Twelve Monkeys - 14m03s - James Cole Doctor Railly

Do you know why you're here?[1]

The 1995 film 12 Monkeys deals with a prison inmate, James Cole, who is sent to 1996 from roughly 30 years later[2] to gather information about a virus that killed almost the entire population of the world in 1996 and 1997, forcing the surviving one percent of humanity to live underground.[3][4] Cole says his mission is to locate the people who spread the virus because they have the virus in its pure form; once he locates them, a scientist from his time will be sent back in time to study the virus so the scientists can make a cure.[5] Ultimately Cole succeeds in his mission: he locates the source of the virus and conveys the information to the scientists in the future.[6]

"How can I save you? This already happened" - past events cannot be changed

The inability to change past events in a time-travel movie confuses some viewers. After being taught by nearly all other works of fiction dealing with time travel that time is malleable and that a time traveler can change time, it may seem strange that time is unchangeable. The protagonist, Cole, explicitly states that the past cannot be changed on three different occasions[1][3][7] and he alludes to this fact when he compares his situation to watching a movie.[8] This is thematically reinforced by Railly when she describes the Cassandra complex which involves knowing the future without being able to change it.

Evidence supporting time travel

Twelve Monkeys - 44m39s - James Cole shot leg time travel

James Cole getting shot in the leg before arriving in the year 1996. The bullet recovered from his leg is dated to the first World War.

James Cole doubts his own sanity, which may lead the viewer to doubt that Cole actually travels through time, as opposed to Cole being paranoid-delusional as other characters assert. Fortunately, the film provides physical evidence for Cole's time travel:
  • A bullet removed from Cole's gunshot wound is found to match the apparent time period he was shot in, World War I.[9]
  • There is a photo of Cole taken in World War I which corresponds to his own experiences.

The photo and the bullet are the only physical evidence present in 1996 that would indicate Cole is not merely hallucinating time travel, but that he actually travels through time. The rest of the evidence is either directly experienced by Cole, or relies on Cole's own point of view. However, thanks to the physical evidence, the rest of the evidence can be regarded as true:

  • Cole names the Army of The Twelve Monkeys in 1990, six years before they were active. Cole tries to rationalize the later existence of the Army of The Twelve Monkeys by saying he came up with the name himself, and while hospitalized in the mental institution he inspired one of the other inmates with his own delusions that eventually led that inmate to create the Army of The Twelve Monkeys.
  • Cole correctly predicts that a news story of a child fallen into a well will turn out to be a hoax. His own rationalization of this correct prediction could possibly explain his apparent foreknowledge: he may have been recalling a television show he once watched, and the child who perpetrated the hoax watched the same show and emulated it.
  • Cole escapes a well-secured holding cell without leaving a trace, despite being fully sedated and physically restrained to a table with multiple handcuffs and straps. One of Doctor Railly's associates attributes this feat to Cole being a masterful escape artist.
  • Cole repeats a phone conversation that he heard in his own time to Kathryn Railly moments after she made the call. Railly somewhat incredulously rules out that he could have heard her on the phone as she made the call.

However, all of these are consistent with Cole actually being a time traveler, despite the characters' other possible explanations for these situations. Explaining away the photo as merely a lookalike and the bullet as having been an antique bullet fired in modern times is a possibility that is not raised in the film. While any work of fiction could be spun as being a dream or occurring in the imagination of any of the characters, this rationalization is not pursued in the film, and the mounting evidence indicates that Cole is indeed a time traveler, culminating in the fact that the virus was indeed released in 1996.


Twelve Monkeys - 21m22s - James Cole L J Washington

Are you also divergent, friend?

