The Authoritative 12 Monkeys Timeline Explanation - because while it might seem like you have 12 Monkeys figured out, you probably actually don't. I know I didn't.
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THiNC. was originally crafted to bring under appreciated movies some added limelight. Too often we all herd our way to the box office to see the ten movies Hollywood tells us to watch. But there are so many glorious movies that people completely miss out on because of this flawed mentality. But, movie by movie, we are taking back the darkness. We are reclaiming it with the light!! OK, so maybe that was a little much in the way of hyperbole. Sorry about that. But even if this blog worked for ten years to bring you the film Time Lapse? My work is done here. IT IS SO BRILLIANT! (Go watch it here for free on Tubi. Or iTunes.) Well, today, we are talking about a better known film than Time Lapse, but a time travel movie all the same. It’s one of the few classic movies that I haven’t gotten around to. So I’m pretty excited to get around to talking about 12 Monkeys today. Alright, let’s away shall we? “The Authoritative 12 Monkeys Timeline Explanation”.
I’m assuming that all of you have seen this old classic. If you have not, please do not continue further into this page without heading over here. If you are still unsure that it is worth a watch (???) then might I entice you with an aperitif?
Terry Gilliam, Brad Pitt, & Bruce Willis? Come on. This is literally Brad Pitt’s best movie ever. And no, we aren’t going to discuss this fact. And definitely one of Bruce Willis’ best roles ever as well. Gilliam? It was as if you took his film Brazil, and throttled the set design back from an eleven to a four. And Time Bandits and Fisher King were at 8’s and 9’s. Which, is basically about as much as the normal human can bear of Gilliam. The perfect dose of crazy.
12 Monkeys Movie Timeline?
Since it’s been a while for many of us to see this film, we should probably refamiliarize ourselves with the events. At a high level – Cole, in a series of time traveling trips, attempts to go back to the past in order to prevent a bio-terrorist group from killing 99% of the people on the planet. That’s the big picture of what is happening. But instead of walking through these details as the movie presents them, I would like to review events chronologically – dissecting the main timeline that we are presented with over the course of the movie. It might just be a unique enough vantage to see the film a little differently and open our minds to what is really going on here. But it’ll be important for what comes next as we try to figure out whether or not this is the one and only timeline in the movie.
James Cole (Bruce Willis) arrives from the future, to the trenches of WWI completely accidentally. He is shot in the leg, and then teleported to 1996. This misfire trip is evidenced by a photograph of Cole with another time traveler, Jose. This photograph is later used by Dr. Railly to support her assertion that time travel exists…in the future.
During James Cole’s first time jump, he appears from the future 5 or 6 years too early. He is immediately arrested, then hospitalized in a mental hospital on the diagnosis of Dr. Kathryn Railly. Remember her? Oh, that’s right, we haven’t met her yet. She becomes important through her theories about time travel because of her relationship with Cole. While at the mental ward, Cole meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), an inmate with a tripped out anti-corporatist perspective on life. When he is interviewed by the doctors, he tries to explain that a virus outbreak has already happened. That there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. Ultimately though, Cole vanishes forward in time…even though he is bound in heavy restraints.
Jump 1 – Dr. Railly gives a lecture about the Cassandra complex – you know, Cassandra, right? The Greek woman with the power to see the future, but cursed by the fact that absolutely no one would listen to her. After her lecture, she meets Dr. Peters and they talk about how “alarmists” actually have the sane view of what is coming. Cole comes to the location and kidnaps Dr. Railly. They go in search of Goines, the founder of the Army of the 12 Monkeys. But Goines doesn’t have any involvement with the group. IN FACT, he says that Cole came up with the idea of wiping out humanity by stealing a virus from Goines’ virologist father’s lab. Just as the police are about to catch back up with Cole, he transports back to 2035.
Jump 2 – Arriving back in 1996, he finds Dr. Railly. But this time, he tells Railly he believes that she is right. He is actually insane, just as she has always stated. Railly though, believes Cole’s time traveling stories. She shows him the evidence (including the WWI photo) she has. The two decide they’ll head to the Florida Keys for the coming apocalypse. But they learn that the 12 Monkeys actually aren’t involved in the plot at all. All they did was to release the zoo animals.
