Part of the latest crop of TV producers’ seemingly endless attempts to mine cinematic history for the small screen’s golden future sees SyFy dig 20 years into the past to dust off 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s mind-blowing sci-fi that was itself based on little-known French short, La Jetée.
While 12 Monkeys doesn’t quite have the same brand recognition as Sleepy Hollow or even Psycho that could work in its favour, allowing writers Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett to take the 1995 film’s premise and reimagine the mythology with little opposition and hopefully come out the other side with a truly unique and exciting piece of television.
Alas, Fargo this is not and instead of a dramatic reinvention we get a rote retelling of the film but without any its passion or creativity.
Aaron Stanford replaces Bruce Willis in the role of time traveler James Cole, who is zapped from the year 2043 to the present day to prevent the outbreak of a deadly virus that in Cole’s timeline caused the death of 93.6% of the world population. Enlisting troubled scientist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), Cole tracks down the shadowy threat responsible and uncovers an elaborate conspiracy that goes for beyond what he expected.
It’s a great premise, bubbling with potential to tap into our present fears about the chance of a global pandemic (thanks, Ebola) and to explore themes relating to the lengths mankind is prepared to go in order to survive.
Yet Matalas and Fickett have bizarrely eschewed these interesting avenues in favour of a rote conspiracy thriller. Instead of expanding the plot to encompass its characters’ rich pasts, presents and futures, we become trapped in a grim version of 2015 as Cole and Railly investigate a monolithic pharmaceutical conglomerate fronted by the supremely seedy Tom Noonan.
From The Terminator-inspired premise to the Sleepy Hollow-aping way Cole’s man-out-of-time struggles are depicted for comic effect, 12 Monkeys is a jumble of hackneyed genre tropes that you’ve seen put to better use elsewhere and it doesn’t yet know what to do with them all.
As a consequence, the plot development is frustratingly predictable, which sadly makes watching the show entirely pointless.
With the plot mostly consigned to the present day, it’s easy to forget that the lives of seven billion people is a stake for Cole’s mission – or it would be if he could resist muttering it under his breath every 10 minutes – and the writers would be wise to draw more attention to this by focusing more on the future timeline.
This would enable Matalas and Fickett to explore the moral implications of Cole’s mission in greater depth than the present day-timeline allows, which is surely the point of turning a film into a TV show. It would also open up the possibility of exploring the political mechanisations behind the team of scientists sending Cole into the past, which you would imagine is rife with ulterior motives and hidden agendas.
In casting, Stanford is solid, if unremarkable, in the lead role with plenty of hints dropped about Cole’s troubled past throughout the opening episode, but aside from him no-one else really stands out. The problem is that Matalas and Fickett are more interested in setting up the conspiracy storyline than they are in fleshing-out their characters, and the majority of the cast are left to act as little more than faceless plot points as a result.
All is not necessarily lost, however. As I said, the premise has great potential and if the writers can find the right voice and gain the confidence to tackle more complex themes, 12 Monkeys could be something truly special.
As yet, however, the plot is just too predictable and uninspiring and the characters so unappealing and unnoticeable that it really is rather hard to give a monkeys about any of it.
Click here to watch a trailer for 12 Monkeys