12 Monkeys is the latest sci-fi TV show from Syfy and an adaptation of the classic Terry Gilliam time travel classic film from 1995 (which itself was a remake of an obscure French short film called La jetée).
The TV show follows the same premise as the original film. Mankind has been driven nearly to extinction by a deadly virus that begins in the near future and a few decades from now, scientists send back in time a lone man to learn how the calamity started so that it can be undone. But there are many differences, many of which were done to fit a serialized TV format.
The time traveler, James Cole (Aaron Stanford), isn’t a prisoner forced to volunteer, but a drifter willingly recruited by a scientific group to undergo the temporal jumps. In the original film, when he voyaged to contemporary times the film had us guessing if he was insane. Not so here. In fact, he is quickly able to convince his present-day comrade, virologist Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) that he is a time traveler. In the course of the series, Cole and Cassandra track a doomsday cult called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, who are responsible for unleashing the virus. That differs significantly from the film and as with these TV shows finding the cause of the virus and stopping it isn’t accomplished within two hours like in a film.
In each episode, Cole uncovers an important facet of the virus or the army and goes back to 2043 to report his findings. Of course, this hampers the TV show because if he is successful then the virus is stopped, humanity is saved, his timeline is erased and the show ends. However, to its credit 12 Monkeys has explored the headaches of time travel and it impacts on future timeline for better or for worse. For this reason, scenes that take place in the present aren’t nearly as interesting as those set in the future. It’s a well realized post-apocalyptic future with barren and broken buildings and roving armies of scavengers. One of the best episodes to date called “Atari” largely took place in the future and explored Cole’s tortured past.
The piecemeal revelation that Cole wasn’t exactly a good person in the past is a good twist and makes him a more interesting character. It’s fascinating to see some of his morally questionable acts and why he decided to help change the future in the episodes. A lot of that has to do with his close friend in 2043, Ramse (Kirk Acevedo), who acts as Cole’s conscious. Ramse is so well played by Acevedo that we have to wonder why he wasn’t chosen to play Cole. After all, with his bald head he looks more like Cole as portrayed by Bruce Willis in the original film and is a better actor to boot.
The other characters are hit or miss. Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire), an insane math whiz whose father is believed responsible for the virus, is overdone with her Hollywood crazy method acting. Meanwhile, Katarina Jones (Barbara Sukowa), the enigmatic creator of the time machine, is a mysterious, though sympathetic character that is quietly desperate to change time.
On the whole, 12 Monkeys seems at times to be your standard time travel show, but it is still generally entertaining despite its faults. It’s not in any way up to the level of the original film, but it’s a worthwhile adaptation.
Lewis T. Grove