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12 Monkeys is a 1995 science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam, inspired by the French short film La Jetée (1962), and starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, and Christopher Plummer. The film depicts the world in 2035 as devastated by disease, forcing the human population to live underground. Convict James Cole (Willis) "volunteers" for time travel duty to gather information in exchange for prison release. When he first arrives in the past, Cole is arrested and locked up in a psychiatric hospital, where he meets Dr. Kathryn Railly (Stowe), a psychiatrist, and Jeffrey Goines (Pitt), the insane son of a world-renowned virologist.

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 Philadelphiamarker and Baltimoremarker, where the story was set.

The film was released to critical praise and grossed approximately $168 million worldwide. Brad Pitt was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and won a Golden Globe for his performance. The film also won and was nominated for various categories at the Saturn Awards.


James Cole (Willis) is a convicted criminal living in a grim post-apocalyptic future. In 1996-1997, 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 Baltimoremarker 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 animal rights and anti-consumerist leanings. Cole tries unsuccessfully to leave a voice mail 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 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. 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, safely aboard, sits down next to Jones (Carol Florence), one of the lead scientists in the future.




The genesis of 12 Monkeys came from executive producer Robert Kosberg, who had been a fan of the French short film La Jetée (1962). Kosberg persuaded the film's director, Chris Marker, to let him pitch the project to Universal Pictures, seeing it as a perfect basis for a full-length science fiction film. Universal reluctantly agreed to purchase the remake rights and hired David and Janet Peoples to write the screenplay. Producer Charles Roven chose Terry Gilliam to direct because he believed the filmmaker's style was perfect for 12 Monkeys's nonlinear storyline and time travel subplot. Gilliam had just abandoned a film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities when he signed to direct 12 Monkeys. The film also represents the second film for which Gilliam did not write or co-write the screenplay. Although he prefers to direct his own scripts, he was captivated by the Peoples' "intriguing and intelligent script. The story is disconcerting. It deals with time, madness and a perception of what the world is or isn't. It is a study of madness and dreams, of death and re-birth, set in a world coming apart."

Universal took longer than expected to greenlight 12 Monkeys, although Gilliam had two stars (Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt) and a firm budget of $29.5 million (low for a Hollywood science fiction film). Universal's production of Waterworld (1995) had resulted in various cost overruns. To get 12 Monkeys greenlighted, Gilliam convinced Willis to lower his normal asking price. Because of Universal's strict production incentives and his previous history with the studio on Brazil (1985), Gilliam received the right of final cut privilege. The Writers Guild of America was also skeptical of the "inspired by" credit for La Jetée and Chris Marker.


Gilliam's initial casting choices were Nick Nolte as James Cole and Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Goines, but Universal objected. Gilliam, who first met Bruce Willis while casting Jeff Bridges' role in The Fisher King (1991), believed Willis evoked Cole's characterization as being "somebody who is strong and dangerous but also vulnerable." The actor had a trio of tattoos drawn onto his scalp and neck each day when filming: one that indicated his prisoner number, and a pair of barcodes on each side of his neck.

Gilliam cast Madeleine Stowe as Dr. Kathryn Railly because he was impressed by her performance in Blink (1994). The director first met Stowe when he was casting his abandoned film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. "She has this incredible ethereal beauty and she's incredibly intelligent," Gilliam reasoned. "Those two things rest very easily with her, and the film needed those elements because it has to be romantic."

Gilliam originally believed that Brad Pitt was not right for the role of Jeffrey Goines, but the casting director convinced him otherwise. Pitt was cast for a relatively small salary, when he was still an "up and coming" actor. By the time of 12 Monkeys' release, however, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994), Legends of the Fall (1994), and Seven (1995) had been released, making Pitt an A-list actor, which drew greater attention to the film and boosted its box-office standing. In Philadelphia, months before filming, Pitt spent weeks at Temple Universitymarker's hospital, visiting and studying the psychiatric ward to prepare for his role.


Filming for 12 Monkeys lasted from February 8, 1995 to May 6, 1995. Shooting on location in Philadelphiamarker and Baltimoremarker (including the Senator Theatremarker) in the winter time was fraught with weather problems. There were also technical glitches with the futuristic mechanical props. Because the film has a nonlinear storyline, continuity errors occurred and some scenes had to be reshot. Gilliam also injured himself when he went horseback riding. Despite setbacks, however, the director managed to stay within the budget and was only a week behind his shooting schedule. "It was a tough shoot," acknowledged Jeffrey Beecroft (Mr. Brooks, Dances with Wolves), the production designer. "There wasn't a lot of money or enough time. Terry is a perfectionist, but he was really adamant about not going over budget. He got crucified for Munchausen, and that still haunts him."

The filmmakers were not allowed the luxury of sound stages, thus they had to find abandoned buildings or landmarks in Philadelphia to use. The exterior shots of the climactic airport scene were conducted at the Baltimore-Washington ITM Airportmarker, while the Philadelphia Civic Centermarker's Convention Hall housed interior scenes. Filming at the psychiatric hospital was done at the Eastern State Penitentiarymarker.


