 12 Monkeys on the eve of its 20th anniversary to see how it's doing. Turns out, the film's doing pretty well.

Mind Blown!
Is this film theory mind-blowing, or simply the result of someone actually paying attention? You decide!

Compare and Contrast
Verge writer Bryan Bishop compares 12 Monkeys with its 2015 small-screen reboot. They're like night and day, if night and day had a less in common.


1995 Trailer
The 12 Monkeys trailer comes from an era before all trailers were required to have those ominous Inception horns blaring in the background. Refreshing.

Peeking Behind the Curtain
Actually, not so much a peek. It's more like an hour-long tour behind the scenes of 12 Monkeys.


Not Monkeying Around
After spending some time with the 12 Monkeys soundtrack, you'll start to feel a sense of camaraderie with the organ grinder's monkey. And we're thinking that's the idea.

"Suite Punta del Este"
12 Monkeys' main theme comes from Astor Piazzolla's "Suite Punta del Este." Warning: this earworm will get caught in your head all day. Seriously, all day.

"Blueberry Hill"
Cole seems to love himself some Louis Armstrong. Not a fan? "Blueberry Hill" could show you why Cole's into him.

"The Earth Died Screaming"
Pro tip if you ever want to karaoke this Tom Waits song: try to gargle some gravel as you belt it out. You'll nail it!

"What a Wonderful World"
There's more than a hint of irony that this Louis Armstrong classic made its way into the film.

Woody Woodpecker Theme
Just 'cause.


The Future is History
Excuse me, Mr. Willis, but you seem to have something in your eye. You want to take care of that before we take this picture for the movie poster?

Barrel of Monkeys
Yeesh, this logo has a lot of monkeys.

Getting to Know You
Cole and Goines spend some quality TLC time at the mental hospital in this still image from the film.

In the Name of Science
The Scientists from 12 Monkeys make, hands down, the world's scariest dissertation committee.

It Ain't No DeLorean
But this terrifying womb of plastic and metal serves as the film's time-travel machine.

Bears and Baltimore, yeah, those two things don't mix.

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