12 Monkeys Time Travel Timelines

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by on January 30, 2014

Opinion is divided upon whether 12 Monkeys is a film with a fixed timeline or several changeable timelines. A single fixed timeline is certainly hinted at in the film, (albeit from the voice of a potentially unreliable narrator) BUT a multiple timeline theory is both possible and entirely plausible. Below, I have set out the events of the film in chronological order using a series of multiple timelines.

Original timeline (Timeline 1)

  • 1990: James Cole is born
  • 1990: Jeffrey Goines is living in a mental asylum
    1996: Jeffrey Goines’s father’s red haired assistant Dr Peters deliberately lets out a virus which kills 5 billion humans, the survivors of which are forced to live underground*.
  • 2036: A scientific mission to the surface of Philadelphia retrieves an answerphone machine from a cleaning company. Scientists hit upon the idea that leaving messages on this blank answerphone could be an ideal way for time travellers to pass discoveries made in 1996 to scientists in 2036.
  • 2036: Scientists send Cole on a fact finding mission to find the virus in its pure form. The timeline ends at 2036 as a new Timeline begins in 1990, Timeline 2.

Timeline 2

This is the same timeline as previous in every respect apart from James Cole arrives in 1990 from 2036 and is committed to an asylum.

  • 1990: James Cole from the future arrives from 2036 and is committed to an asylum. Whilst he is there he meets an “indifferent” Kathryn Railly who doesn’t feel they have met before and he inspires Jeffrey Goines to form the Army of the 12 Monkeys.
  • 1996: The 12 monkeys plot occurs
    1996: Dr Peters releases a virus killing 5 billion people.
  • 2036: The scientists 2nd attempt to discover what happened. They send Cole into the past, accidentally to 1916.

Timeline 3

  • 1916: Cole is shot and poses for a photo. He is then moved forward along this timeline to 1996
  • 1990: At the asylum, Railly reacts differently towards Cole – she remembers him from her photo.
  • 1996: Cole kidnaps Dr Railly. During the kidnap, Cole is recalled to the future.
    Through the incidents of the photo, the bullet and the kid in the barn, Reilly is convinced about the Army of the 12 monkeys and she paints her slogan on the outer wall of the animal rights office.
  • 2036: When Cole returns to the future there is now photographic evidence of Railly’s painting of the slogan.

Timeline 4

  • 1996: Cole is sent back to 1996 where he meets up with Railly. She then leaves the message on the answerphone. Cole will have no idea what the message was as he has not heard it before.
    They get a disguise and go to a movie theater. Railly DOES  NOT say “I remember you…like this.  I feel I’ve known you before.  I feel I’ve always known you” whilst in the lobby.
    They then go to the airport in disguise with the idea of living out the next few weeks in Florida Keys. Whilst at the airport Cole leaves a 2nd message for the scientists informing them that the 12 Monkeys plot is a red herring.
    Reilly spots Dr Peters and realises he is spreading the virus. They attempt so stop him. Cole is unarmed and unable to get past security. They fail to stop Peters, the virus is released and 5 billion people die.
  • 2036: Scientists finally manage to piece together Cole’s cryptic answerphone message, they send Jose to the airport as they need to know exactly who spreads the virus.

Timeline 5

  • 1996: Jose gives Cole a gun (But why? This is a secret sub-plot in 12 Monkeys!). Now that Cole is armed he is able to lead the scientists and Jose to the assistant and is shot dead. Young James Cole (of Timeline 5) is a witness.
    The scientists finally rendez-vous with Dr Peters on the plane but they do not stop the proliferation of the virus.Young James Cole (5) now grows up with troubled dreams of the murder he saw – he is the James Cole that is featured in the film.
  • 2036: James Cole (5) is trained for the mission to go back to the past. He memorises the answerphone message from Railly. The event of the previous timelines are acted out again, only they are happening to Cole (5) only in this timeline he is a troubled man with nightmares of an airport shooting. He will recall the 1st answerphone message left by Kathryn Railly as he would have memorised it in 2036. And when in the theater lobby, Railly declares “I remember you…like this.  I feel I’ve known you before.  I feel I’ve always known you.” this line finally becomes clear – because she has done this before!

*Some have claimed that Dr Peters was only given access to the virus after Kathryn Railly warned Mr Goines to review his security measures (an event which could not happen in the original timeline as she would not suspect Jeffrey of any wrong-doing). Wrong! If Peters has access to the virus when security is at its tightest, then he would also have access to the virus when security was at its slackest. 2) Spreading the virus is not an act of sudden opportunism. Peters set out on a Round The World trip stopping off on many destinations to spread the virus and he carries all the relevant documents with him. This kind of trip takes meticulous planning so it cannot be planned and booked overnight for departure the very next day. For these reasons the virus was released in the original timeline.


