12 MONKEYS explained continued… Still not sci-fi!

The response to 12 Monkeys explained published on exceeded my wildest expectations, both in terms of the number of people who decided to read it and the unexpectedly heated discussions...

Edward Kelley

14 July 2023

12 monkeys explained

Read 12 MONKEYS explained first.

In response to these discussions, full of attempts at polemics with the interpretation of Gilliam’s film presented in my text, I decided to add a kind of supplement in which I would like to address the main doubts that appear both on discussion forums and in messages and questions addressed to me directly.

Among them, first of all, the theme of the World War I photograph of James Cole, which in the opinion of many destroys or at least seriously undermines my interpretation, and the question of how James knew that the alleged accident of the boy with the well was in fact a child’s prank. In order to do so, however, I must take a few steps back and revisit the crucial issue of the probability of time travel.

Time travel

time travel

The Disciplinary Board of 2035, as we remember, sends Cole back in time to 1996 with one goal: to obtain the original form of the virus that led to the destruction of humanity before it mutates. Here comes the key question for understanding this passage:

Why Cole should acquire the virus, and not, for example, kill the mother of Dr. Goins to prevent his birth and thus the breeding of a deadly microbe?

How much easier it would then be to avert the threat! No research on the primary form of the virus would be needed, because there would be no epidemic! Puzzling? The answer is provided in the film itself when Cole first visits him in 1990. From the very beginning, when we meet him, the screen clearly states that the epidemic has already happened and nothing can prevent it. James will repeat it many more times. From this perspective, the matter seems obvious: once the future (or the past, depending on which side you look at it – Cole has the luxury of seeing it from both sides) has taken place, it cannot be changed by any action, no matter how many years we go back in time . Every fan of time paradoxes will pose a question here: what about the knowledge that The Time Machine or Back to the Future gave us, what about influencing our own present by interfering with the past? To explain this, I am forced to make a digression into a completely different area from the film; in the territory of theoretical physics, without which the explanation of time paradoxes can be extremely difficult or even impossible.

The Physics of time travel and the grandfather paradox

albert einstein

In 1905, a third-class Swiss patent clerk named Albert Einstein (also mentioned in 12 Monkeys, by the way) at the age of 26 announced his groundbreaking special theory of relativity for understanding the phenomenon of time. His theory has been contested for many years by the then considered “serious” physicists, especially from the moment when its supporters state with some surprise that there is nothing in the equations describing it that would prohibit time travel from a purely physical point of view. Today, in almost every popular science publication on the special theory of relativity, we can find a recipe for “making” a time machine derived from its laws, but then, over a hundred years ago, this statement was quite a shock. The giants of theoretical physics like Stephen Hawking or Kip Thorn basically agree that constructing such a vehicle would be possible, but of course neither the technologies available to us nor, above all, the infinite amounts of energy that are necessary for it, allow it. Nevertheless, with the general consensus in the scientific world that time travel is not forbidden by physics, there has been consideration of the related consequences. This is where the paradoxes appear, the most famous of which is the so-called grandfather paradox. What if we go back in time and kill our own grandfather as a child? Our mother will never be born, so we will not be conceived either. But since we’re gone, who will go back in time and kill our grandfather? Such examples could be multiplied.

12 monkeys poster

Physics, however, abhors paradoxes. According to the considerations of scientists who deal with this topic, physics itself must therefore provide some mechanism to prevent their formation. And here we come to the point. One of the theories says that time does not flow in one stream, or at least it does not flow as soon as we start manipulating it. When we choose to move upstream (or backward) and intervene, time will branch out at that point creating an alternative course of events, just like a river when we put an obstacle in its way. What is the consequence?

The future from which we came will not change, but there will be a parallel current of reality caused by the obstacle in the form of our interference.

In short, according to these considerations, if time travel were possible, we could only move along the current of our own time, and any action we performed in our past would create a parallel current that we could no longer influence or be able to see anything that happens in it.

Time travel yet again

12 monkeys

Enough about the theory. Why this long digression? Cole, being an emissary from the “future” (the concept of the future is in my opinion Cole’s delusion, so I will use quotation marks for emphasis) is convinced that whatever he does, the future will remain unchanged. Hence his repeated emphasis on this fact. Therefore, in his infected imagination, he obtains the original version of the virus so that scientists of the “future” will invent a vaccine. There is simply no other way to avoid the epidemic. So far everything is clear. The problem goes one step further. If Cole and his “future” principals are aware that they cannot change their reality by interfering with the past (otherwise it would be easier to eliminate Dr. Goins than to bother with a vaccine), then where do the following cases come from:

  • How the commission is able to read the recording on the answering machine (informing about the Army of the 12 Monkeys), and even two: one recorded by Dr. Railly and the other by Cole himself;
  • How can it see Kathryn’s graffiti on the Army of the 12 Monkeys headquarters;
  • And finally how, after all, is Kathryn able to see Cole’s World War I photo?

