Time travel in Twelve Monkeys

The simplest and by far the most consistent explanation for everything that happens in Twelve Monkeys is that there is exactly one timeline which cannot be altered.

Naturally, explaining everything in chronological order doesn't make for the most comprehensible explanation any more than it (ever!) makes for the most compelling story. There's also no point in reciting the story from Cole's perspective because the movie (and, for example, Wikipedia's plot summary) follows this very closely. So for the sake of novelty I will take a different perspective, that of the heroes of the story: the scientists.


In winter 1996/1997 a virus was distributed across the world. The virus soon mutated, no cure could be found, and some five billion people - 99% of the human species - died. The survivors retreated underground. It's now about thirty years later, and the scientist/rulers of the world are working to take back the surface of the planet. To do this, they need to gather a sample of the virus in its pure form, from before it mutated, and to do this they have developed a rudimentary form of time travel.

Because this form of time travel is dangerous, the people they choose to send back are convicted prisoners and many of the prisoners are mentally ill. During early attempts, the "volunteers" arrive far too far in the distant past, where some of them go down in history as doomsday prophets. "Science ain't an exact science with these clowns, but they're getting better. You're lucky you didn't end up in ancient Egypt!" Ignaz Semmelweis, mentioned in the movie as the father of germ theory, is possibly one of these volunteers. Some volunteers arrive in the more recent history and become conventional placard-wielding "The End Of The World Is Nigh" types: "You! You're one of us!" (Of course, presumably not all such people are time travellers.) Even the completely sane "volunteers" are taken as insane by the people they meet, as well as being cursed with the "Cassandra complex" Railly refers to in her lecture - "the agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it". As a result, the scientists' information-gathering process is slow: "We've had some misfortunes with... unstable types."

The prophets in the Middle Ages would have had to hang around for years rather than days to make a mark on history. And at the beginning of the movie Cole notes that "none of the volunteers come back", although his cellmate Jose corrects him with a slightly updated rumour that some do. So it's likely that the "tracking" technology, whereby a tracker implanted in the volunteer's tooth can be used to bring the volunteer back to the present, isn't invented until later in the project, or that it malfunctions when a volunteer is sent too far into the past. Plus, at least one of the volunteers removes his teeth to stay in the past rather than return to the relatively harsh present.

As time passes, the time travel technology improves, meaning that volunteers cluster and become more numerous towards the end of 1996.

As well as sending people into the past (and occasionally successfully bringing them back to the present for interrogating), the scientists are collecting archaeological data in the present: photographs, newspapers and audio data painstakingly reconstructed from old voicemail messages. The information available to them is a confusing and contradictory hodge-podge of mostly garbage, analogous to the physical mess of technology that makes up their typical Terry Gilliam world. Circumstantial evidence such as the "WE DID IT" graffiti has led them to the conclusion that the self-proclaimed Army of the Twelve Monkeys is the organisation responsible for the virus being released. This is why, towards the end of 1996, Biblical Revelation types also seem to cluster around the building in Philadelphia where the Twelve Monkeys are based.

As we join the story the time machine is becoming more advanced and the scientists have run down their list of candidate agents to reach James Cole. As the scientists probably do to every volunteer, they tell Cole they'll be sending him back to October 1996 and give him a big smile and a lot of confidence. But they send Cole to Baltimore in April 1990 by mistake.

After a few days have passed, he is brought back to the present and interrogated. At the same time, they have also just finished decoding the first telephone call:

"The Freedom For Animals Association on Second Avenue is the secret headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. They're the ones who're going to do it. I can't do any more. I have to go now. Have a merry Christmas!"

The scientists collectively make up a really interesting character. On the first impression they were sinister and ineffable, a vaguely malicious pantheon ruling a harsh, permanent underground dystopia and testing their dangerous experimental time machine on semi-willing live volunteers. It's when Cole comes back from his first trip through time that it becomes clear that this is an act. Cole tells the scientists that they sent him to 1990 instead, and their mask slips. Suddenly, they're looking around at each other, confused, double-checking their written notes, scrabbling to figure out what they did wrong. They aren't wacky trickster gods messing with Cole's life and brain for a lark; this is deadly serious and they really need it to work. Not only are the scientists the real heroes of the story, this isn't just an alliance of convenience: they and Cole really are on the same side.

