The problem facing Syfy's remake of Terry Gilliam's 1995 sci-fi mystery 12 MONKEYS (itself an adaptation of 1962 short film La Jetée) isn't that it will, inevitably, pale in comparison. It's more the fact the whole concept feels utterly exhausted at this point, as we've seen so many permutations of the 'time traveller sent back in time to prevent the end of the world' that it doesn't hold much appeal now. A film has the benefit of a big budget, and a finite ending to play around with expectations, so there are still examples of this sub-genre that work extremely well... and perhaps will always exist, adapting to the ever changing cultural concerns of the day. However, a lower-budget television series has to play the long game, which means Syfy's take on 12 Monkeys is considerably less interesting and must appeal to a wider demographic than Gilliam's cerebral puzzle-piece...
The broad strokes of this premiere are the same: in the near future, a man called James Cole (Aaron Stanford) is sent back in time by the survivors of a global pandemic that killed 93.6% of the population, leaving mankind on the precipice of extinction. Cole arrives in our present; meeting beautiful virologist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), who's somehow involved in the regrettably vague history surrounding the origin of the doomsday plague. Nevertheless, she agrees to help this strange man who claims to be from the future, and together they attempt to unravel the circumstances that lead to the so-called 'Army of the Twelve Monkeys' releasing their plague.
For a Syfy drama, 12 Monkeys is going to work for that audience. I hate to categorise an entire channel's viewers, but, with only a few exceptions, Syfy's oeuvre is either intentional B-movie trash or bog-standard sci-fi concepts with marginal originality. I'm not even sure if most people watching this will be aware it's based on a mid-'90s film, seeing as Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (as good as it is) never really gets talked about these days. I guess in some ways it makes sense to retool the idea for the needs of weekly entertainment, but one of the key changes made me raise an eyebrow. See, despite a core aspect of the film being that anyone claiming to be a time-traveller would be locked up in a mental asylum, Cole has no trouble convincing Cassandra of his story because he—quite literally—vanishes in front of her eyes, to reappear two-years later, Time-Traveller's Wife-style.
I can see why they've done that, but it's a shame the underlying uncertainty about Cole's fanciful tale isn't more prominent, at least for a half-season. It felt too eager to setup a basic premise, dismiss a core ingredient that gave Gilliam's film some uniqueness, then just push forward with weekly adventures... which will, one assumes, involve tracking down and trying to murder a conveyor belt of prime suspects for unleashing the lethal contagion. Oh, but I can't forgive making Cole something of a 'superhuman' because his body's now a 'biological computer' with rapid-healing abilities, etc. Ugh.
Overall, 12 Monkeys is exactly what I thought it would be: a cut-price version of the film, which has stripped away all the ambiguities, and doesn't have a distinct flavour of its own. Aaron Stanford is no Bruce Willis, and the creators of this generic drama certainly can't hold a candle to the cinematic vision of Terry Gilliam at the height of his powers. But hey, if you somehow enjoy weekly time-fillers like this, which do nothing to expand your mind, and you're obstinately loyal to the sci-fi genre in even its lamest knock-off forms, enjoy.
written by Terry Matalas & Travis Fickett • directed by Jeffrey Reiner • 16 January 2015 • Syfy