Here at The Movies we don’t generally tackle new television shows, at least not until the first season is done with. But 12 Monkeys represents a unique situation. It may not be the first television show based on a popular film, but there is a certain something about 12 Monkeys that makes it stand out. The film, that is. We’ll get to the TV show in a minute.
For those not familiar with it, 12 Monkeys is a 1995 science fiction thriller that starred Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt, directed by the brilliant but tragic Terry Gilliam. It is to many Gilliam fans his finest film and certainly one of few of his movies that also carries a lot of clout with mainstream audiences.
The saga involves a man who travels from the future to current times, hoping to stop a plague that will kill most of humanity. But the clues on where the plague came from are very vague, as are the intentions and understanding of the people who keep sending him back. As the man, played by Willis, tries to solve the mystery, he slowly goes mad or at least slowly stops considering his mission as all that important – a result of the chaotic time travel he experiences. Part of his clues involve a virologist, played by Stowe, who herself becomes entangled in the man’s strange mission. But things really come to a head when he lands in an asylum, meeting a true lunatic that was played masterfully by Pitt – many consider this to be Pitt’s best performance ever. Is the lunatic behind the plague and something called the army of the 12 monkeys?
Syfy’s television show takes the basic threads of this concept, but it is very different. The movie is undeniably a Gilliam film: although not as eccentric as his other work, it still has a touch of madness that permeates everything. The audience starts to feel as demented as the characters. The TV incarnation is more straight-faced. It still involves a man travelling back in time to stop a plague, but the style is contemporary. Basically, 12 Monkeys the show doesn’t feel out of place with many other sci-fi series such as Fringe or Defiance.
So this is not a Gilliam-esque experience. But that is to be expected: Gilliam is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor is the film really compatible with a long story arch, so the TV series has to elaborate. Practically everyone is far more fleshed out: even the chaotic future people trying to piece together the puzzle are far more coherent and less ambiguous than in the movie.
This elaboration is where 12 Monkeys will attract or repel a viewer. It’s an interesting story with enough eerie cloak-and-dagger stuff to bait the audience into the next episode. But the series does not share the dementia of the show. Even Jennifer Goines, the gender-swapped version of Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines, would be out of place in the movie. The role is portrayed competently by Emily Hampshire, but she’s almost the only crazy person in the show. Cole, the lead character, is far too together and coherent for my taste: Willis’ portrayal showed a man who was confused, angry and running on pure instinct. The TV version looks like a ‘find a plague suspect a week formula’. It’s disappointing if you hoped to see the deeper psychological edge of the movie in the show.
That is not to say 12 Monkeys won’t appeal to you, but fans of the movie may not like what they find. It’s the theory of the original, but without its spirit. The show also takes some major logic leaps in order to shoehorn plot devices into the story. That said, it may start having fun with the time travel aspect and characters already allude to how they met each other before they met each other. That could be fun.
Maybe this should have been called something else, with a credit to say it was inspired by the film. 12 Monkeys the TV series is not an interpretation of Gilliam’s movie. It shares the same concept, but everything else is different. 12 Monkeys is not bad – not as bad as some reviews make it out to be. It is well made and boasts a good cast. I’m glad to see actors like Zeljko Ivanek and Tom Noonan in this.
There are nods to the original: the main future scientist at one point wears glasses that resemble a prop from the film and the wire-covered TV in the asylum is a clear reference too. The people who made this want to make clear the TV show is not a cynical cash-in.
The question of its appeal depends on how hung up you are on the movie. I’ll be honest: when I think of that film I see angry Bruce Willis and batsh** Brad Pitt. I don’t feel it here. But I’ll keep watching, because the show is not trying to be the movie and I respect that. If they have a solid game plan for the season, this may evolve into a very cool show.
Last Updated: January 29, 2015