Cole doesn't have a lot of useful information for them because of the mishap, but he has a promising lead: he met Goines, one of their suspects. The second time the scientists send him, they're much less clinical about the operation. The smiles and the encouragement are warmer and more genuine.

When Cole is brought home the second time, he has much more useful information to report. Cole reports - while "under the influence" - that he travelled to Philadelphia where he successfully connected the Army of the Twelve Monkeys with Jeffrey Goines and his father Leland Goines, a world-famous virologist. This information is hard enough for the scientists to act upon. They grant Cole the pardon he was working for. Cole successfully negotiates with the scientists, whom he now believes (or wants to believe) are hallucinations, to be sent back in time a third time. The scientists in turn believe that their information is essentially complete, so they agree. They provide Cole with their latest, most accurate information about the path of the virus, and send him successfully to 12 December 1996, the day before the outbreak.

This time, when they try to bring him back, it doesn't work. Cole has dug the tracker out of his tooth in order to stay in the past - that is, to stay sane - permanently. Then the scientists unscramble the dismaying second voicemail message:

"I don't know whether you're there or not. Maybe you just clean carpets. If you do, you're lucky. You're gonna live a long, happy life. But if you other guys are out there, if you're picking this up, forget about the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. They didn't do it. It was a mistake. Someone else did it. The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is just a bunch of dumb kids playing revolutionaries. Listen, I've done my job. I did what you wanted. Good luck. I'm not coming back."

The scientists are back to square one. All their data is for nothing. Cole, their best agent and the only person who might have the slightest idea where they should be looking instead, has gone rogue.

It's now the morning of 13 December 1996, and events become rapidly more confusing as we accelerate towards the pivotal scene at Philadelphia Airport. How much time has passed in the future is unclear, but it seems that much more information, solid information, has been gathered by the scientists by the time that they recruit Cole's cellmate, Jose. Jose is told the whole story and sent back to locate Cole to get him back on task, or to shoot Railly if he doesn't cooperate. (How do the scientists know about her?) Jose catches up with Cole at Philadelphia airport. (How did the scientists know where to find him?) Jose presents Cole with a gun. ("Who am I supposed to shoot?" Cole asks, but Jose disappears. It's a fair question. The no-brainer answer is "Peters", but the scientists must know that it is impossible for Peters to die now. Are they trying to make sure Cole has the weapon so that he himself is gunned down? So how do they know about that? And why are they trying to preserve a timeline which they know is indestructible? And who is the man with the white crew-cut?)

So now we hit the singularity. Events are passing too fast: plotlines are wrapping up so rapidly that the movie has to be slowed down to keep track of it all. While seconds pass in 1996, an arbitrary amount of time has passed in the future. The scientists have all of the information now. Their knowledge is perfect; their time travel technology is perfect; they know who did it and how and exactly where and exactly when.

One of the scientists, the one credited as "Astrophysicist", is sent back in time as promised. Arriving long before all the commotion, she books the seat next to Peters on his flight out of Philadelphia. During the flight, she'll steal a sample of the virus in its pure form and take it back to the future and then, in a matter of months, humanity will retake the planet.

Cole dies, and Railly will die too, but Twelve Monkeys has a happy ending.

Other observations

Is Cole actually just "mentally divergent", and are the sequences in the future hallucinations?

I don't think so.

The movie is dense with pointers towards this conclusion, far too many to list here. The biggest problem is the World War I bullet retrieved from Cole's leg. The sequence in WWI could be a hallucination like the rest, but the bullet is a physical inexplicable object and it's Railly, not Cole, who digs it out and can't explain it. If Cole really is insane, then we're forced to conclude that the ballistics report scene, for which Cole isn't present, is also part of Cole's hallucinations, or that Railly has fully joined him in his psychosis and that the hallucination is hers. If we accept this, so much of the movie has been called into question that we might as well throw our hands up and settle for "Everybody is crazy; nothing in the film is literally happening", which is admittedly not unsupportable:

"Psychiatry, it's the latest religion. We decide what's right and wrong, we decide who's crazy and not. I'm in trouble here. I'm losing my faith."

