Summary of the "12 Monkeys" Movie

by James Roland
Director Terry Gilliam mixed science fiction, mystery and a little comedy in 1995's

Director Terry Gilliam mixed science fiction, mystery and a little comedy in 1995's "12 Monkeys."

Stuart Wilson/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The 1995 time-travel movie "12 Monkeys" brought together the talents of "Blade Runner" screenwriter David Webb Peoples, Monty Python veteran and acclaimed director Terry Gilliam, and a cast that featured Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe and Brad Pitt as he was just becoming a major star. Pitt was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The film won the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.

Characters and Setting

The main characters in "12 Monkeys" are James Cole, played by Willis; psychiatrist Kathryn Railly, played by Stowe; and Jeffrey Goines, played by Pitt. Cole is a convict who reluctantly agrees to a mission that will send him back in time to 1996. In the year 2035, all but 1 percent of the human population has been wiped out by a virus. By going back in time, Cole hopes to find out what he can about the scientist behind the virus and to change history.


Cole is sent to find out more about the virus and a mysterious organization known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys. But Cole is mistakenly sent to 1990. When he tries to explain his mission, he is locked up as a mental patient and assigned to the care of Railly. In the institution he also gets to know Goines, a crazy animal-rights activist and son of a famous virologist.

The Plot

After Cole tries to leave a voice-mail message that is monitored by scientists in the future, he is locked up in solitary confinement. However, he disappears and is brought back to the future, where scientists provide more information about the 12 Monkeys and show him pictures of that group's members, including Goines. Cole is sent back again and kidnaps Railly, with whom he has fallen in love. As police close in, Cole again disappears, and Railly starts to realize that he might have been telling the truth. But Cole starts to think that his future experiences might be hallucinations, and he pleads to be sent back. Cole and Railly realize that the plague is coming, and they vow to enjoy the time they have left. A second person from the future arrives and gives Cole a gun to complete the mission, after Cole learns that the Army of the 12 Monkeys isn't to blame. A scientist in the virology lab, Dr. Peters, is the one planning to spread the virus.

Climax (Spoilers)

Cole attempts to kill Peters, but he is mortally wounded. He dies in Railly's arms, and Peters escapes. He is on a plane, planning to release the virus in major cities. But on the plane he meets a woman who is a scientist from the future. She tells him she's in "insurance." Cole's younger self witnesses his own killing, which the audience comes to realize is the dream that has haunted him his entire life.

About the Author

James Roland started writing professionally in 1987. A former reporter and editor with the "Sarasota Herald-Tribune," he currently oversees such publications as the "Cleveland Clinic Heart Advisor" and UCLA's "Healthy Years." Roland earned his Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Oregon.

Photo Credits

  • Stuart Wilson/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images