Whether behind the guise of a deep space adventure or a fantastical monster romp, science fiction films lend the perfect background for an exploration of philosophical and ideological questions. 12 Monkeys trips through time, allowing the viewer to reimagine their conceptualizations of memory and self. It’s a staple in the 90’s sci-fi canon. Directed by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame, and starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, 12 Monkeys precluded today’s dystopian futurism craze. So when SyFy announced a new TV series based on the film, fan interest was almost instantaneously piqued. With many film-to-TV transitions falling flat, fans of the film have been hoping the new program would be up to par. But whatever reservations viewers might bring with them into the show, Travis Flickett and Terry Matalas, the co-creators behind the new series, have taken painstaking steps to ensure their work can stand beside the original.
While the basic premise of the story is the same — a man living in the post-apocalyptic future is sent back in time to save the world from the threat of a lethal virus — there are also a lot of changes, the most significant of which is the treatment of “time travel” itself.
In La Jetee, the seminal short film that directly influenced 12 Monkeys as well as nearly every sci-fi time travel flick since its release in 1962, time is a fixed and rigid point of reference, as real as a point on the map. In the new show, time is no longer set in stone – things in this world may be altered, meaning the epidemic can be avoided and the future can be saved.
The series opens with the episode “Splinter” which introduces the main character James Cole, played by Aaron Stanford, who is chosen to go back and stop a virus from nearly wiping out the human race. The episode is jam packed with action as Cole searches for Leland Goines, believing him to be the man who started the epidemic. Things escalate quickly though, and when Goines is killed and Cole’s reality doesn’t dissipate, they realize they were wrong about who was responsible for the plague and the search must continue.
Stanford’s Cole is more informed and level-headed than Willis’ portrayal of the character in the original film. Right away this indicates a smoother, less agitated and more coherent sense of storytelling for the entire series. The first episode also introduces Dr. Railly, who in this instance has become a scientist directly involved with the disease outbreak in the future, rather than a therapist assigned to Cole’s case. Because of this, Dr. Railly becomes a greater focal point of the show, giving viewers a sympathetic character just as confused and disoriented as they are. But then again, as Bruce Willis quipped in the film, “confusion is a side effect of time travel.”
In “Mentally Divergent” the second episode of the new series, Leland Goines’ institutionalized and mentally unstable daughter Jennifer, played by Emily Hampshire, is introduced. Hampshire’s new spin on Jennifer Goines isn’t only that she’s a woman. She also used to work in her father’s secret lab until the murder of her coworkers that triggered her mental collapse (she held herself responsible). Now, as one of only two people left alive that knows the location of her father’s lab, Goines is wanted not only by Cole and the rest of his time-traveller team, but also by a mysterious hit-man who seems to be working for the 12 Monkeys. The man, who leaves flower petals on the bodies of his victims, is first seen by Dr. Railly just after he’s murdered her only source of information. He quickly shows up in Jennifer’s memory again from the day her coworkers were killed, and again at the end of the episode when he kidnaps Jennifer in the name of the 12 Monkeys. And, while in the film the 12 Monkeys were a meaningless distraction, they now seem poised to be the real bad guys of the story.
Unsurprisingly, the changes made from the original 12 Monkeys film have elicited both complaints about and praise for the new series, but so far reviews appear to be positive over all. And with SyFy’s ratings at record highs, it’s hard to disagree. Before jumping into the new series, take a look back at the first 12 Monkeys – check out the film that started it all, La Jetee. In an age where almost everything we watch seems to be a “revamp” of a film or series that’s already been made, the direction this program has taken is refreshing. Watching the first two episodes of 12 Monkeys doesn’t seem like simply rewatching the movie; it feels brand new.