...but is about as satisfying an explanation as "It's just a movie!"

In one of Cole's dreams, the man in the yellow jacket is clearly Jeffrey Goines, not Peters.

Yes, this is the third dream, occurring after Cole returns to the future the first time. This is the only thing in the movie which doesn't fit my "single unmodifiable timeline" reading, an outlying data point. On the one hand, it's just a dream, Cole isn't the world's sharpest mind, this is a memory from 30 years ago, Cole just ran into Goines for the first time but has never met Peters (and never will), and Cole has also just returned to the future, heavily drugged up. But on the other hand, Cole is by all accounts "a good observer" and the rest of the dream seems to stay fixed each time he has it. And as a third possibility, maybe this was just thrown in to stir the pot a bit and make everything line up a little less clearly.

Discussion (29)

2013-02-02 20:28:00 by qntm:

I'm going to put together some sort of system whereby all of my time travel writeups can be grouped.

2013-02-03 02:14:30 by mavhc:

Compare and contrast: http://www.mjyoung.net/time/monkeys.html

2013-02-03 03:26:38 by Rafe:

Ooh! Ooh! Do Homestuck next please!

2013-02-03 10:10:28 by Sgeo:

Homestuck is still ongoing. Although some time travel model is present, and .. looks complete, I can still think of at least one mystery in the model itself which may be significant. Jr qb abg xabj jurer pybfrq gvzr ybbcf pbzr sebz. Bsgra guvf vf n zlfgrel chfurq nfvqr sebz zrqvn gung unf gurz, ohg va Ubzrfghpx, gurer vf ng yrnfg fbzr fhttrfgvba gung vg'f eryrinag. Qnir erznexf nobhg orvat hfrq gb ubj uvf vaghvgvba funcrf guvatf. Gur ybbc vaibyivat Xnanln snvyvat gb gebyy Ebfr qvq abg vaibyir Ebfr orvat sbeprq gb pb-bcrengr jvgu n fgnoyr gvzr ybbc, engure, vg jnf qhr gb Wbua orunivat nppbeqvat gb uvf jvyy. I remember seeing a post about that somewhere, but don't feel like looking right now.

2013-02-03 18:05:37 by Silhalnor:

At Sgeo, Did... you just speak in grimdark? How am I supposed to read that? Is there a decoder somewhere?

2013-02-03 20:44:28 by Dan:

No, he spoke in rot13, which I admit is a fairly clever and effective way to spoiler tag something that I've never seen anyone do before.

2013-02-03 22:00:47 by Silhalnor:

Ah, interesting. Now I can decode it. I'll have to learn how it works though... interesting that it retains punctuation and normal word lengths. It looks surprisingly similar to Rose's grimdark speech... makes me wonder if I can decode that too. I've got something to say about HomeStuck's time travel mechanics. Spoiler. V gubhtug n zber vagrerfgvat zlfgrel jnf jung znxrf Nycun Gvzryvarf fcrpvny. Guvf unf svanyyl orra gbhpurq ba erpragyl fnlvat gung gur cngu gung Nycun gvzryvarf gnxr vf n cneg bs n ynetre orvat. Nyy bgure gvzryvarf, gung vf gb fnl "Qbbzrq gvzryvarf," ner phyyrq sbe vg'f jryy orvat. For your convenience: http://rot13-encoder-decoder.waraxe.us/

2013-02-03 23:43:18 by Jon:

>Ooh! Ooh! Do Homestuck next please! You know not the magnitude of what you ask.

2013-02-03 23:50:13 by qntm:

I do, and I'm not doing it. Homestuck is *Biblically* long and my eyes slide right off the web page after two slides of those interminable chat logs.

2013-02-04 00:05:38 by MichaelGrosberg:

There's also www.rot13.com - easier to remember.

