How 12 Monkeys' Time Travel Works

Greetings fellow time travelers, and welcome back to the CinemaBlend labs! It’s been a little while, I know, but after recovering from both the “human faxing” process and existential crises implicated by our trip through Timeline, the recovery process took a little longer than usual. Never fear, as it’s now time again to travel from here to there in the then and now; and this week is a bit of a dark and twisted journey. We’re going to go nuts with a classic favorite of mine that’s just turned 25 this past December, as Bruce Willis deals with unpredictable time travel, hair dye, and one whacked out Brad Pitt in one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, director Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.

However, before we depart into the wilds of Philadelphia, there’s some stuff we should discuss ahead of time. This is the latest in CinemaBlend’s adventures in the world of time travel. We love to play around with the particulars that make bending the rules of space and time exciting to watch, and absolutely inadvisable to attempt. So if you’re interested in seeing some of our other efforts in this bold scientific field, be sure to swing by our time travel archive, and read some of our past studies. With that out of the way, the music is starting up, weird dreams are beginning to muddy things up in my mind, and I think I just saw a young Brad Pitt’s butt. Welcome to the world of 12 Monkeys.

12 Monkeys Bruce Willis collecting samples in the snow

The Time Travel in 12 Monkeys

Between 1996 and 1997, five billion people die in a horrific pandemic. One percent of the world’s population survives, and is forced underground to try and preserve all who are left. But an experiment in time travel could change all of that, if the right steps are taken, and the right candidate can uncover the mysteries of the 12 Monkeys.

Who's Time Traveling

In the world of 2036, prisoners are used as “volunteers” and sent back into various points in the past to try and save the future. In exchange, these prisoners could receive reduced sentences for whatever crimes they’ve committed. For our purposes, we follow the path of James Cole (Bruce Willis).

From When To When

The plan was to send James Cole from the far flung future of 2035 back to October 1996, just before 12 Monkeys’ devastating viral outbreak started to kick off. But, because the time travel process is rather unstable, Cole gets sent back to other points in time all willy nilly like. On his first trip, he winds up going to Baltimore in April 1990, and is then sent to World War I in 1914, by accident. Cole eventually finds his way back to Baltimore, this time in November 1996.

The Purpose Of Their Trip

A panel of scientists rule humanity’s underground society, with the intent to send a subject back in time, in order to obtain a sample of the mysterious virus “in its purest form, before it mutates.” With the pure strain of the virus secured, a cure could be devised, and humanity can return to the surface.

12 Monkeys the time travel lab and equipment

How Time Travel Happens In 12 Monkeys

The time travel process of 12 Monkeys is among one of the more simplified processes we’ve seen here at the CinemaBlend labs. After cleansing the subject being sent back into the past, they are placed in a plastic chamber, with a bunch of painful but essential looking clips attached to their body. The chamber is then raised and interlocked with a “time tunnel” that acts as a sort of railway. James Cole goes through this process, and is literally shot into the past; with his return trips merely seeing him disappear from the past and arrive back in the future.

A huge problem presents itself in the time travel used throughout 12 Monkeys story, as the process is extremely unreliable. While the machine works, the people operating it don’t seem very adept at using it, and as a result Cole and his fellow travellers are sent back to various points in time unintentionally. There’s a theory that the surviving 1% of the world’s population happens to be those with mental disorders, which is why the process doesn’t run exactly as it should; but the film doesn’t confirm or deny this possibility. If you’re going to enjoy 12 Monkeys, delicious ambiguity is something you’re going to have to be comfortable with.

12 Monkeys the Astrophysicist and Dr. Peters meet on the plane

Can History Be Changed As A Result Of Time Travel In 12 Monkeys?

In a tragic example of a causal loop, some history cannot be changed in 12 Monkeys, because the trip made in the movie actually causes everything James Cole knows as reality to come to pass. Not even Detective Stabler, sorry Lt. Halperin, can prevent the events of humanity’s downfall, as James Cole’s dreams become a reality. Somewhere, Doc Brown is slapping his head right now, as the careless time travel practices of the future look to have sealed the fate of the past.