Despite the rather strong assurance that Cole is indeed a time traveler, there is no assurance that he is not insane. Other characters frequently assert he is paranoid-delusional, crazy, and so on. Cole himself cannot identify whether the raspy voice he hears is from within his head or from without it; he even hears the voice twice in 1996 where it has no apparent source. A person he encounters in the street sounds strikingly similar to the voice, and he chooses to believe the person when he says Cole has a tracking device in his teeth; Cole later pulls out his own teeth with a knife to avoid getting sent back to his own time. He even doubts the people he meets in his own time are real, preferring to believe he is insane, and they are "his insanity", much like the condition of an inmate he met in 1990. The scientists in his time tell him that time travel is very stressful and leads to difficulties perceiving what is or isn't real; together with the people in 1990 and 1996 implying or insisting that he is insane, it's easy to see why he'd doubt his own sanity. In one of his dreams he even sees Jeoffery Goines, and Railly explains to him that his dreams are changing to fit his experiences. This turns out to be true, Goines originally did not appear in his recurring dream; Cole's dream originally features the virologist who spread the virus, along with Railly and himself in disguise.

Mechanism of time travel

Cole is sent to the past while lying almost naked inside a large articulated soft plastic tube. The tube is inserted horizontally into an even larger cylindrical instrument. None of the particulars of time travel are divulged, but a Woody Woodpecker cartoon that appears in the film features a similar time machine called a "time tunnel", perhaps relating to the tunnel-like nature of time-travel. Cole does surmise that time travel is stressful and confusing as the scientists have told him. Cole states several times in the film that the past cannot be changed, and he is simply trying to gather information for the "present". The movie begins and ends with a shot of Cole's eyes, and it's repeated a few times that he is a good observer; he's even told to "watch it" by different characters, alluding to his role of watching and gathering information in his journeys.

Perhaps most puzzling is the mechanism by which Cole returns to his own time. In both cases, the return happens out of frame and it's suggested that he simply disappears: one moment he's splashing in a puddle, and instantly he's gone, and finds himself back in his own time, strapped to a bed, being told that he's already been interrogated about his experience while he was "under the influence". An earlier return happens when he is strapped to a table in restraints: his disappearance leaves none of his clothes or personal artifacts behind, but the table and the restraints remain in their time, without any signs of damage or any visible interaction with the time travel mechanism. Contrarily, in another instance a bullet strikes Cole's leg moments before he travels in time, and the bullet does remain in his leg as he journeys from World War I to 1996.

The time travel mechanism's accuracy starts out imprecise and prone to sending the subject to the wrong time. At his second journey Cole briefly reaches the French trenches of World War I and gets shot in his thigh. Seconds later he is transported to 1996, and eventually the bullet extracted from his thigh provides one of the two pieces of physical evidence of his time travel. Railly's mentions of other alleged sufferers of the Cassandra complex suggests that they too were time travelers: one of the descriptions matches Jose, who, like James, arrives at the French trenches of World War I, but stays there long enough to warn the contemporaries of the plague coming in 1996. The voice that Cole hears seems to confirm that the scientists have a hard time sending people to the correct time, though they're getting better. Cole is mistakenly sent to 1990 in his first journey, but correctly reaches 1996 in the second journey, and by the third journey he is even more accurately sent to a few days before the virus is released. Jose and one of the guards apparently get sent accurately to the same time, and one of the scientists makes it to the correct time too (unless she has not aged at all in the next 30 years, as some viewers speculate, despite repeated assertions in the film that a scientist will be sent to get a sample of the virus).


Despite no explanation present in the film for the method or mechanism of time travel, the depicted return-trips may shed some light on the issue. Cole's body, clothes, and personal artifacts disappear with him when he is returned to the future, but none of his surrounding objects seem affected. Perhaps in order to travel through time, some substance is imbued in Cole's body, acting as a tracer, much like the tracking device he suspects he has embedded in his teeth - "It's in the tooth, right, Bob?" Perhaps this tracer substance is concentrated in the tooth for a stronger tracking signal through time, but also dispersed throughout the body of the time traveler, and perhaps it even permeates into the clothes and surrounding objects of the time traveler given enough exposure.