2013-02-04 04:22:24 by Silhalnor:

I must agree to some extent about the chat logs. At least, the ones from earlier in the comic. Particularly the ones with Dave's raps.... It gets better later though. Some people recommend skipping the first couple of acts altogether and going back to read them later on which might work for you, Sam. If you care. To return to the topic of time travel in 12 Monkeys; could it be that the scientists are mistaken and the time line can in fact be changed? Reminds me of The Terminator (just the first one) in which the machines believed that the time line was malleable but the ending implied otherwise.

2013-02-11 13:32:43 by george:

Let's Read Homestuck by the HomestuckCoLab is a rather fast way to go through the plot, it takes far less time than reading.

2013-02-27 15:25:03 by cellocgw:

Not to toss a total wet blanket over this thread, but: 12 Monkeys is a jazzed-up remake of "La Jetee," and thereby constrained to the theory of time-travel put forth therein. At least it wasn't "12 Monkees" :-)

2014-02-18 08:03:30 by T:

The scientist are the bad guys. The past can be changed, otherwise cole would not have be able to see himself die as that could not have happened the first time (or time is a loop) through history. The virus wasn't an issue as cole was exposed to it as a child and therefor the only way he could be alive if he was immune (this could be debated on contamination rates and other stuff). The so called scientist were using the threat of the virus to control the population but the also need to make it look like they were making progress. They purposeless sent him to 1990 to through him off and get him sent to an insane asylum to introduce him to the idea that he was going insane they then used the "voice in his head" to further push him the way they wanted. They put the gun in his hand at the end to get him killed This was all planed by the insurance women and the insane guy on the plan as a (insurance) plan to keep people in line and control a decline society. But this is just a theory a game... wait I mean a movie theory

2014-06-24 07:41:44 by harryharmful:

^^^ true that

2014-09-19 23:14:16 by John W:

Think you're broadly right about the one fixed timeline. It is the only one that makes sense of the film. After all why worry about messing with a timeline that had killed five billion people! How likely is you would make things worse than that? Two questions: if people really moved back in time wouldn't they end up in outer space since the planet/sun/galaxy are constantly moving & so the earth is not in the same point in space in the two times? Secondly and rather more prosaicly: instead of using telephone calls to communicate through time why not just get the time traveller to bury a note in a sealed container somewhere safe? Surely far more reliable

2014-10-09 17:47:43 by John:

Just watched this movie for the first time yesterday, had to find somewhere to read more about others Analysis of it, and rant a bit: I wonder if the reason Goines was in one of the dreams, was because the timeline had been altered to a degree. The big events that were happening could not be changed, but the people involved could be. Goines was in the 3rd dream because after the initial trips back, Goines was going to be the one to spread the virus. -this is counter to the idea of people be added to Coles dream as he met them. Because of the suggestions of Cole to Goines, it changed Goines plan, and because of the trip to WW1, it changed Railly's research, and influence on the scientist working with Goines father. This changed who would perform the events, but not whether or not the events would happen. Cole probably was mentally ill, in addition to be disoriented from time travel, adding further to the viewers confusion in what was real and what was not real. The attention to detail is so fantastic, the scanning machine in the Asylum and the Time machine were similar in design. The Scientists creepy way to all speaking in quick succession, and speaking things that Cole might have fears about doing. We never know of the crimes of Cole of his backstory between 1996 and 2035. Events off screen are alluded to about things Cole did before his first appearance in each year. In 1990, he's been in a scuffle with police. In 1996 he was tracking Railly before he kidnaps here. His comments about his name are curious. "Nobody calls me Jack" after Railly first called him Jack. and "You always used to call me Jack" (or something like this) after she called him Mr. Cole. Also, Railly's feeling of familiarity with Cole, and her Stockholm Syndrome (only alluded to). Her comment about "This is how I remember you" referring to something that hasn't happened for her yet. Made me wonder if those things were actually in Jack's mind. Him being called Bob repeatedly by the voice that speaks to him (usually in the future, but also by a character in the past) His memory and understanding of the boy from Fresno who pulled a prank, and his memory of his father telling him not to cry wolf. This is other evidence that he was truly a time traveler. Another question: Did all these events play out the first time the Virus was released? or did time need to advance to the future before the people could be planted in a new past, filled with confused and mentally ill time travelers that lead to Railly's additional research content? Cole has already gone into the time loop once before, or it was always there...