Each of these actions performed in the “past”, i.e. recordings, graffiti, James’s appearance during the war, respectively, should lead to a branching of the time continuum, creating an alternate reality, and therefore should not have any reflection in the “future” seen by the commission or Kathryn. The branching mechanism is presented in a simplified way in the diagram below. If, when sending Cole for the original version of the virus, they realize that they cannot change the reality once it has occurred (which, as I mentioned, is very clearly confirmed by the words spoken several times by James), then how are they able to listen to the recording and how Kathryn sees Cole in the photo? A surprising inconsistency. I see two explanations here: either the writers screwed up the matter and showed amazing carelessness (although I wouldn’t suspect David Peoples of this – after all, we owe him Blade Runner), or … there is no time travel, there is no alternative “future”, and the inconsistencies are produced by the Cole’s mind, whose schizophrenia pushes him to construct a “reality” subordinated to his logic.


Moreover, I have the impression that Gilliam himself is again telling the viewer what he should think about the manipulation of time, this time putting the right words in the mouth of Jeffrey Goins in a sequence in a mental hospital, when he tells the story of a patient who notoriously begged nurses to turn on the TV program from the previous day.

That was this guy and he was always requesting shows that had already played. Yes. Yeah. You have to tell her before. He couldn’t grasp the idea that the charge nurse couldn’t make it yesterday. She couldn’t turn back time! Thank You Einstein. Now he, he was nuts. He was a fruitcake, Jim.

12 monkeys brad pitt bruce willis in a mental hospital

WWI photo

But someone might argue: even if time travel wasn’t considered, Kathryn was still looking at the photo of Cole on the battlefield from World War I, which we saw on the screen. True, the mere theory that there was no time travel certainly cannot make a photo disappear. Yes, we saw Kathryn watching them on the screen, but did she really see Cole on it?

We first see the ill-fated photograph during Kathryn’s lecture on Cassandra Syndrome (it is shown to the entire audience), actually we see part of it cropped so that only the foreground can be seen (the background shows a hand reaching towards the stretcher). It is seen once again after Kathryn finds out that the bullet taken from Cole’s leg is an antique. Under the influence of this fact, she first rushes to look for the book in which the photograph was placed (as it turns out, also in a cropped version), and then to the source materials (it hangs together with other materials on the “working wall”).

There is something clearly missing here! Are we to believe that the author of a psychological bestseller, an outstanding psychiatrist, working on her book for years, watching source materials, photos, drawings, etc. dozens and hundreds of times, did not notice the man who mysteriously disappeared from her solitary confinement a few years earlier in the key photograph of her wor? This is all the more surprising since later, kidnapped in a car, she recalls his name and year of disappearance immediately without even seeing his face.

How is this even possible?!

Because he wasn’t there, he was not on a photo at all!

Assuming there is no time travel, there was no episode of Cole during the War, so he was not in the photograph. Therefore, over the years of working on the book, Dr. Reilly had a right not to come across it. So how is it possible that we see him through Kathryn’s eyes after talking to a police officer about the ballistics diagnosis? About that in a moment.

Let’s go back for a moment to the first sequence, when the war photo is shown to the audience listening to Dr. Reilly’s lecture and the viewer. Cole is nowhere to be seen. He is not visible because the example given by Kathryn during the lecture concerns the person in the foreground, so showing only part of the photograph is fully justified by the plot. Yes, but it is also worth noting that by using this simple trick, the director (or maybe the writers) limited the number of people who saw Cole on the photo to just two, Kathryn and Cole himself (James will see the photo when he returns to the reality of 1996, when Dr. Reilly will be already convinced that he is not crazy).