Gilliam undertook the same filmmaking style from his own Brazil (1985), including the art direction and cinematography (specifically using fresnel lenses). The interrogation room where Cole is being interviewed by the scientists was based on the work of Lebbeus Woods; these scenes were shot at three different power stations (two in Philadelphia and one in Baltimore). Gilliam intended to show Cole being interviewed through a multi-screen interrogation TV set because he felt the machinery evoked a "nightmarish intervention of technology. You try to see the faces on the screens in front of you, but the real faces and voices are down there and you have these tiny voices in your ear. To me that's the world we live in, the way we communicate these days, through technical devices that pretend to be about communication but may not be."

The art department made sure that the 2035 underground world would only use pre-1996 technology as a means to depict the bleak future. To create the majority of visual effects sequences, Gilliam awarded the shots to Peerless Camera, the London-based effects studio he founded in the late-1970s with visual effects supervisor Kent Houston (The Golden Compass, Casino Royale). Additional digital compositing was done by The Mill, while Cinesite worked on film scanning services.


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?"
— Director Terry Gilliam

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 a barely recognizable Cole and Railly are seen in disguise for the first time.

References to time, time travel and monkeys are scattered throughout the film, including the Woody Woodpecker "Time Tunnel" cartoon playing on the TV in a hotel room, The Marx Brothers movie 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.

Cinematic allusions

12 Monkeys is inspired by the French short film La Jetée (1962), notably the story of both protagonists being haunted by the image of their own death. The climax for both films also take place in an airport.

Similar to La Jetée, 12 Monkeys also presents Hitchcockian elements and references to Alfred Hitchcock's own 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 of 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 1958 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 Monumentmarker, where Judy (posing as Madeleine) looks at the growth rings of a felled redwood and traces back events in her past life, resonates with 12 Monkeys' larger themes. Cole and Railly later have a similar conversation while the same music from Vertigo is repeated.

The film also makes use of black comedy elements.



12 Monkeys was given a limited release in the United States on December 29, 1995. When the 1,629 theater wide release came on January 5, 1996, the film earned $13.84 million in its opening weekend. 12 Monkeys eventually grossed $57.14 million in US totals and $111.7 million in other countries, coming to a worldwide total of $168.84 million. The film was able to hold the #1 spot on box office charts for two weeks in January, before dropping from competition to From Dusk till Dawn, Mr. Holland's Opus and Black Sheep. 12 Monkeys was a major financial success because it out-matched its $29.5 million budget.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment's special edition release of 12 Monkeys in May 2005 contains an audio commentary by director Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (a making-of documentary) and production notes.

Critical analysis

The film also received a positive response from critics. Based on 49 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, 85% of the critics enjoyed 12 Monkeys with an average rating of 7.2/10. The consensus reads: "The plot's a bit of a jumble, but excellent performances and mind-blowing plot twists make 12 Monkeys a kooky, effective experience." The film was more balanced with Rotten Tomatoes' 16 reviewers in the "Top Critics" poll, receiving an 88% approval rating and a 7.1/10 score. By comparison, Metacritic calculated a 74/100 rating, based on 20 reviews.

Roger Ebert observed 12 Monkeys' depiction of the future, finding similarities with Blade Runner (1982; also scripted by David Peoples) and Brazil (1985; also directed by Terry Gilliam). "The film is a celebration of madness and doom, with a hero who tries to prevail against the chaos of his condition, and is inadequate," Ebert wrote. "This vision is a cold, dark, damp one, and even the romance between Willis and Stowe feels desperate rather than joyous. All of this is done very well, and the more you know about movies (especially the technical side), the more you're likely to admire it. And as entertainment, it appeals more to the mind than to the senses."

Desson Thomson of The Washington Post praised the art direction and set design. "Willis and Pitts's performances, Gilliam's atmospherics and an exhilarating momentum easily outweigh such trifling flaws in the script," Thomson reasoned. Peter Travers from Rolling Stone magazine cited the film's success on Gilliam's direction and Willis' performance. Internet reviewer James Berardinelli believed the filmmakers took an intelligent and creative motive for the time travel subplot. Rather than being sent to change the past, James Cole is instead observing it to make a better future. Richard Corliss of Time magazine felt the film's time travel aspect and apocalyptic depiction of a bleaker future was overtly cliché. "In its frantic mix of chaos, carnage and zoo animals, 12 Monkeys is Jumanji (1995) for adults," Corliss wrote.


Brad Pitt was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects. Costume designer Julie Weiss (Hollywoodland, Frida) was also nominated for her work, but lost to James Acheson of Restoration. However, Pitt was able to win Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. Terry Gilliam was honored for his directing duties at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival. 12 Monkeys received positive notices from the science fiction community. The film was nominated the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films awarded 12 Monkeys the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film. Pitt and Weiss also won awards at the 22nd Saturn Awards. Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Gilliam and writers David and Janet Peoples received nominations.

Lebbeus Woods lawsuit

In the beginning of the movie, James is brought into the interrogation room and told to sit in a chair which is attached to a vertical rail on the wall. A sphere supported by a metal armature is suspended directly in front of him, probing for weaknesses as the inquisitors interrogate him. Architect Lebbeus Woods filed a lawsuit against Universal Pictures in February 1996, claiming that his work "Neomechanical Tower (Upper) Chamber" was used without permission. Woods won his lawsuit, earning over $1 million from Universal, and allowed the studio to continue distribution of the movie.


  1. DVD production notes
  2. Christie, Gilliam, pp.226-230
  3. The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, 1997, Universal Home Video
  4. Terry Gilliam, Charles Roven, DVD audio commentary, 1998, Universal Home Video
  5. Christie, Gilliam, pp.231-233

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