Cole, determined to share with the future what he has learned, leaves a final message, telling the scientists that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys is the wrong track. Oh, and by the way, he’s never returning to the future again. Jose, an inmate he’s acquainted with from the future, hands him a gun and tells him to follow orders. Dr. Railly sees Dr. Peters at the airport. Peters, it turns out is an assistant at Goines’ fathers’ lab. Peters is heading around the world in order to release the virus strategically.
James Cole witnesses his future self (which is the big reveal of the entire movie) being shot, and then he watches as Dr. Peters releases the virus starting the killing of over 5 billion people. This destruction forces the rest of humanity underground.
Knowing he has an opportunity to stop the virus, Cole runs through security with the gun. But as he attempts to kill Peters, he is shot by the police, killing him before he is able to stop Peters. Looking through the crowd, Railly finds a young Cole, a small boy, who is unknowingly watching his own death. A scene that will constantly circle through his mind for many years to come. Peters, saved by the local police, heads onto the plane, only to sit next to one of the scientists from the future.
Cole is selected as a “volunteer” to head topside to find evidence of the virus in order to allow the scientists find a cure. The scientists are desperately trying to turn back the clock of the viral decimation that wiped the planet’s inhabitants out. The scientists have also created a rudimentary time travel machine. Obviously, fearing this new time travel technology, they only use criminals in order to test it out. Cole is one such criminal, locked up for unknown crimes. Scientists teleport Cole backwards to 1990.
Returning from 1990: The scientists question Cole about a distorted voicemail message saying that it is the Army of the Twelve Monkeys that released the virus. They believe Jeffrey Goines is involved. Cole is offered a second chance to redeem himself after his crimes. But is accidentally sent to WWI.
Returning from WWI & 1996 travel: Cole believes himself insane now. He doesn’t think anyone he sees here to be real, but just manifestations of his insanity. To say that time travel has negative effects on a human’s psyche is a massive understatement. Oh, boy, does he have to leave 2035 and to get back to 1996. And so he reaffirms his utter devotion to his mission and the scientists from the future.
When The Thing Isn’t The Thing
Every single movie made about time travel isn’t actually a movie about time travel. It’s just not. Instead, it’s actually a movie investigating the intricate details of the philosophical and theological ideas of Determinism and Free Will.
Determinism: noun – PHILOSOPHY, the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.
Free Will: noun – PHILOSOPHY, the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.
And to be clear, almost every single time traveling movie that we are entertained with comes with an inspiring, and uplifting vision of time. It is a vision of time that presupposes that time is malleable. That not only are we predisposed to having free will within our daily lives, but that we also would have free will if given the chance to travel through time. It’s encouraging because it allows us the ability to change our failings, reverse our mistakes, right our wrongs.
But occasionally…rarely, we come across a movie that espouses a truly dark perspective on the world. A perspective that espouses a belief that our fates are all predetermined. That there is nothing that we can do to change them. And even if we were to try something supernatural, like time travel, we still wouldn’t be able to make a reverse the course of our errors.
And yet. AND YET…I will argue from here on out that the world of the Twelve Monkeys Apocalypse isn’t necessarily a Deterministic universe. “WAIT WHAT?!?” I hear you yelling collectively. My short answer to you is this – Just because a tragedy isn’t averted doesn’t mean it couldn’t be averted. So give me a moment to walk you through my logic here and you’ll eventually see what I’m saying. Have I ever failed you before? No. The answer is no, I have not. Good. I’m glad that we are on the same page there.
The Various Timelines Created in Twelve Monkeys
A large swath of these theories are going to logically follow the understanding of general temporal theory. We know for a fact that there have to be multiple timelines at work within the movie of the Twelve Monkeys solely because it is impossible to do certain things without later results. The simplest example of this is the fact that young Cole cannot watch an older self Cole die without experiencing solo first. We know for a fact that young Cole must experience the airport without older Cole first, before he is able to experience it in tandem. It’s a paradox otherwise. So, ergo, there must be multiple timelines occurring within this movie. There are tons of these sorts of examples riddled throughout the film. Which means that if we follow this logic, in order to ascertain what did happen in Timeline1, we mainly get there through an exercise of redaction:
Because Dr. Railly did not talk with Leland Goines, she did not determine that Jeffrey Goines as being dangerous. Which then means that Jeffrey’s father did not change the security around his virii. And then that means Leland’s assistant couldn’t have stolen the diseases necessary to go to Philadelphia International Airport, in order to begin the spread of the murderous contagion around the world. In Timeline1, it is literally impossible for Dr. Peters to have annihilated the planet’s population. At least, not the way that is shown in the final timeline anyway.
