12 Monkeys Movie Meaning & Plot Summary

Is The Hero Of The Movie 12 Monkeys (1995) The Savior Of The Planet Or A Schizophrenic? Director’s Tips. 12 Monkeys : Plot Analysis & Meaning Of The Film & Its Ending, Explanation, Description.

Country: USA

Genre: fantasy, thriller, detective

Year of production: 1995

Director: Terry Gilliam

Actors: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt

The film “12 Monkeys” is a product of Hollywood machinery. But at the same time it is a very complex, philosophical picture. There are no less virtuoso semantic twists and turns in it than in Camus’ “The Plague”. When trying to understand what is the meaning of the film “12 Monkeys” (Twelve Monkeys), you need to pay attention to the details. And once again admire the power of the cinema of the 90s.

What is the movie about

Brief description of the picture. The plot develops simultaneously in the future and in 1997, in which 99% of the world’s population died due to a deadly virus.

Few survived – and they are forced to be underground, because the virus is still raging on its surface. For an unclear reason, only animals can live on the surface of the earth.

the main charactersThe main characters of the film are James Cole (Bruce Willis) and Jeffrey (Brad Pitt). Frame from the film.

Under the ground, people founded a completely civilized society. Scientists are working hard to regain the planet and eventually develop a rather risky special operation. A prisoner named James Cole, sentenced to 25 years, agrees to participate in it. He must go to the past and collect the necessary information, after which he will definitely be pardoned.

Once in the past, Cole ends up in a psychiatric hospital, because no one believes his stories that he is from the future. There he meets a certain Jeffrey Goins, who, according to scientists of the future, is closely related to the “12 monkeys”. It is they who, according to scientists, are guilty of destroying the world.

One day, psychiatrist Katherine Reilly comes to Cole: She wants to help him, because it seems to her that they have met before.

Plot transcript

The idea that Gilliam develops in 12 Monkeys is not new. The meaning of the film is that the world is on the verge of a massive collapse.

Humanity is destroying itself. It rots, losing its skills and capabilities, dies, being powerless before its nature. Everything goes to the fact that animals will again rule the world – lions, bears, owls, monkeys – all those to whom this world belonged before the appearance of man. But it is interesting that the terrible virus can be regarded not only as a threat to humanity, but also as a hope for its salvation through purification.

Time travel or mental breakdown?

The film “12 Monkeys” is built in such a way that the viewer can interpret what is happening in two ways. On the one hand, before his eyes appears the story of a time traveler who helps people of the future find a vaccine against a deadly virus. On the other hand, this is the story of a madman suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. So who is the hero of the movie? From the content of the picture, this is not entirely clear.

12 Monkeys is directed by Terry Gilliam. In his film, the director tried to combine two topics of interest to him – time travel and mental disorders.

This film was created based on the short film “Runway”. This is a 28-minute fantasy photo novel that tells how only a handful of people who settled underground survived after a nuclear explosion. They travel through time to get food, medicine. The main character, on whose behalf the content of the picture is revealed, is a prisoner. He travels to the future. There, by coincidence, he witnesses a murder at the airport, and realizes that he himself was killed – and he had already seen this episode in childhood. The point is that, as a child, he saw himself being killed, only from the future. This vision haunted the protagonist all his life.

Brad PittFrame from the film.

A similar fantastic plot is used in the film “12 Monkeys” – except that it is supplemented with various interesting details.

If you perceive cinema as a fantasy or dystopia, James Cole is a hero who tries to help the people of the future at the cost of his own life.

It is interesting that various details are scattered in the picture, thanks to which an alternative interpretation can be made. Despite the harmony and obviousness of one theory, one can lean towards another.

First version: heroism

Cole was a hero. Otherwise, the world as he saw it would have to disappear. But he did not disappear, and at the very end we see the eyes of the Cole boy following the plane.

