12 Monkeys Ending Explained & Film Analysis

Review of the film “12 Monkeys” by Terry Gilliam

The cult psychological dystopia “12 Monkeys” by the talented original director Terry Gilliam should be watched carefully, with eyes open and brain turned on. Filmed back in 1995, this amazing film has not lost its relevance over the past decades and still makes an indelible impression. As for the meaning of the film, it is far from unambiguous. Gilliam was never a straightforward director, he is happy to confuse the viewer, giving hints of the non-obviousness of the plot, forcing him to ask questions, think and doubt again and again.


By 2035, about 1% of the world’s population remained. In 1997, the Earth was seized by a terrible pandemic, a mutated virus killed about 5 billion inhabitants. The survivors are forced to move underground. Prisoner James Cole (Bruce Willis) was sentenced to 25 years in prison for disobeying the authorities, but he has a chance to receive a pardon, and at the same time bring invaluable benefits to humanity and become a great hero. To do this, he must go back in time and bring a culture of the virus before its mutation, so that scientists can develop an effective vaccine. Will James cope with such a difficult task, what trials awaited the hero in the past?

Jim does not immediately get into the necessary 1996. The first time he mistakenly turns out to be in 1990, he is declared insane and forcibly sent to a psychiatric hospital. There, Cole meets Catherine Rayleigh, her psychiatrist, and Jeffrey Goins, the son of a famous microbiologist. For the second time, the hero is thrown into the trenches of the First World War, where he is wounded in the leg.

Finally, in 1996, Cole kidnaps Katherine, then they act together. A psychiatrist / patient pair will have to find the culprit for the spread of the deadly virus and prevent the death of humanity.

A dream that repeats all my life

Since childhood, the hero has been haunted by the same dream. The scene of a shootout at the airport, a girl in tears holds the bloody hand of a dying man. As the plot progresses, James recognizes the girl as Catherine Rayleigh, only with a different hair color and a changed hairstyle. Closer to the finale, Cole realizes: as a child, he was here and saw this scene with his own eyes.

12 Monkeys (1995) Terry Gilliam - the meaning of the film, the plot and the explanation of the ending

Cassandra complex

Catherine Rayleigh is a psychiatrist who has studied the pathology of the Cassandra complex for several years.

12 Monkeys (1995) Terry Gilliam - the meaning of the film, the plot and the explanation of the ending

At the presentation of her book, Katherine, using specific arguments and terminology, convincingly proves the mental abnormality of messengers from the future. Later, Dr. Rayleigh inspires James Cole to do the same. All actions and events lend themselves to logical explanation, mental illness must be treated, the psychiatrist is ready to help the hero.

Dr. Reilly’s insight

Catherine sees the news on TV: the information about the missing boy, previously announced by Cole, is confirmed. The bullet removed from Jim’s leg, according to the results of the examination, was fired before 1920. An early 20th century photograph shows Cole.

The very moment James admits his insanity, Katherine concludes that he is right and not crazy. This means that 5 billion of the world’s inhabitants will soon die, something urgently needs to be done. Catherine clearly understands the conventionality of society’s concepts of mental normality and pathology.

Psychiatry is a new religion. We decide what is right and what is wrong. Determine who is crazy, who is not. Here’s the problem: I’m afraid of losing my faith.

Power Above All

The attacker, whose plan is to spread a deadly virus across the planet, finds himself in an airplane in the final scene. In the next chair is a female scientist from 2035. Those. the authorities of the future know everything, but no task for the physical destruction of the bioterrorist Cole is received. In all likelihood, the underground administration does not intend to change anything.

The world of the future in this film story is bleak and very similar to a prison or a mental hospital. Volunteers really do not have the right to choose, all actions are strictly regulated by the authorities. There is no freedom of choice at all, full control and execution of orders is what is important. It seems that the ruling elite is in no way interested in changing the fate of the lost 5 billion people. The government wants to maintain its power and will do anything to achieve this goal.

12 monkeys - the meaning of the film

Alternative semantic version

A large part of the audience supports the idea that the main character is still a paranoid schizophrenic. Based on this message, all the events of the film take place only in the head of James. Director Terry Gilliam throws out hints as the film progresses: the similarity of an underground prison and an insane asylum, a strange guard in a hospital, Cole’s inner voice. The hero himself at the end of the film is ready to agree with the diagnosis, now the psychiatrist is objecting.

Opponents of this version cite their arguments: the scene with the disappearance of James from the locked cell, the bullet from the First World War does not allow for double interpretation.

Performers of the main roles

The cast of the film “12 Monkeys” is truly stellar: the charismatic Bruce Willis, the inimitable Brad Pitt, the charming Madeline Stowe, as well as David Morse, who portrays the main villain. The roles in the cult film of the mid-90s became an undoubted creative success for these performers, and graced their track records.

The film revealed Bruce Willis’ talent from a completely unexpected side, such roles he had not yet had. Brad Pitt is so convincing as the super-inadequate leader of the Army of the 12 Monkeys that there is not the slightest doubt about the wild madness of his character Jeffrey.

The skill and great work of the wonderful actors made this Gilliam’s film truly unforgettable for many fans.

Interesting facts about the movie 12 Monkeys

Interesting Facts

  • The former Philadelphia jail became the location where scenes from the insane asylum were filmed.
  • In fact, Bruce Willis played for free. He received his fee only after the film was released.
  • Brad Pitt starred as Jeffrey for a small fee, since at that time he did not yet have the status of a high-paid star.
  • The non-trivial performance of the role of the insane son of a microbiologist brought Brad an Oscar nomination, as well as a Golden Globe.

Ending of the film “12 Monkeys”

Young Cole, a boy who saw his own death at the airport, leaves. Everything that should have happened happened. Is it really impossible to fix anything at all, history is predetermined and unchanging?

The tragedy of Cassandra is that she saw the future, but could not change it.

In films of this level, there are no direct and unambiguous interpretations. The viewer is given the opportunity to draw conclusions himself. Probably, this will require looking at the picture more than once. The 12 Monkeys movie definitely deserves it.

Add a comment

  1. Gerry

    But that wasn’t the end. The end was the woman character from the future who was in charge of the time traveler program was on the jet liner in the seat next to the man who was spreading the virus. The movie was about sending time travelers to collect intelligence so that they could discover how the virus was released. MAYBE….they learned what they needed and now are closing in on the man responsible and it remains to be seen if the past can indeed be changed. It wasn’t up to Bruce’s character to stop it, just to gather more information. He was sacrificed to save humanity.