Kathryn Railly did not call Leland Goines. Therefore Dr. Goines did not consider Jeffrey dangerous, and did not change the security details surrounding the control of infectious organisms. The assistant therefore did not get access to these organisms, and did not take them to Philadelphia International Airport and begin spreading them around the world. The young James Cole, perhaps six years old in 1996, did not see a man shot in the airport, and did not see Dr. Kathryn Railly, in disguise, running to him. All of those events are dependent upon the return of James Cole from the future, and therefore cannot have happened in the original timeline. I’m not saying it didn’t happen in the original timeline, it just couldn’t have happened the same way in the original timeline.
We can ascertain whether or not we are experiencing an original timeline or a subsequent timeline by whether or not a time traveler has influenced it directly. That was a complicated sentence. Is there a simpler way of saying it? If Cole travels to 1996 and raises the alarm about the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, we know that this couldn’t have originally happened, because he wouldn’t have been there to cause the alarm. But if an event wasn’t influenced by a traveler, we can reasonably guess that the event most likely occurred in the original timeline. One of the troubling realities of this fact is that though we can be sure the virus was released in the original timeline we literally cannot know how it was released originally because the time traveled layers have redacted the truth out of the original timeline, and made it impossible to discover. So, as long as we know there must be an original timeline that begot all other timelines, an unaffected and pure timeline, then from here on out we will call this vague idea of a timeline, Timeline1 from now on.
Investigating the Details of Timeline2
When Cole made his first jump backwards in time, that is when Timeline2 was created. And as you recall from the chronological walk through, he originally landed in 1990. Completely confused, naked, and babbling nonsense, he is taken to prison, then on to Dr. Railly’s mental ward. Now, we know this is Timeline2 because when Cole meets Dr. Railly and Jeffrey Goines, neither of them recognizes him. Right?
Not only that, but the photo of Cole from World War I cannot physically be in her files yet, why? BECAUSE IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET. But Jose has made his jump to the trenches of France. Where he is injured there alone. But, Railly will not be familiar with Cole in any way. Not through the photo. Not through a sense of deja vu from having met him once before. Anything. Cole, determined that he needs to not be locked up, but rather be out, searching for the cause of the coming apocalypse, tries to break out. Railly then heavily sedates him, and locks him up physically. But when he jumps back to 2035, Railly never sees him again. Does that make sense? It’s physically impossible. Her timeline (Timeline2) continues on, and just heads blissfully into the end of the world, with the deaths of 5 billion people without even a hiccup.
Investigating the Details of Timeline3
Our Timeline3 kicks off with Cole making his second trip. He jumps this time directly to World War I, where he lands next to a wounded Jose. The two time travelers chat a second, and then Cole is shot in the leg. And then a photo is taken, but this time, instead of only capturing Jose, it captures both the men. And voila, Cole has just made it possible to arrive in Dr. Railly’s time travel research folder. This is truly significant…why? Because now, Cole will be familiar to Dr. Railly in 1990. When he wasn’t recognized in any way prior. The ripples are beginning to become more and more significant. Not only will she recognize him, she’ll be more sympathetic and will want to help Cole.
Now, Cole’s jumping forward to 1996 is a continuance of the current timeline started in 1917, so we are not creating a new timeline here. Hopefully that logically follows to you, because it is a significant distinction. Now, landing in 1996, the first thing he does is to kidnap Dr. Railly. Cole makes an important comment about the story about Ricky Neuman, the kid “in the well”, which influences Railly’s perspective of Cole significantly. Now, a number of things happen quickly. They are also attacked by two muggers, which ends with one of them dead. Cole encounters, “The Prophet,” who he knows is another time traveler. A manhunt begins looking for Cole, and the now assumed murdered Railly. But Cole learns that The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is based in Philadelphia, and that it is connected to Jeffrey’s father, a significant virologist. But most importantly to this timeline, Railly removes the WWI bullet from Cole’s leg, and keeps the slug.