Older Cole, in disguise along with Dr. Railly, tries to shoot Dr. Peters at the airport, in order to stop him from taking his apocalypse world tour. But, just as he saw in his dreams, Older Cole gets gunned down, left to die in Kathryn’s arms, in front of Young Cole. Though there may be a small glimmer of hope in the fact that Jones, the astrophysicist from the panel of future scientists, is found to be Dr. Peter’s seat neighbor. After all, she does say she’s “in insurance,” and that has a ring that suggests she may have been the next plan activated after Cole’s death. Humanity may be able to change its fate, but it’s a merely suggestion at the end of 12 Monkeys’ timeline of events. Though if you listen to the film’s commentary track, while that line about insurance was in the script, the inclusion of that scene was to send audiences out of the theater with a debate in their minds. Plus, director Terry Gilliam and producer Charles Roven had this to say about that ending:

Gilliam: Nobody wants to believe that five billion people will die.Roven: Because of the natural instinct of people to believe in the positive.Gilliam: And the fact that that seems, in the short term, to be a disaster. But in the long term, it’s good for the people 40 years in the future, because they’ll reclaim the world. It’s like agriculture, you gotta chop the plants down, dig ‘em into the ground, and in the future great shoots will sprout up.

Humanity might find itself preserved, just not in the way that one would have thought. You can debate that ambiguity until the zebras clog I-676 , to be sure. Meanwhile, James Cole has died, and always will die, causing a sad chain of nightmarish events he’ll never be able to escape. If this kid ever met Donnie Darko, they’d surely have something to bond over.

12 Monkeys Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe hide out

What Are The Consequences Of Time Travel In 12 Monkeys?

The scientists almost totally ensured the apocalypse in 12 Monkeys, as their careless time travel sends James Cole throughout the space-time continuum, dropping the pins to connect the red thread that is the pandemic in 1996. A chain of haphazard trips through time culminates in the dreams that have plagued James Cole since his childhood in 12 Monkeys. Only they weren’t dreams… they were memories; and everything we’re about to describe sets the table for the end of civilization as we know it.

Cole’s initial trip to 1990 introduces him to Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the son of a prominent virologist, and Dr. Cassandra Railly (Madeline Stowe); the two people that set 12 Monkeys’ history into motion. Dr. Railly becomes focused on the Cassandra Complex, where a person who claims to know the future cannot convince the world their visions are true. Meanwhile, Jeffrey is introduced to the notion that maybe humanity needs to be wiped out, giving the planet back to the animals.

This all ultimately filters down to Dr. Peters (David Morse), the true fanatic who triggers the viral apocalypse. After seeing a lecture from Dr. Railly, which reinforces Jeffrey’s notions of letting humanity fall within him, Dr. Peters steals the virus that Jeffrey’s father Leiland (Christopher Plummer) has been working on. Being given orders to “beef up security” and take him out of the loop, Dr. Peters has the keys to Armageddon, through his seven vials of God’s wrath. The chess game of foreknowledge and scrutiny wraps as it was always going to, with the endgame spelling potential doom.

12 Monkeys a bear on the streets of Philadelphia


Apologies for the bummer that is 12 Monkeys, but time travel isn’t always a happy endeavor that sees humpback whales coming back from extinction. Though, if you think this temporal case file was a downer, just wait until you see what we’ve got planned for the next trip out. But before we turn the page on the next experiment in time travel, we’d like to extend the customary invitation to you, the reader, to send us your suggestions for what time travel experiments you’d like to see us tackle next.

I would have written something different as the closer, but the original thought I had was pretty weak. So through some concentration, and my trusty journal, I came back to this moment and put something better down on the page. Yes, it’s time to jump back into the past with Ashton Kutcher and get into some even messier time trouble with The Butterfly Effect. So until then, take all the time to decompress you need, and prepare to dive into the dark and somber waters of time travel when we return.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.