Folie à deux

12 monkeys hotel scene

Does the doctor share her patient’s delusions? They both see the incriminating photo and both see Cole in it. It would be a logical step for someone in their right mind to share their knowledge with a third party, someone with the power to see things from the outside. However, Kathryn does not. Why? Not only does she not do that, but she even starts acting as if she had lost her sanity (in addition, in the film itself Gilliam perfectly plays the contrast between the temporarily sober James and Dr. Reilly running amok). It’s time to finally return to the question of why Kathryn sees James in the photograph even though everything says it shouldn’t. To explain this apparent phenomenon, I am forced to digress again. This time in a direction well known to the main character; towards psychiatry. After Wikipedia: Folie à deux (French- ‘folly of two’, or ‘madness [shared] by two’), additionally known as shared psychosis or shared delusional disorder , is a rare psychiatric syndrome in which symptoms of a delusional belief, and sometimes hallucinations, are transmitted from one individual to another. […] This syndrome is most commonly diagnosed when the two or more individuals of concern are in an extremely close relationship, live in proximity, may be socially or physically isolated, and have little interaction with other people.

The condition of a strong, close and mutual emotional connection is met, which can be seen in many scenes, for example in the hotel or cinema. Anyway, probably no sane person who has seen the film will deny the existence of such a relationship (see Vertigo sequence and the airport scene for example). She not only joins the activities of the “envoy of the future”, but even convinces him that he is doing wrong by wanting to hand herself over to the police, buys disguises, glues a moustache on him, puts on a wig, dyes his hair, etc. Can this be called symptoms of a delusional belief, and sometimes hallucinations in two or more people? Judge for yourself.

The issue of isolation should also not be in doubt. Since the kidnapping, Kathryn and Cole have been spending time in the car and motels. Of course, this does not mean a complete separation from the environment, and time is not months, but days, but one should not forget that the film by definition uses some simplifications. Finally, the form that the disease takes in Kathryn’s case could even serve as a definition in itself (First the partner resists the inducer, then takes over their delusions and hallucinations […]). Kathryn is, judging by her symptoms, an example of pure folie a deux. Is it any wonder then that he notices a person in the photograph who, according to the previous argument, should not be there?

The bullet

The question of the early twentieth-century bullet in Cole’s leg still remains to be resolved. A police officer states that it must have been fired sometime before 1920. Paradoxically, if that proves anything, it’s that Cole couldn’t have been injured in World War I. Why? Then, an age study of the bullet would have to show that it is only a few months old, since that is probably how long it took from its manufacture to launch (sometime during World War I), because moving the bullet through time, if it really happened, would not age it, just as how it didn’t age Cole’s body.

12 monkeys WWI bullet

Cole was schizophrenic; before he kidnapped Kathryn after a lecture on Kassandra Syndrome, he spent some time in Baltimore, which he very clearly states in the car. We do not know what he was doing at that time, so it is difficult to determine where the bullet from before 1920 could have come from in his body. One thing’s for sure, if the age of the bullet was close to 80, it couldn’t have been shot during the war. It would rather suggest that he was wounded by a period weapon, but as early as 1996 (then the age of the bullet would be correct). And that would preclude time travel. He himself describes his wartime episode in the hotel scene as a dream (I think I had a dream about this).

The well hoax

Kathryn: The boy in the well. How did you know that was just a hoax?

The story of the child’s prank, the well-publicized incident with the well, whose alleged victim – a boy, was in fact hiding in the barn, is explained quite plausibly by Cole himself in the same hotel scene.

James: It was? I didn’t know.
Kathryn: You said he was hiding in the barn.
James: I think I maybe saw a TV show about that when I was a kid where a boy…
Kathryn: It wasn’t a TV show! It was real!
James: Maybe this boy saw the same TV show that I did and he copied it.

His explanation is plausible enough to require no further comment.


12 Monkeys is a complex, multi-layered film and still has elements that I only brushed while exploring the content.

I do not rule out, more – I am even sure that there are still many surprises in it. Vertigo’s plot is tempting with its ambiguity; there is still an unsolved mystery as to why Kathryn states several times that she met Cole before, that she remembers him; there is a huge, complex area of time paradoxes which description, although I have made such an attempt in this text, could cause many a headache. Gilliam’s film still has many unexplained riddles and fields for interpretation, which only proves the incredible skill of the director and screenwriters.

And finally, who said that there can only be one interpretation? So far, despite the wave of criticism of my vision of the 12 Monkeys, which swelled after the publication, no one, literally no one, proposed an alternative and not only did not refute, but did not even respond to the arguments I presented in the previous text. I encourage you, dear readers, to make this effort, and on the pages of there will certainly be a place for good polemics. Just let yourself be carried away by the magic of Gilliam’s film. Good luck.