From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
12 Monkeys is a 1995 science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam, inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 short film La jetée, and starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, and Christopher Plummer.
After Universal Studios acquired the rights to remake La Jetée as a full-length film, David and Janet Peoples were hired to write the script. Under Terry Gilliam's direction, Universal granted the filmmakers a $29.5 million budget, and filming lasted from February to May 1995. The film was shot mostly in Philadelphia and Baltimore, where the story was set.
James Cole (Willis) is a convicted criminal living in a grim post-apocalyptic future. In 1996–97, the Earth's surface was contaminated by a virus so deadly that it forced the surviving population to live underground. To earn a pardon, Cole allows scientists to send him on dangerous missions to the past to collect information on the virus, thought to be released by a terrorist organization known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. If possible, he is to obtain a pure sample of the original virus so a cure can be made. Throughout the film, Cole is troubled with recurring dreams involving a chase and a shooting in an airport.
On Cole's first trip, he arrives in Baltimore in 1990, not 1996 as planned. He is arrested and hospitalized in a mental institution on the diagnosis of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe). There, he encounters Jeffrey Goines (Pitt), a fellow mental patient with fanatical animal rights and anti-consumerist leanings. Cole tries unsuccessfully to leave a voicemail on a number monitored by the scientists in the future. After a failed escape attempt, Cole is restrained and locked in a cell, but then disappears, returning to the future. Back in his own time, Cole is interviewed by the scientists, who play a distorted voice mail message which gives the location of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and states that they are responsible for the virus. He is also shown photos of numerous people, including Goines. The scientists then send him back to 1996.
Cole kidnaps Railly and sets out in search of Goines, learning that he is the founder of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. When confronted, however, Goines denies any involvement with the virus and suggests that wiping out humanity was Cole's idea, originally broached at the asylum in 1990. Cole vanishes again as the police approach. After Cole disappears, Railly begins to doubt her diagnosis of Cole when she finds evidence that he is telling the truth, including a photograph from World War I in which Cole appears. Cole, on the other hand, convinces himself that his future experiences are hallucinations, and persuades the scientists to send him back again. Railly attempts to settle the question of Cole's sanity by leaving a voice mail on the number he provided, creating the message the scientists played prior to his second mission. They both now realize that the coming plague is real, and make plans to enjoy the time they have left.
On their way to the airport, they learn that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is a red herring; all the Army has done is delay traffic by releasing all the animals in the zoo. At the airport, Cole leaves a last message telling the scientists they are on the wrong track following the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, and that he will not return. He is soon confronted by Jose (Jon Seda), an acquaintance from his own time, who gives Cole a handgun and instructions to complete his mission. At the same time, Railly spots the true culprit behind the virus: Dr. Peters (David Morse), an assistant at the Goines virology lab. Peters is about to embark on a tour of several cities around the world, which matches the sequence (memorized by Cole) of viral outbreaks. Cole, while fighting through security, is fatally shot as he tries to stop Peters. As Cole dies in Railly's arms, she makes eye contact with a small boy – the young James Cole witnessing his own death; the scene that will replay in his dreams for years to come. Dr. Peters, aboard the plane with the plague, sits down next to Jones (Carol Florence), one of the lead scientists in the future.
Memory, time, and technology
- "Cole has been thrust from another world into ours and he's confronted by the confusion we live in, which most people somehow accept as normal. So he appears abnormal, and what's happening around him seems random and weird. Is he mad or are we?"
12 Monkeys studies the subjective nature of memories and their effect upon perceptions of reality. Examples of false memories include:
- Cole's recollection of the airport shooting, which is altered each time he has a dream.
- A "mentally divergent" man at the asylum who has false memories.
- Railly telling Cole "I remember you like this" when they are seen in disguise for the first time.
References to time, time travel, and monkeys are scattered throughout the film, including the Woody Woodpecker cartoon "Time Tunnel" playing on the TV in a hotel room, the Marx Brothers film Monkey Business (1931) on TV in the asylum and the subplots of monkeys (drug testing, news stories and animal rights). The film is also a study of modern civilization's declining efforts to communicate with each other due to the interference of technology.
12 Monkeys is inspired by the French short film La jetée (1962), specifically, both protagonists being haunted by the image of their own death. The climaxes for both films also take place in an airport.
Like La Jetée, 12 Monkeys contains references to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Toward the end of the film, Cole and Railly hide in a theater showing a 24-hour Hitchcock marathon and watch a scene from Vertigo. Railly then transforms herself with a blonde wig, as Judy (Kim Novak) transformed herself into blonde Madeleine in Vertigo; James sees her emerge within a red light, as Scottie (James Stewart) saw Judy emerge within a green light. Brief notes of Bernard Herrmann's film score can also be heard. Railly also wears the same coat Novak wore in the first part of Vertigo. The scene at Muir Woods National Monument, where Judy (as Madeleine) looks at the growth rings of a felled redwood and traces back events in her past life, resonates with larger themes in 12 Monkeys. Cole and Railly later have a similar conversation while the same music from Vertigo is repeated. The Muir Woods scene in Vertigo is also re-enacted in La Jetée.
In a previous scene in the film, Cole wakes up in a hospital bed with scientists of the future talking to him in chorus. This is a direct homage to the "Dry Bones" scene in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective.
- Bruce Willis as James Cole
- Madeleine Stowe as Kathryn Railly
- Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines
- Christopher Plummer as Dr. Goines
- Jon Seda as Jose
- Christopher Meloni as Lt. Halperin
- David Morse as Dr. Peters
- Frank Gorshin as Dr. Fletcher
- Vernon Campbell as Tiny
- Lisa Gay Hamilton as Teddy
- Bob Adrian as Geologist
- Simon Jones as Zoologist
- Carol Florence as Astrophysicist/Jones
- Bill Raymond as Microbiologist
- Thomas Roy as a street preacher