Last year, Syfy committed to returning to its roots: high-concept science fiction television. With that commitment, the network brought us the mini-series Ascension and is now introducing us to a new science fiction show, 12 Monkeys.
But 12 Monkeys is not an original idea: it started out as a short film in the 1960s, which was then made into a popular movie starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt in 1995. So how does a series based on a movie, based on a short film, stack up?
The answer is surprisingly well.
The story of the 12 Monkeys television series is a familiar one to fans of the 1995 film: a man named Cole goes back in time to stop a plague, caused by a virus, from decimating most of the human population. He meets Dr. Railly in the past and the two work together to figure out how to change history.
But, of course, changing history isn't as easy as killing a single man thought responsible for the virus, because there's a conspiracy at play and it's up to Cole and Dr. Railly to figure out how the outbreak begins.
What sets the TV series apart from the film, though, is that a television series has the opportunity to show a lot more detail and intricacies of the plot. And that's what Syfy's 12 Monkeys embraces early on. We see a plot similar to that of the film, but with a lot more detail. These little details lend to the series' tone, making scenes feel even darker than those in the film.
For example, when Cole visits the mental asylum for the first time, the patients are in the break room watching a creepy animated show on the television. That creepy show playing on the TV is such a minor detail, but it sets the mood from the get-go that everything in this place is seriously off.
Having more time to tell the story also means the characters get more development, too. In just the first episode, you'll find yourself really understanding Cole and what he's facing with the perils of time travel, as well as the heavy weight of his mission. Cassie, too, seems more developed here, taking on a larger role than Stowe's character in the film.
Of course, none of this is possible without the right actors. Stanford as Cole taps into some of the qualities that Bruce Willis gave to the film role, but takes it a step further. His Cole is definitely edgier, and darker, his mission making him often narrow-sighted, even as he walks into a crowded room at an upscale party and attempts to shoot the man he believes responsible for the virus. At the same time, though, Stanford taps into the wide-eyed innocence of a man deprived of so many human luxuries, such as the taste of a hamburger.
Schull, as Dr. Cassandra "Cassie" Railly, is also convincing as someone who's sacrificed her entire life because she believes Cole is a time traveler trying to save the world. The frustration she feels as she faces those who accuse of her insanity feels genuine, but she holds up well to that scrutiny and takes charge when needed.
Most convincingly, Stanford and Schull have great chemistry, and that's evident from the first scene they share, even as Cole is kidnapping Cassie and explaining to her that he's from the future. When the two are on screen together, you believe them, and you want them to figure out how to save the world. This show wouldn't work without that chemistry. When Cole tells his boss in the future, "Back there, I need her," you believe him, but it's clear that his need for her goes far beyond the mission.
12 Monkeys, the series, doesn't just feel darker than the Terry Gilliam film, but also a little more manic. A lot happens in a single episode, but the series' writers and director lay out the episodes so well that it's rarely confusing. Considering that this is a show about time travel, with multiple timelines, that's quite an accomplishment. Although time travel is often confusing, 12 Monkeys never is, so it's easy enough for fans new to the genre to sit back and enjoy.
That isn't to say that the series doesn't have its mysteries, though, and it will be interesting to see how those play out in future episodes.
It does feel like 12 Monkeys gives away a lot just in the first few episodes, and it almost feels as if it's catching up to the film quickly, but at the same time, the details add plot points that are left out there hanging, giving the series material for future episodes and seasons. It's hard to say what the series' endgame is and if it has enough to sustain it for several seasons, but (no pun intended) only time will tell.
12 Monkeys is a good start for Syfy's return to science fiction programming, though. It's an entertaining series that should please sci-fi and 12 Monkeys film fans alike. The series premieres Friday, January 16, on Syfy.