Syfy’s 12 Monkeys is nothing like Terry Gilliam’s film — and that’s why I’m interested

Welcome to the expanded universe of TV reboots

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About five years ago, I finally got fed up with movie reboots. I think it was A Nightmare on Elm Street that did it, oddly enough; leave it to a series full of mostly forgettable sequels to push me over the edge, but that was it. It didn’t matter that past remakes like John Carpenter’s The Thing had become classics in their own right, or that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was a more balanced, mature film than Tim Burton had ever tried to make. I had reached peak remake saturation.

And then they started coming to television.

At first it seemed more like a cute prequel parlor trick than a trend. Bryan Fuller’s excellent Hannibal took on pre-Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lecter to wonderful effect, and Bates Motel latched onto the adolescent years of Psycho’s Norman Bates for its own charming, if uneven, mash-up of Oedipal issues and Twin Peaks small-town weirdisms. But the remake deals kept closing, and now Hollywood is awash in projects repurposing old movie properties for the small screen.

This Friday, Syfy debuts its latest foray into the arena with 12 Monkeys, a new series based on Terry Gilliam’s 1995 cult classic. The building blocks are familiar: 30 years in the future a mysterious virus has wiped out humanity, and a group of scientists send a man named James Cole back to our present to investigate the disease’s origins. Aaron Stanford (The CW’s Nikita) swaps in for Bruce Willis, while Amanda Schull is Cassandra, a doctor that teams up with him to try to save humanity.

The original 12 Monkeys, like the French short La Jetée that inspired it, was a puzzle box movie about insanity and inevitability, carefully crafted to wrap around itself and land an unexpected emotional punch at the end. How a series would tackle that element was one of the things I was most interested in, but the answer appears to be that Syfy is sidestepping it completely and doing something different with the premise. And as strange as it sounds, that’s one of the most interesting things about the series.

The new 12 Monkeys is a straightforward sci-fi adventure, with Cole time-tripping from year to year — the show calls it “splintering,” presumably because that’s supposed to sound cool — thanks to a chemical process that also conveniently gives him accelerated healing powers and enhanced fighting ability. In that sense it’s nothing at all like Gilliam’s film, and the straightforward treatment carries on throughout. The wide-lens dystopia of the original is gone, replaced by a polished but much less distinguished aesthetic — call it basic cable futurism — and the jagged edginess of Willis’ Cole is pounded flat. Instead, Stanford creates a generic action hero with no real sense of personality or past (at least, nothing we see in the first two episodes). It gets 12 Monkeys into trouble; without strong lead performances to ground the universe, the show’s strained reaches left me laughing for all the wrong reasons. (Genius doctor after going over Cole’s vitals: “This guy is a flesh and blood molecular computer!”)

12 MONKEYS promotional stills (Syfy)

But it can take time for a series to find its footing, and co-creators Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas are clearly interested in using the broader canvas to play with the conventions of time travel and to grow the film’s nugget of a premise into an expanded universe’s worth of mythology. When Cole starts ricocheting off people that have already met his future self, Doctor Who-style, 12 Monkeys is at its best.

That’s particularly clear once the show gets all the introductory necessities of the pilot out of the way and shifts its focus to the daughter of a rich biotech executive (Emily Hampshire, in the role originally played by Brad Pitt) and a mysterious villain that is part Stephen King creation and part Slenderman. 12 Monkeys’ allure is not in the familiar premise, but in the promise of things beyond the edges of Gilliam’s vision — and a reminder that while film reboots may have limited tools to work with, serialized television is another matter entirely.

12 MONKEYS promotional still (Syfy)

When tackling a known character or story in two hours, there’s an inherent tension between satisfying expectations while also differentiating from the source material. It’s why rebooted origin stories are so exhausting; how many different ways can we really see Peter Parker become Spider-Man? TV, on the other hand, is all about long-term world building. Characters, relationships, narrative set-ups and pay-offs evolve and play out over years. Quite simply, television does things movies can’t, and with the right creative forces at the helm, a show can use an existing premise to tell an entirely new set of stories — just ask Fargo’s Noah Hawley.

Television is able to do things that movies simply can't

Not to compare the two shows directly, of course. Monkeys isn’t even attempting the kind of storytelling that Hawley was able to pull off, but it already has enough secrets and mysteries set into motion that I’ve set my DVR to find out what happens next. And while my stance on movie reboots may not have softened, I’m somehow optimistic about the potential of these television projects. You only need to travel back 11 years to find evidence that Syfy — then just SciFi — knew how to rework a property with Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica (another show, it should be noted, that struggled with some clumsy performances and B-movie flavor before hitting stride).

In any case, we might as well all make our peace with the movie-to-TV reboot concept now. With Minority Report, Real Genius, and Evil Dead just some of the titles currently in the works, it’s not like we’re going to have much of a choice.

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