Frequently asked questions

Why did Railly say she remembered Cole at the Theater?

Kathryn Railly told Cole at the Theater that she remembered him being in a disguise and the she felt she had known him before. In a fixed timeline this makes no sense. She had not known him before, other than on an old WWI photo… and certainly not in any disguise. She is not the one traveling through time. Her sentence makes no sense. Yes, perhaps she is confused, stressed and tired – but why write such a puzzling line into the film.

If you read my theory on the multiple timelines you will see at the very end the solution to this riddle – it is because this scene has played out before.

Who created the army of the 12 Monkeys?

Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) states in the film (at his father’s party) that James Cole (Bruce Willis) had given him the idea for the Army of the 12 Monkeys whilst he was living in the asylum.

If we view the film 12 Monkeys as a time travel film with multiple timelines, then in the original 1990 timeline, Cole would not be in the asylum. This is something that can only happen in a later timeline as he is sent back from the future to 1990.

There are two connotations from the fact that Cole did not get sent to the asylum in the original timeline.

  1. There was no Army of the 12 Monkeys plot in the original timeline
  2. By travelling into the past Cole indirectly created the Army of the 12 Monkeys

Which Timeline is in play at the start of the film?

In my timeline analysis, the film begins in Timeline 5

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Snote August 2, 2014 at 2:12 am

I honestly think that the lab assistant for Goin’s father was one of the 12 in the army of the 12 Monkeys. We only ever see a few members of the “12” Goins could be considering Cole one of the 12 too.


multiple_personality April 9, 2014 at 6:16 am

doesn’t convince me
I think it’s a fixed timeline
everything is incorporated in just one timeline
Railly knew Cole from the photo (in the asylum)
Railly “always remembered him like this” because , well, she loved him, but it’s not to be taken word for word
young Cole saw his elder version as a kid, there is no version of his life, when he didn’t see that


Ben Reed April 9, 2014 at 10:01 am

Fair points – I think the standard view of the movie is that it is a fixed point timeline. Though fixed point timelines create paradoxes in a way that I find to be messy so I prefer trying to tease out the multiple timelines because they offer explanations that don’t have paradoxes and obey cause and effect. For instance, where did the answerphone come from in the future? How did the scientists know to monitor an answerphone message from a cleaning company?


Lisa March 15, 2014 at 5:34 am

Brilliant!!! I never believed it was a fixed timeline movie. But I couldn’t explain multiple timelines just as well as you did. Thank you!


Anders N. February 7, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Ahh okay, you’re right! Watched the asylum scene again, and Cole doesn’t mention The Army of the 12 Monkeys to Jeffrey Goines like I thought he did.
This is how the conversation goes in the TV-scene (right before Cole gets his medication):
(Jeffrey and Cole watching TV about science performed on animals)
Jeffrey: “Torture. Experiments… We’re all monkeys!”
Cole: “Did they hurt you?”
Jeffrey: “Not as bad as what they’re doing to the eastern bunny.. haha.. yeah”
Cole: “Look at them. They are just asking for it… Maybe the human race deserves to be wiped out.”
Jeffrey: “Wiping out the human race? That’s a great idea. Great! But erhm.. more of a long term thing uhmm.. first we have to focus on more immediate goals. I didn’t say a word about you-know-what!”
Cole: “What are you talking about?”
Jeffrey: “Your plan! Emancipation!”

This makes me start to think about the possibility that Jeffrey perhaps DID release the Virus in one of the timelines, as we are shown a dream sequence where the yellow vested, long haired guy looks like Jeffrey. Though that could’ve just been the drugs or just Cole’s imagination speaking, but there’s no way to really tell.

But I’ll admit that your multiple timeline theory seems to be bullet proof. :)


Anders N. February 6, 2014 at 10:34 pm

Does Cole’s journey to the surface in the beginning of the film, have anything to do with him being selected to be traveling back in time to find the pure form of the Virus? Would that mean that in the first timeline, Cole didn’t find the poster of ‘WE DID IT!” by The Army of the 12 Monkeys? How come Jeffrey Goines gets inspired by Cole of The Army of the 12 Monkeys, if it didn’t initially exist?

I love ‘Twelve Monkeys’, though it does create a lot of confusion regarding its use of time travel theories! :)


Ben Reed February 6, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Well, using my timelines above, that opening scene actually belongs to timeline 5! But it is a good question about who first thought about the 12 monkeys plot. How could Cole inspire it if he had never heard of it? Well it was Goines who thought of it after he and Cole watched TV together at the asylum. Cole made an of the cuff remark about the mistreatment of animals and Goines joined up the dots.

The film may very well use a fixed timeline but it is certainly possible to use multiple timelines with no contradictions


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