2014-11-15 05:41:31 by ConfusedMonkey:

I have watched 12 Monkeys numerous times over the years and I can't seem to get past one minor detail and I'm looking for some opinions. Many of you maintain that the final scene explains the story and that the scientist from the future who is in "insurance" either takes a sample of the virus or is infected with the virus and takes it back to the future with her in order to create a vaccine. While this is a plausible theory that I would like to believe, I can't get past the life and story of James Cole. Remember, he witnessed the scene at the airport twice in this movie as a child - once at the end of the movie (which is obvious), and once 39 years earlier. We know this because the grown up Cole has memories of this event in his dreams. As it turns out, the events that transpire at the airport to grown up Cole do so in the exact manner that Cole remembers witnessing as a child. Because this is the case, is it not correct to assume that the scientist was on that very plane 39 years ago when Cole was a child looking on? And if so, why wasn't a vaccine created by the time young Cole grew up? To take it one step further, is it not safe to assume that the young Cole at the end of the movie will grow up and lead the exact same life as grown up Cole in the movie? This leads me to believe that that virus is incurable and that this is actually a never ending story that Cole keeps reliving. This is probably an exercise in futlility and I should just give up on trying to understand the movie...

2014-12-28 07:34:06 by dgtloutlaw:

Cole is an unreliable narrator... The Bullet can be explained away as anything else can be. It's something you are hearing second hand. It's his story. He said the bullet went through ballistics and checked out. We trusted it. Goines, Rally, the Scientists are all constructs of his "mentally divergent" brain. It is his explanation of why he has been committed. No one seems to understand his greater purpose.

2015-02-19 03:12:55 by Bill:

I watched 12 Monkeys again. In the last scene the scientist receives a second drink. I conclude the drink that is being offered to the man is drugged or more likely poisoned by the insurance scientist changing the future and isolating the plague to Philadelphia.

2015-06-08 22:11:58 by Jesse M.:

@Confused Monkey: "Because this is the case, is it not correct to assume that the scientist was on that very plane 39 years ago when Cole was a child looking on? And if so, why wasn't a vaccine created by the time young Cole grew up?" Yes, if the timeline was fixed it would always have been true that the scientist was on the plane. However, if the scientist knew it was a fixed timeline and knew that most of humanity died in the plague, then she would know that any attempt to change this would inevitably fail, and thus her plan must have been just to return to her own time (2035) to create the vaccine to give to the people of that time, not to create a vaccine at an earlier point in history than the one she had come from.

2015-10-30 03:08:19 by 12 Monkeys:

No, the scientist is not attempting to stop the virus. It was already opened at the airport infecting a ton of people. The people on the plane were infected and the virus would spread anyway. They acknowledge this is a Minkowskian block view of time countless times in the movie, it's the whole point. She is not 30 years younger. Clearly, she was sent from the 2035 (or beyond) to complete the mission Cole failed at, to return to 2035 with the pure sample of the virus, that's why she says she is in "insurance". It's a wry joke. She is the backup plan if Cole fails. The dream sequence where Goines is the culprit is just Cole projecting Goines who he believes to be the culprit into his childhood memory. All points in time simultaneously exist. You can't change it, because there is no past, present, or future. These are just words we use to describe our perception of time. They even use the film he and Railey watch as an analogy. Think about time as a movie reel. The frame that has light shined through it is the "present". That's the clip you're viewing, but if you pull out the film real, you will see that all frames of the film simultaneously exist, but still there is a finite "beginning" and "end". Not a single detail of the past can be changed, it's a time loop basically.

2015-10-30 03:10:52 by 12 Monkeys:

Oh and the unreliable narrator aspect is very clearly intended by Gilliam, he has stated as much. You are definitely lead to believe it's actually happening, but it's supposed to create a seed of doubt and make you feel like you might be crazy. It helps you get inside Cole's head. The voice he hears at various times, the one who calls him "Bob" is further evidence of this.

