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I saw 12 Monkeys the other day as I found out it had good reviews, some people said it was Bruce Willis's best performance.

While I get that Bruce saw the same dream every time in which someone gets shot, a blonde girl is trying to save the guy and there is a kid watching all this.

In the end, this dream of his comes true. The guy getting shot is himself, the girl is the doctor and the kid is again Bruce's younger self I believe.

So what is going on really? From whose perspective did Bruce see all this happening? From his dream, it seemed like there was a third version of Bruce that saw everything happening.

I thought the story was about stopping the guy from spreading virus which never happened.

So basically I see in the end old Bruce just die in front of young Bruce which they showed in the dream several times already. Maybe I am not able to understand a deeper meaning to this story.

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The film itself is not, and never was, about stopping the spreading of the virus. The scientists in the future know that they cannot stop the spread because it has already happened. What they require is a sample of the original, pure virus that they can then study and create a cure/antibody for thus enabling the human race to return to the surface of the planet.

At the start of the film, they believe the virus is something to do with a group called the 12 Monkeys, but they need proof. This is where Bruce Willis comes into it. Through his efforts, they eventually find the man who spreads the virus at which point one of the scientists is sent back to make contact with the plane which we see in the final scene of the film.

  • Hmm that explains most of the things.Excellent answer. I still wonder how he was alive in future if he died in the past already. But that is altogether another question i guess. I should ask it as a separate one. – User56756 Aug 14 '15 at 1:56
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    @Shrilekha He did not die already in the past. Old Bruce did, the one who got sent back in time. But young Bruce just lived on to one day get sent back in time. It's just a simple time loop. – Napoleon Wilson Aug 14 '15 at 21:25
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The story of 12 Monkeys is about perception v. reality. And time travel. And several other "deeper" things.

There's a scene in the film, near the finale, where Cole (Bruce Willis) is commenting about a movie he knows he's seen before which seems somehow different to him. He concludes the movie itself is static - it's filmed, it cannot be changed - but it nevertheless does, in fact, seem different because he (the viewer) has changed, which alters his perception and interpretation of the work. Based on what you've taken away from 12 Monkeys, I would suggest you view the film again at some future date and hopefully experience this phenomenon first hand.

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    The movie he is watching is Vertigo, in case anyone is curious after reading this answer. – Todd Wilcox Aug 13 '15 at 12:23
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The "dream" does not "come true". Bruce's character, Cole, has a memory from his childhood where he sees a man get shot in an airport. This experience is traumatic and gives him an uncommon strength of mind. This experience was totally real, and Cole remembers it.

This strength of mind and his status as a criminal (which I don't remember being explained) make him a candidate for the time travel experiment. Twelve Monkeys style time travel is apparently rough on your mind. We see Cole struggling to remember his instructions (finding a spider and eating it?), and the names of Cities. Not everyone is up to it, but Cole is.

Cole ends up going back in time, one more time, because he's in love, winds up at the airport, and we see those events that he remembers, but this time with Cole as an adult.

It's a mild predestination paradox. Cole can be a time traveler because he saw himself get killed, and he only got killed because he was a time traveler.

The movie was inspired by the French Film La Jetée, discussed in this question, in which a narrator explains most of this briefly.

As for whether the scientist/"insurance" agent lady is there to prevent the plague, get a sample of the disease, or is there by total accident, there is a lot of debate, like here.

  • It is ironic to think that a common cold virus, passed from Cole to Cole could experience millions of years of evolution in what an observer would think was a single lifetime. If you had the ability to put a virus into an "infinite loop" then you might make it evolve into a cure for another virus. Perhaps in killing cole, if he had a weaker virus and the right (wrong) dna then he could be the source. – EngrStudent - Reinstate Monica Aug 19 '15 at 0:55
  • The spider was eaten because Cole was told to "bring the virus samples" - arriving in the future he assumed that a spider would carry the deadly virus: You can see that Cole is actually thinking for a place where he could hide it for its journey back, finally deciding that hiding it inside himself (eating) is the only solution. – Yasskier Mar 27 '17 at 0:16
  • I'm upvoting this answer as it acknowledges that the presence Jones (insurance) on the plane could be interpreted in different ways. – sonnik Jul 26 '18 at 19:22
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A few things.

  1. The 'future' is a prison-like meager existence underground dystopia, somehow has the STEM technological wisdom and capability to travel through time, but fails to realize they are the antibody as survivors and lack the wherewithal to produce the cure for a virus using its own subjects as a source for antibodies? No. If Cole can go to the surface and get a spider to eat, then why has he not come back infected? This entire sequence is laden with clues of child-like, flawed imagination, as does Cole's entire performance -- he behaves like a daydreaming child throughout.

