‘We Told You So’: Revisiting the Bleak, Pandemic-Filled World of 12 Monkeys, 25 Years Later

Bruce Willis as Cole, the time-traveling protagonist in 12 Monkeys. Universal Pictures.

Director Terry Gilliam’s 1995 science-fiction film, 12 Monkeys, presented a desolate future in which a virus exterminates most of the world’s population and forces survivors to live underground. James Cole, the movie’s protagonist and a prisoner in this subterranean civilization in 2035, is sent back in time — to the 1990s — to find the original virus and bring it back to scientists in the future to develop a cure.

In the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, many people stuck at home during lockdown turned to movies about fictional pandemics, including Gilliam’s surreal, chilling vision, which was brought to life by its three big stars — Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeleine Stowe. And 25 years on, as producer Charles Roven tells Eric Ducker in The Ringer, the movie “holds up really well.”

In this complete history of the making of 12 Monkeys, Ducker talks with Gilliam, its screenwriters David and Janet Peoples, and others who worked on the film.

The movie Outbreak came out several months before 12 Monkeys, and journalist Richard Preston’s 1994 book The Hot Zone about lethal filoviruses was a national bestseller. Still, for most of the world’s population, a massive pandemic had not been a pressing concern since the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people between 1918 and 1920. Now there is a rising feeling that the next one won’t come a century from now. It could arrive much sooner and could be far worse. “I think the very first spoken words that aren’t voice-over in our show are, ‘It’s never been about if. It’s always been when,’” Matalas says. “When you start to really dissect that data, it’s terrifying. Right now we’re on the precipice of a vaccine, but are we truly ready for the next [pandemic]? I don’t think so.”

In 12 Monkeys, Railly has written a book called The Doomsday Syndrome and gives a lecture at a museum about madness and apocalyptic visions. She discusses the Cassandra complex, the idea taken from Greek legend about figures who know the future but whose warnings aren’t heeded, leading to what Railly describes as, “[T]he agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” In the 25 years since its release, 12 Monkeys is increasingly seen as a Cassandra of its own kind.

“We told you so,” Gilliam says.

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