2015-10-30 03:20:12 by 12 Monkeys:

The biggest people mistake is trying to somehow muttle the A theory and B theory of time when discussing this movie. It purely describes to the B theory. The scientist was always on that plane, everything always happens the exact same way. The future does not happen "after" the past, that's just how humans perceive it because they are moving along the time axis in one direction at the speed of light. Again think of it as a film reel. The ending of the movie (the physical frames) already exist. Just because you are watching the beginning doesn't mean the end doesn't exist. This theory of time reconciles free will with predeterminism (it is free will to the person who can only perceive the "present" and predeterminism to the omnicient viewer of the entire thread of time, like how Tralfamadorians see in Slaughterhouse 5). I don't get how people even debate this. It's literally the point of the movie and is stated so many times within the movie and explored in various ways. The reason you can't go back and change time is because if you had done so it already would have happened, if that makes sense. It's why the grandfather paradox does not apply. This is an airtight, perfect time travel script. Probably the only one ever made.

2015-11-19 19:12:12 by Tony :

I just watched this film twice this week at the theater. I had previously seen it 5 or 6 times. I don't have much to add to the previous discussions but... did anybody notice that Cole says something like, " all I see are dead people?" I believe he says this after killing the thug in the theater. Willis himself is from the future.

2016-03-15 18:32:28 by Jesse M.:

"Clearly, she was sent from the 2035 (or beyond) to complete the mission Cole failed at, to return to 2035 with the pure sample of the virus, that's why she says she is in "insurance". It's a wry joke. She is the backup plan if Cole fails. " I agree that her mission was just to obtain a "pure" sample of the virus and return to her own time, but I don't think her presence of the plane indicated Cole had "failed" exactly. I think it was only because of the information he obtained that they were able to pinpoint exactly where and when the virus had first been released into the air (if they already knew they wouldn't have been pressing him so hard for details every time he returned), and by who. So while Cole didn't fully succeed in his mission, she was just completing the last step of the mission that he had already come very close to completing. I'm also not sure if her comment about being in "insurance" was meant to suggest "insurance in case Cole fails", or something more along the lines of "and insurance policy to to prevent the human race from going completely extinct when disaster hits".

2017-04-25 01:13:25 by 12 Monkeys:

I think you're correct that it's the latter. I just meant that Cole had failed in the ultimate step of returning with the virus. He certainly succeeded in leading them to the virus. In fact, I often wonder if they gave him the gun at the end just to ensure he would lead them to the correct person. They knew (so did he) that the past couldn't be changed so why else give him the gun? Once he ripped out his dental implants, they couldn't bring him back anyway so there was no chance of him returning with the virus. I think they saw him as a sacrificial lamb.

2017-08-26 01:22:49 by lateInParty:

The scientists caused the virus outbreak. Their plans messed with the psychologist and she approached Goins father, who in turn, worried about his son, trusted the security measures to Peters who was already obsessed with doomsday thoughts. The present in the movie exists in that way because of the possibility of time travel. The whole timeline is set in that way because time travel became possible. Cole was always in the trenches in WWI, his appearance a source of tales amongst others, the psychologist pursued as an academic the history of doomsday prophets because Cole crossed paths with her, Father Goins botched the security beacuse he was afraid of his son, and finally the virus was released. The scientists in the present can't change the past - everything they do with the time travel has already been a part of the past. Their arrogance is the reason for the demise of the human race and once more time travel is bad.

2021-09-22 05:47:28 by Gav:

Love the writeup, and it made me realise just how 'happy' the ending actually is. (err... or, at least as happy as endings can be in a Gilliamesque dystopian story). One thing which just occurred to me is an interpretation of the "insurance" comment the scientist makes, and I think it has nothing to do with Cole, or her mission following his. The function of typical financial insurance is actually not to _prevent_ disaster. For example, it'd be a stretch to classify a fire extinguisher as 'insurance', instead we'd call it disaster avoidance or something. Instead, the function of insurance is to [attempt to] make you whole again after a disaster has occurred. It doesn't bring the burned down building back, but provides resources to allow a new building to be painfully and slowly reconstructed. The scientist is not there to prevent the disaster (and indeed can't). But She's going to provide resources to help humanity rebuild itself again as best it can.

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