  2. If time travel somehow is an asset of some future underground dystopia as postulated by the narrative, then the virus source came from Cole or the other time travelers in much the same way European exploration brought disease and plague to the New World. Not likely.

  3. We don't know from who's perspective the story is told: a child's imagination as a result of an incident at an airport or from the mind of a mad man....or perhaps the good Doctor Railly in the midst of a bout of a Cassandra complex of her own. Who is telling the story?

It's a psychological thriller which means it's basis predominantly lies in perception.

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When the lady says she is in insurance, she means she is there to ensure that the virus does not spread and the planet is saved. Cole did his job of finding out who the real culprit was in spreading the disease, and her job presumably to kill him. My guess is she does just that and humanity is saved, but you just never know.

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    Her job is not to kill him, though. They explicitly say they can't change the past like that. Her job is to get a sample of the pure virus before it mutated, go back to the past and synthesize a cure. – Walt Aug 23 '16 at 20:33
  • I thought she actually killed him. If I remember correctly, she is switching glasses with him, which usually is a signifier for poisoning. – Jan-Christoph Schlage-Puchta Mar 26 '17 at 9:45
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Just saw this movie and I think the story is being told by the little boy that was in the barn.

The first hint is in the mental ward where the black patient talks about his mind diverging to outer space, escaping his painful reality. I think this ward specialized in those patients. After kidnapping the psychiatrist James talks about crying wolf as a kid with that story, but something happened after, the movie didn't say what, as a kid to James.

I think he was really trapped underground, in a well perhaps, because there are a few references to tunnels in the movie. People probably didn't look for him right away because they remembered the barn incident and so he was in there awhile presumably. James hints of this when he was listening to the story on the car radio. He asks to change the station because he couldn't bear listening.

I think the psychiatrist was his psychiatrist as a child in real life after something happened to him and this is why she feels he looks familiar even in the first scene where they met. Just as the black mental patient, James has delusions of grandeur where he believes he has a strong mind and only he can save the world. I really liked this movie because it appears on the surface that it's about time travel, but it's actually about mental illness.

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"So what is going on really? From whose perspective did Bruce see all this happening? From his dream, it seemed like there was a third version of Bruce that saw everything happening".

12 Monkeys studies the subjective nature of memories and their effect on perceptions of reality. Examples of false memories include Cole's recollection of the airport shooting, altered each time he has the dream, and a "mentally divergent" man at the asylum who has false memories.

The short answer is that it's left up to the viewer to interpret the truth of the reality, being either a story about:

  1. A boy named James Cole who was traumatized at an indecent at the airport to the point that as an adult living in a mental institution, is making up a Dystopian time travel story about a future where man was nearly wiped out by a virus...
  2. or a man named James Cole who lives in a future where, as a felon forced to live underground, is tasked by scientist with time traveling back to figure out whom and what caused the virus in the first place in order to acquire a cure, and in which he has memories or a premonition recurring from childhood of an indecent that has yet to happen to his adult self that comes to pass at the end of the film (aka a paradox).

As many answers point out, you can find "flaws" or poke holes in both interpretations to the story that might sway a viewer to pick one interpretation over the other. (I however lean towards time travel with some kind of lightly altering casualty loop with not enough evidence to prove dramatic change to what may be the original time line or the previous iteration.)

This is why this film would categorized as a psychological thriller, because it's been designed for the viewer to constantly contest the nature of the characters' reality, as they move through the film and/or viewers may be left with questions and ambiguity still by the film's end in NOT being able to determine the full truth.

In this case the film is also playing with what is known as Cassandra Complex, relating to a metaphor originating from a Greek Mythological figure that believes: some things could be known in advanced.

The term originates in Greek mythology. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. Struck by her beauty, Apollo provided her with the gift of prophecy, but when Cassandra refused Apollo's romantic advances, he placed a curse ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings. Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events, but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions.

The metaphor has been applied in a variety of contexts, such as psychology, environmentalism, politics, science, cinema, the corporate world, and philosophy, and has been in circulation since at least 1949, when French philosopher Gaston Bachelard coined the term "Cassandra Complex" to refer to a belief that things could be known in advance.

This relates to the film in both that Cole knew about the "dream" of seeing himself and Cassandra (character also called Cassy) at the airport, but never took it seriously or knew how to apply it to his situation (as it kept "altering" each time he "remembered" it), playing into the tragedy of his character's story and the irony in that the scientists believed that they couldn't change the future by altering the past, by trying to prevent it. It never seems to cross their mind. They're only interested in the past in hopes of finding a cure, when Cole's memory suggest, they might of been able to dramatically change the future.

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