Jeffrey tells Cole that it was Cole that came up with the idea of releasing the virus. Think about it, Cole has very little memory from Timeline2, and 1990. He was tripped out on drugs most of that trip after all. And now he’s wondering if the cataclysm really is his fault. Could he have given the fairly benign Army of the Twelve Monkeys the idea to end the world?? But notice one significant detail we have not talked about yet. Cole has not yet had his dreams about watching a man get shot at the airport. Can we assume from this that Young Cole hasn’t experienced this trauma yet? Could it be that his intersection at the airport with a man trying to stop a man releasing the virus hasn’t happened yet? Yes, that is really the only conclusion that we can come to. Cole has yet to arrive in the timeline of possibilities where he tries to intercede and save the world. It is only there that a young Cole will be tortured by the memory of a man getting shot…a man that turns out to be himself. But instead, Railly convinces him that the future he knows is a delusional episode 100% made up in his own mind. Which, he happily believes. But it’s then, in the midst of this potential bliss, he vanishes forward into the future again.
Timeline3 continues on into the future though, with us able to witness Cole’s impacts on the original reality. It has changed Railly. She sees the story of the boy in the well play out. She also gets back the report on the bullet pulled from Cole’s leg. You know, the one from 1917? Which then triggers Railly’s discovery of the photo from the madman of WWI. It comes full circle for her, and she realizes why she recognized him originally. Newly conscious of the world’s imminent demise, she calls Dr. Leland Goines and convinces him to change the security of his lab, keeping Jeffrey from getting access. But this is where everything changes – this security tweak has in fact made it possible for Leland’s lab assistant to get access to the virii. But Timeline3 ends with the Army of the Twelve Monkeys peacefully releasing the animals from the zoo, not the virus from the lab. And with Dr. Peters heading to the airport and successfully unleashing the virus on the world without any hindrance at the airport at all.
Investigating the Details of Timeline4
As mentioned before, Cole is desperate to get back to the 1996 timeline, not because he needs to get back to Dr. Railly, but because that is where he can be sane. 2035 isn’t real. It’s where he is having a divergent break. But now? Dr. Railly is certain that he’s actually telling the truth. Railly calls the carpet cleaning service number, and leaves an important message about the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. But Railly capitulates, and agrees to admit Cole and assist him with his delusions. That is, until people start dying. Why? Because in this timeline he has irrevocably destroyed the future of 2030 or his link to it anyway. Which is the only way in which I can explain why he wasn’t flashed forward again by the future. It’s the only way I can explain the visits by the Raspy Voice (I’ll talk about him in a moment), and also the visits from Jose. Cole has somehow broken his link forward. It’s unclear specifically how. But he has.
Investigating the Details of Timeline5
Dang. How did we go from time is unchangeable to Timeline5??!? I literally have no idea. We are just following the threads, and arriving where they lead us. Keep those seat-belts buckled, and your hands and feet inside the car until the ride comes to a complete stop.
Now, Dr. Railly created one of the most significant fluxes in the timelines by creating the all important Carpet Cleaning message. It is this message that is reconstructed years later, that tips 2030 as to the 12 Monkeys existence. Cole experiences hearing this message before taking his second trip. It forces a reckoning throughout the timelines, and a resettling of events based around this important detail. Now, in this resettled Timeline5, Cole knows about the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, and this time, they are still running from the police. They grab disguises, head to the airport, and Cole leaves one final message on the Carpet Cleaning number telling them he isn’t returning.
Now think about it from 2035’s perspective. They have in their possession two message. One from Railly about the 12 Monkeys. And another from Cole saying that he’s not coming back. But they are probably realizing from Jose, and also the Raspy Voice, that Cole is coincidentally perfectly placed to change events. So instead of pulling him out, instead, they should utilize Cole to stop the virus’ dissemination completely. Jose and the Raspy Voice try to influence Cole by giving him a gun and convincing him to do the right thing. Which, he attempts to do, but fails miserably.
OK, I think now is the perfect time to investigate the Raspy Voice, his origins and what we are to think about him. I can’t put it off any longer.
