Syfy’s new series 12 Monkeys, which debuts Friday night, despite the obvious on the surface similarities, takes great strides to set itself apart from the 1995 film starring Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe (under the signature off kilter brilliant direction of Terry Gilliam). Purists shouldn’t expect a beat for beat retread, and that’s a good thing. Yes, the show incorporates the mind bending time travel theories, several character names and most importantly the whodunnit story line of preventing the cause of a worldwide pandemic. Thankfully where the common threads end is where this version keeps you interested.
Aaron Sanford plays James Cole (the Bruce Willis character except less crazy and with a head of long hair), a time traveler from a post-apocalyptic 2043 on a vital mission to 2015 to eliminate those responsible for creating a virus that wipes out 7 billion people. 2043 is pretty much a train wreck, so details on the past are vague at best. But when zipped to the past, Cole finds himself in contact with Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull, in the Madeleine Stowe role), a specialist in viral containment, and convinces her that his mission is not a farce in the mind of madman via some clever time travel paradox hocus pocus using the same watch from two timelines. History points to Leland Frost (Zeljko Ivanek), the affluent CEO of a bio engineering company, as the catalyst for humanity’s impending downfall, so Cole and Railly pretty much make it their mission to flat out kill him at a fundraiser to insure a better tomorrow.
In the two episodes I screened, the show succeeds in setting up its intriguing yet pessimistic tone and the conspiracy theory heavy structure that will push the series through various timelines. The method of time travel is spooky and unreliable, Cole is sent back two years too early in the show’s outset. The story alternates between 2015 as Cole attempts to solve the mystery of the disease, and in 2043 where he is searches for vague leads at best in the forms of aged clues, inaccurate records of history and decaying physical evidence. The passage of time plus a crumbling society do not make for reliable intel when it comes to the vital detective work in 2015, where Cole’s Terminator-style mission must be carried out: “Break the past, the future falls,” Cole tells Railly.
But even in what seems like success does not mean actual victory for the time traveler and the ragtag team of sketchy physicists living in the ruins of 2043 who are pretty much waiting to be wiped out of existence. To sustain a TV series, there can’t be a simple cause and effect solution, or else the show is over. Enter the layered mystery surrounding the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and the insane asylum patient Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire). There’s a gender switch here as Brad Pitt won accolades and a Golden Globe for playing Jeffrey Goines in the film. Goines is also happens to be Frost’s daughter, spends her time drawing the symbol of the Army on the walls of her cell, and will play a larger role within the group who may (or may not?) also play a pivotal role in causing the pandemic.
The 1995 movie tied up a rather complicated plot in little over two hours, albeit with a doozy of a twist ending. Obviously the show is allowed far more time to develop and complicate the central mystery of who is to blame for the plague and exactly what role the mysterious Army of the Twelve Monkeys ultimately plays in it. With generous time screen time to cultivate its layered plot points, we can hope the writers will intricately work their way to an outcome that trumps the unexpected climax that fans of the film are by now all too familiar with.
12 Monkeys definitely gets off to a good start and will keep you curious enough to follow the mystery. Time travel scenarios on an episodic pace can be tough to navigate though over time. One too many inconsistencies from over using paradoxes or conflicting theories of how (if at all) history can be altered can leave viewers confused and frustrated if the writers use them as easy outs when plot pickles present themselves. Gilliam’s off beat direction is jettisoned here, probably for the better for the TV medium, for sheer coherence sake and budget parameters.
Good time travel stories contain a sufficient amount of subtle hints and misdirection throughout the journey. Its an easy out to use cheats to conveniently change the particular established rules when a plot pinch rears its ugly head, but hopefully the writers and show runners have a meticulous timeline paced and plotted out for however long the series may run.
12 Monkeys will please sci-fi fans and keep time travel gluttons who over think things too much (like myself) sufficiently intrigued if just to see how the story is handled to further find its own way rather than follow the path of the movie it’s based upon.
12 Monkeys premieres Friday, January 16 at 9pm on Syfy.