12 Monkeys - A Season 1 Review
How does SyFy's version measure against Terry Gilliam's classic?
The 1995 'Twelve Monkeys' by filmmaker Terry Gilliam is perhaps one of the most influential science fiction films of the decade. The film won both critical and commercial success thanks to its writing by David and Janet Peoples, a cast which included Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe and Brad Pitt and Gilliam's brilliant directing.
Twelve Monkeys, which was inspired by Chris Maker's 1962 short 'La Jetee', began in a dystopian future after a plague killed 99% human population and contaminated the Earth's surface. The remaining survivors were forced to live underground. A group of scientists sent a troubled and reluctant convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) back in time to obtain pure sample of the virus so that the scientists can produce a cure. He is also told to gather information about the mysterious Army of the Twelve Monkeys which is suspected of causing the plague.
This is not a feel-good movie. The atmosphere of both the future and the present is surreal and disturbing. Almost everyone, including Cole, believe that he is insane. A victim of the Cassandra Curse, which is having the knowledge of the future only to be ridiculed and disbelieved.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film. All the cast gave an outstanding performance and Brad Pitt even won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the erratic and unhinged Jeffrey Goines, leader of the Twelve Monkeys. The plot, with its multiple temporal paradoxes, is near flawless, with an unexpected and wrenching twist in the end.
So when I heard that there is going to be a TV series based on the Gilliam's work, I was extremely skeptical and didn't even bother to watch it when it aired. It was by chance that I recently came across the re-run of the pilot episode. To my surprise it was pretty good, and, after watching a few more episodes, I found it to be pretty addictive.
SyFy's 12 Monkeys, created by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett is not an exact remake. While the premise of the story is similar with the movie's, the SyFy version is different in several aspects. Gone is Gilliam's surreal atmosphere replaced by more simpler and modern feel. James Cole (played by Aaron Stanford) is also different. He is more hardened and less fazed by his new environment (and ate no spiders). Cole is sent to the past to stop the plague from happening by killing a scientist who developed the virus in the hope that the plague would be prevented. But his mission is not as easy as it sounds for, unlike in the movie, The Army of The Twelve Monkeys is a real and very sinister threat, a mystery that unfolds in each episode.
The show is fast paced and in an episode the scenes can move back and forth into several timelines, filing in details about certain events or characters. There is plenty of action but also room for the philosophical discussion of science and history as well as some deeply emotional moments.
I also find the characters to be interesting too. TV series allows character development and not just of main roles but also for smaller ones. Instead of a psychologist (portrayed by Madeline Stowe in the film) Cole's ally is a virologist with an intriguing name: Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), and she is just as obsessed as Cole in stopping the plague. Kirk Avecedo played José Ramse, Cole's brother in arms and a loyal friend. The virus in question was developed by a company belonging to the family of Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire) who is no less unhinged then Brad Pitt's version. The ever-excellent Tom Noonan is a chilling face of the series main villain. And the time-travel device or the Splinter machine as they call it (and looks suspiciously like a small version of the CERN particle accelerator) is controlled by the enigmatic and secretive Dr. Katarina Jones (superbly portrayed by Barbara Sukowa). She has very strong motivations to undo history and is not afraid to get her hands dirty to achieve it.
I suppose it is fair to say that if you're expecting a TV version of Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys then you will be disappointed. However, season 1 is no less satisfying then Gilliam's tight plot precisely because the Twelve Monkeys universe has been expanded. Season 1 ended with a cliffhanger and the sudden appearance of 'The Twelve.' As for the upcoming season 2, without giving too much away, I think we'll see more of Cassandra Railly taking center stage. There are so many questions raised in season 1 that I am certainly looking forward to see more.