Second version: schizophrenia

James Cole is a paranoid schizophrenic. Due to his illness, he is aggressive, suggestible and unable to think logically.

In 1990, while delirious, he attacks a police officer. He is committed to a psychiatric hospital, and Dr. Katherine Reilly is appointed as his attending physician. Cole falls in love with Katherine, an interesting young woman who treats him well.

katherine girlThe role of Katherine was played by Madeleine Stowe. Frame from the film.

In the hospital, under the influence of drugs, talking with other prisoners (primarily with Jeffrey), and watching TV, Cole has a clear picture: he is not crazy, but a hero who is entrusted with a responsible mission by the people of the future: he must prevent the actions of the army of 12 monkeys . Otherwise, humanity will end.

Cole manages to escape from the hospital, and for some time he wanders somewhere – most likely somewhere in the catacombs, because he often complains about the lack of fresh air and the inability to admire nature: he is deprived of all this even in a psychiatric hospital.

A little later, Cole begins spying on Dr. Reilly, interested in her research on the Cassandra syndrome – that is, the ability to foresee and anticipate future events.

In 1996, he tracks down the doctor, kidnaps her, and then (quite likely) kills her by strangulation. Cole has great physical strength, he is aggressive and very cunning. That is why he manages to escape from the hospital and remain at large for a long time.

A story about time travel, an airport murder, and a daring mission is just Cole’s delusions and fantasies.

The meaning of the ending

At the end of the film, the boy James, having seen his own death at the airport, leaves. In the finale, it becomes clear that everything that should have happened to him happened. So the future is predetermined?

To understand the meaning of the 12 Monkeys ending, you need to remember what Dr. Reilly worked on – she studied the Cassandra syndrome. The tragedy of Cassandra was that she foresaw the future, but could not change it.

doctors and scientistsFrame from the film.

Also at the end we see a female scientist who delivers the virus to different cities of the world. The explanation for the ending in this case here is twofold: the female scientist was supposed to die from the virus, but she appears in the future. Either there was no deadly virus, or in the final, scientists managed to change the future.

That is, the film has two endings: one of them confirms the reality of what is happening, and the second only hints that Cole is sick, and all events took place only in his inflamed imagination.

Alternative interpretation

There is also an alternative theory. The clue to events lies in the voice in Cole’s head: it exists in the future and in the present. And that voice calls Cole Bob.

Probably, this Bob is the main character of the picture. And it’s not Cole, but a homeless man, whom all the characters in the movie “12 Monkeys” encounter several times.

This character Bob is a former patient in a psychiatric hospital. He suffers from a split personality. He invented Cole and the world in which he lives. Some of the ideas for Cole’s world Bob takes from his environment.

In the world of homeless Bob, the air is dirty, there is a stench around – both the fictional world and Cole himself have the same features – he is dressed like a homeless person, and behaves the same way. Airport Murder – Bob’s memories. The boy in the well is Bob’s childish prank. Cole’s torn teeth are a copy of Bob’s actions. Ideas about total surveillance and control are Bob’s ideas.

Bob periodically talks to Cole when he becomes too “independent” person, or gets lost, to give a hint on what to do next. Two times Bob even “appeared” personally in front of his heroes – and they did not understand anything. But they are not given – after all, all of them – this is Bob.

According to this version, the entire film – in the best traditions of Philip K. Dick – is just a fantasy in the head of an episodic character who no one pays attention to.

mental hospital with Cole and GeoffreyFrame from the film.

And still?

In some analyzes and reviews, viewers looking for hidden meaning are inclined to believe that Cole was a hero and a schizophrenic at the same time. The point is that he didn’t save the world because everything is predetermined.

Terry Gilliam masterfully plays cat and mouse with the audience. He diligently placed clues on several interpretations at once. But at the same time he made it so that there was no clear answer.

This is the hallmark of the film. You can watch it endlessly, marvel at the puzzle, find new clues each time, and still doubt it.

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