An Investigation of the Raspy Voice
Now, in the credits, we see that there is a character named “Louie / Raspy Voice” that is credited. It is an all seeing, all knowing eye, that begins interceding in Cole’s movements in Timeline4 and Timeline5. But in a really big way towards the end of Timeline5. The Raspy Voice refers to Cole as “Bob”… and there are three key interactions as the movie progresses. In its first scene, the voice interrogates Cole, asking him what happened during his time travel. “Hey, Bob, you do the job? Did you find out the big info?…Army of the Twelve Monkeys…where the virus was prior to mutation?” In the Raspy Voice’s second scene, the voice seems to suggest to Cole that he wants to return to the future, and stay there. “You want to go top side, to see the sky, and the ocean, to breathe the air, to be with her…. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what you want?” In in the voice’s final scene, it reminds Cole before he is killed by security, that he cannot stay in the pre-virus world. “Point of fact — you don’t belong here. It’s not permitted to let you stay.”
But who is this “Louie / Raspy Voice” character? Well, I think there are three specific possibilities that could be corroborated with evidence from the movie. The first is that Raspy Voice is a fellow time traveler. The voice is familiar, understands the problems of time traveling, and the demands of the scientists. He even says that he pulled out all his teeth in order to evade the control of the scientists. OK. Kinda straight forward. Another option is that the Raspy Voice is a hallucination. A manifestation of the stress of the time travel inflicted on his brain. Got it. He’s going mad. Easy to grok.
But what if? Could there be another option here we haven’t considered yet? The movie itself seems to communicate to the casual viewer that the timeline isn’t changing and morphing as the jumps occur. But obviously, as we’ve show, time is changing. And only the casual viewers of the film could ascribe to that first timeline I presented you with 3,000 words ago. So, knowing that time is changing and time travelers and whole timelines are being abandoned to the oblivion of time and space…who’s to say that more than one Cole eventually arrives in 2030? One a derelict law breaker who ends up in a cage. And another one with key details of the coming apocalypse? Not only that, but one smart enough to pull together the earth’s remaining scientists in order to build a time machine in order to utilize the information he has to try and rectify the timeline. If so, who else would he rather utilize than himself as the perfect candidate to go back in time once the time machine is stable enough?
Yes, I just suggested that throughout the film, there were TWO James Cole’s that were active throughout the film. One that communicates from inside the vent, a blurry silhouette (why did he not want to be seen?), and uses the local hobos to send his messages, and another that does the dirty work of time jumping.
But So What??
OK. Here’s the key take away from all of this. Twelve Monkeys is a movie about the determinism of our lives. The depressing state that we live in every day where we are forced to live a life that gives us no choices. A life that was determined even before we were born. Literally, go read the Rotten Tomatoes reviews. Read the IMDB reviews. EVERYONE THINKS THIS. It’s literally inescapable. We cannot change our fates…we are determined to die a plagued life of pain and suffering – and there is nothing anyone can do.
But if these nearly 5,000 words haven’t told you anything at all – it should tell you this…that is untrue! Yes, Cole is unsuccessful. Yes, he didn’t manage to dodge those bullets at the security checkpoint at the airport. And that is how Gilliam’s movie ends. Fine. But that doesn’t mean that is what we are relegated to. Why? Because the film has already shown us that the timelines are decidedly changeable. Malleable. Arrangeable. But Cole is DEAD you ninny! There are no other choices! There are no other options!! (You sure are yelling at each other a lot, why don’t you just take it down a notch there mister?) Wait what? Have you not been paying attention? In this one strain of possibilities we have sent numerous more Cole’s back through to 2035 again. Any one of them could be jumping past this timeline limitation without much effort.
Now, maybe you don’t buy my Cole is Louie/Raspy Voice dude. Fine. (You are wrong, but fine.) But if you see that time was iterating in thread after thread, then you have to agree that this ending is just one of many endings that are now possible. In my mind, it actually changes that depressing ending substantially, and all but guarantees a happy ending eventually. Given enough attempts. Given enough tries at Dr. Peters. Which is, actually, significant. Not just significant from a movie standpoint, but more for a zeitgeist, philosophical, theological standpoint.
I’ll be honest with you – I always assumed Twelve Monkeys was a deterministic nightmare. And that it was only when I began tearing the movie down that I started realizing all the intricacies of what was going on here. And better yet, it was only then that I realized just how much there was in the way of Free Will, and just how fluid time really was. And that, my friends should leave us on an encouraging note.
Edited by: CY
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