This tracer could be the method that allows the scientists to return time travelers to their own time, and it would explain why only the time travelers' person and their clothes disappear with them, while surrounding objects do not. This is the case even when items are very close to the time travelers, such as the the restraints around Cole's wrists when he makes his first return-trip: the restraints are left behind, but Cole's clothes and other items that were exposed to him for a long duration disappear. By contrast, the bullet embedded in his leg joins the time travel journey with Cole even though it has been in his leg for a few seconds - perhaps being surrounded by Cole's body gave it enough exposure to the tracer, or perhaps the mechanism of time travel includes all objects inside the body in order to avoid tearing apart the time travelers by accident.

The concept of a time-travel tracer substance could explain why the scientists can't bring back other people from the past to interrogate them for information. Without the tracer to interact with the time travel mechanism, the scientist can't select an arbitrary target and bring it to their time. They must mark the target with the tracer and have it interact with the time travel mechanism.

The idea of a tracer substance is analogous to contrast agents used in MRI scans. The contrast agent binds to certain tissue in the body, and it allows the magnetic resonance imaging device to differentiate the agent-bound tissue from the surrounding tissue. A device that appears to be an MRI scanner appears in the film, and bears a similarity to the time travel machine that is shown briefly.

Things that were hastily left out of this summary

Twelve Monkeys - 01m52s - James Cole eyes

Watch it!

The film holds many parallels to itself, and takes careful attention to establish every idea it presents, for example establishing Cole's doubt in his own sanity through his conversation with the "mentally divergent" patient, establishing that Cole's dream is indeed changing to suit his current experiences through the incorporation of Jeffrey Goines in his dream, or establishing that Cole is an observer by having characters tell him to "watch it" and by opening the film with a shot of his eyes. All of the important concepts of the film, including the inability to change time, are firmly established and repeatedly stated. The beauty of the film lies in both the subtlety and the decisiveness of the clues that it gives the audience, allowing the audience to construct a clear and simple understanding of the film. It is usually when viewers try to diverge from the reality of the film and form alternate realities that other, convoluted explanations become required to explain it, however simply listening to what the characters have to say gives the best explanation to the events of the film. There are many more beautiful parallels and narrative devices that were left out of this summary. I encourage the reader to watch the film again and enjoy the subtle yet straightforward way in which the movie tells its story.


  1. 1.0 1.1 James Cole: I need to go! I need to– I'm supposed to be gathering information!
    Kathryn Railly: What kind of information?
    James Cole: Won't help you. Won't help anyone, won't change anything!
    Kathryn Railly: James... Do you know why you're here?
    James Cole: : 'cause I'm a good observer. I have a tough mind.
  2. James Cole: The phone–... the phonecall I just made...? Five minutes ago?
    Jose: Yeah 5 minutes ago, 30 years ago... they just put it together.
  3. 3.0 3.1 James Cole: 5 billion people died in 1996 and 1997, almost the entire population of the world. Only about one percent of us survived.
    Dr Peters: Are you going to save us, Mr Cole?
    James Cole: How can I save you? This already happened. I can't save you, nobody can. I am simply trying to gather information to help the people in the present trace the path of the virus.
  4. James Cole: The thing mutates! We live underground! The world belongs to the dogs and cats! We live like worms! I just need the information!
  5. James Cole: I just have to locate them because they have the virus in its pure form, before it mutates. When I locate them, they'll send a scientist back here; that scientist will study the virus, and then when he goes back to the present, he and the rest of the scientists will make a cure.
  6. James Cole: Listen, 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.
  7. James Cole: I can't do anything about what you're going to do. I can't change anything.
  8. James Cole: It's just like what's happening with us. Like the past. The movie never changes, it can't change, but every time you see it, it seems different because you're different. You see different things.
  9. Jim Halferd: I got a ballistics report here on my desk and it says the bullet you claim you removed from Mr Cole's thigh? is in fact an antique, and all indications are it was fired sometime prior to 1920s.