A virus released in 1996 wipes out almost all of humanity and the survivors live underground. It is believed that the virus was released by the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. By 2035, a time machine has been invented and James Cole (Bruce Willis), living in a compound beneath the ruins of Philadelphia, is sent back in Time to find the original virus so scientists can develop a cure. Cole is prey to nightmares of a foot chase and a shooting at an airport. He arrives in Baltimore, but in 1990, not 1996. Doctor Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) examines him and places him in a mental hospital, where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a mental patient with extreme environmentalist and anti-corporatist views.
After trying to escape, Cole is sedated and locked in a cell, but he vanishes and wakes up in 2035. When scientists interrogate him, they play a distorted voicemail that definitely links the Army of the Twelve Monkeys with the virus. He is shown pictures and one of them is of Goines. They send him back again and he ends up in a World War One battlefield. He is shot in the leg and then transported to 1996. There, Doctor Railly lectures about the Cassandra Complex to a group of scientists. At a book-signing, she meets Doctor Peters (David Morse), who tells her that the apocalypse alarmists are the sane ones.
Cole arrives at the venue and kidnaps Doctor Railly to take him to Philadelphia. It seems that Goines is the founder of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and they search for him. Cole confronts him and he denies any connection and says it was Cole’s idea to wipe out humanity with a virus stolen from Goines’ father Doctor Leland Goines (Christopher Plummer). Cole is sent back to 2035 and insists he is dedicated to the mission. Sent back again to 1996, he tells Railly he now thinks he’s insane, but she has come to believe his tale of time travel. They leave for Florida. It seems that the Army of the Twelve Monkeys were not the source of the epidemic after all. Their only crime was releasing animals from cages and locking up Doctor Goines.
At the airport, Cole leaves a message for the future that he will not be returning. He is contacted by Jose (Jon Seda), a traveller from his own Time, who gives him a gun and tells him to follow orders. Doctor Railly sees Doctor Peters at the airport and recognizes him as an assistant of Goines’ father. He is about to leave on a tour of all the places where the virus first broke out, carrying a set of vials. Cole pursues Doctor Peters, draws his gun, and is shot by police. As he lies dying in Railly’s arms, she sees Cole as a child, witnessing his own death, which he will see all his life in his dreams. Doctor Peters sits down in the plane next to a scientist from the future (Carol Florence) who says her job is insurance.
The film was directed by Terry Gilliam, based on Chris Markes’ 1962 short film La Jetée. The script was written by David and Janet Peoples. It was highly praised by critics and Brad Pitt was nominated for the Best Supporting Role Oscar, and the Golden Globe. There were also several Saturn Awards. Bruce Willis had to lower his asking price because Universal Studios had lost so much money on Waterworld. Several actors worked for less just to work with Terry Gilliam. Brad Pitt was a relative unknown, but by the time the movie was released, he had been in Interview with a Vampire, Legends of the Fall, and Se7en. He spent weeks in a mental hospital to prepare and took several scenes from Bruce Willis and ran away with them.
Gilliam spent a great deal of trouble creating the bleak future and their seriously faulty time machine. Coles’ recollection of the airport shooting is different every time he dreams of it. The intent is to make the audience wonder who’s insane and who isn’t. There are several references to monkeys and time travel throughout, including a Woody Woodpecker cartoon called Time Tunnel and references to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and The Birds, and a number of film noir movies. Brad Pitt lost the Supporting Actor Oscar to Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects. Later, there was a TV series on Syfy Channel that lasted three seasons.
Director Terry Gilliam was not sure Brad Pitt could carry off the insane rapid chatter dialogue necessary, so he took away his cigarettes. He gave Bruce Willis a list of Bruce Willis clichés not to use. The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is from The Magic of Oz book by L. Frank Baum. The deadly virus is golden in color and is in seven vials; The Book of Revelation in the Bible refers to seven golden vials of God’s wrath. Terry Gilliam nearly died falling off a horse. In both the future and the present day, Cole is incarcerated, there are five scientists examining him, he is decontaminated in a shower while being supported by two guards, one white and one black, and the CT Scanner he wanders by in the present looks like the time machine in the future. There are several websites devoted to explaining the end of Twelve Monkeys, in case you’re interested.