Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
In the hero's journey, the ordinary world refers to the world as our hero understands it, not necessarily the world as we understand it. So in 12 Monkeys, that means the ordinary world isn't very ordinary at all.
James Cole's world is the dystopian future of 2035. Humanity lives underground after being nearly exterminated in 1997 by a virus. The survivors have formed a dystopian society under the control of the Scientists, a panel of, well, scientists. Cole is a prisoner in this world, and he "volunteers" to gather samples from the surface.
Now that we think about it, for all we know, everyone in this future is either a prisoner or a guard. It's not a cheery place—it's more of a terrifying thought experiment.
Also, we learn that Cole has recurring dreams featuring a blonde woman and a man being gunned down in an airport. That's less important to this stage and more important for later, so let's just put a pin in it for now.
Call to Adventure
Cole's call to adventure comes when the Scientists select him to go on a special mission. This mission will be for Cole to go back in time to 1996. There, he will gather information on the source of the virus, so the Scientists can trace the virus' path. Should he succeed, he'll be granted a pardon for his crimes. Cole chooses to go but accidentally ends up in the year 1990 instead.
Refusal of the Call
Cole doesn't really refuse the call. It's more that he can't answer it because authorities have strict rules about outside calls at the mental hospital.
After he's institutionalized, Cole is unable to continue with his adventure because the doctors tend to keep the doors locked in those places. They also barred the windows because they don't want patients getting any ideas from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Here, the first seeds of uncertainty are also planted in Cole's mind. The psychiatrists argue that Cole is mentally unwell, and L.J. Washington tells him a story of mental divergence featuring the planet Ogo and a horde of Plutonian barbarians. It's a story that sounds strangely familiar to Cole's own—but with some Edgar Rice Burroughs thrown in for flavor.
Meeting the Mentor
Depending on your reading, 12 Monkeys diverges from the traditional hero's story at this point. If you consider the Scientists as the mentor characters, then Cole has already met them, and we've gone out of order.
On the other hand, you may not believe any character fills the role. At which point, skip this step and please proceed to Step 5, "Crossing the Threshold."
Crossing the Threshold
Cole returns to the year 2035. At first the Scientists berate him for not completing his mission, but once they learn he was sent to the wrong year, they decide to let him have another go at it.
In a typical hero's tale, this stage shows the hero's commitment to leaving the ordinary world and heading out to places unknown. In 12 Monkeys, Cole doesn't commit so much as recommit to his adventure, choosing to return to the '90s. As for the unknown places, 1996 isn't drastically different from 1990—and he's already been there. The only major difference is fewer instances of "Ice Ice Baby" playing on the radio, which is really for the best.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Cole receives his first ally, Dr. Railly. Actually, he kidnaps and forces her to join his team, but since she eventually comes around, we're going to count it. He also makes enemies in just about everyone else except Dr. Railly. The police, those two homeless guys he kills, Jeffery Goines—seriously, everyone.
During this stage, Cole begins to search for the Army of the 12 Monkeys in earnest and has Dr. Railly drive him to Philadelphia to do just that.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
The inmost cave is a place of true danger for the hero, and as the name suggests, this stage sees the hero heading straight for it. We see Cole's approach in his searching for the Army of the 12 Monkeys. In the city of brotherly love, he makes his way to the Freedom for Animals Association, where he finds his first major clue.
Jeffery Goines, the very same man he met in a mental hospital in 1990, is the founder of the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Surprise…except not really.
During the ordeal, the hero faces his fears, and when Cole confronts Jeffery Goines, he does exactly this. Believing he can get some information that can help the future, Cole breaks into the Goines' mansion to talk to his one-time bunkmate.
What he learns, however, is less helpful and more troubling.
Goines claims the plan to use a virus to wipe out humanity came from Cole himself (thanks to an offhand comment he made in the institution). Cole returns to the future, fearing his actions caused the devastation of the world. That's got to be a heavy mental load.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Back in 2035, Cole receives his reward. It's not a sword because, honestly, what good is a sword against a virus? No good at all. Instead, the Scientists give him a pardon, a hearty pat on the back, and a horrible rendition of "Blueberry Hill" for a job well done.
But it's not all's well that ends well for Cole. Due to his mind being torn across space and time, he now believes himself to be crazy and the future an illusion concocted from his deranged mind.
The Road Back
In a typical hero's story, the road back signals the hero's return to the ordinary world from the beginning of the story. But Cole is already in 2035 by the time we reach this stage. Instead, Cole decides he wants no part of this devastated future and chooses to return to the '90s.
Tricking the Scientists to send him back to 1996, Cole reunites with Dr. Railly, and the two of them set out to test whether Cole is mentally divergent or not. All signs point toward Cole's future being very, very likely.
Cole is resurrected in 1996. No, he doesn't die and come back to life, but he is symbolically born again, finding the closest thing to peace that he ever achieves in the film. He and Railly come to the realization that they can't change the future. Rather than try to stop it, the two decide to head to Key West and live out their days in happiness. And whatever will be will be.
This resurrection also comes with a swank new look, complete with wig and fake mustache.
Return with the Elixir
Even at the finale stage, 12 Monkeys is still finding ways to subvert the traditional hero story. Normally, this stage sees the hero returning home with some treasure or power that changes the world.
Cole doesn't find some treasure or power to change the world. In fact, the film argues the world is unalterable and fate-determined from the get-go. Nothing our hero can do can save the world or even himself.
With that said, the hero does return home or, at least, to the start of things. Remember that recurring dream we asked you to put a pin in? Time to unpin it. We learn that this dream is, in fact, a memory.
When Cole was a boy, he witnessed a man being gunned down in an airport. During the film's finale, we see that man was none other than James Cole. He had witnessed his own death, which is just…wow. What a trip.
So, in a way, the film does return back to where it started.