Almost exactly 20 years ago, producers Robert Rosberg and Charles Roven hired director Terry Gilliam and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples to remake Chris Marker’s landmark 1962 French New Wave short “La Jetée,” turning the avant-garde mood piece into the science-fiction adventure 12 Monkeys. Bruce Willis stars as a hard-bitten convict named James Cole, sent back in time from his post-apocalyptic society to the present day to try and learn more about a plague about to be unleashed by an unhinged eco-terrorist named Jeffrey Goines, played by Brad Pitt. Cole navigates the 1990s with the reluctant help of Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), a psychiatrist he met in the same mental hospital where he found Jeffrey.
The movie shouldn’t have worked. While Marker’s film is a haunting meditation on memory and loss, telling an elliptical story through narration and still photographs, 12 Monkeys is a loopy, fast-paced showcase for a couple of bankable actors, directed by one of cinema’s most cockeyed visionaries. But the remake became a worldwide hit—Gilliam’s biggest to date, in fact—and an SF fan-favorite, beloved for the way it retains the philosophical bent of “La Jetée” while also working as a kickass action picture.
Now, in 2015, Syfy has produced a copy of a copy: a weekly TV series based on Gilliam’s movie. But there are only so many times a source can be duped before the quality starts to degrade.
The new 12 Monkeys’ basic premise is nearly identical to its predecessor, with just a few big tweaks. The first episode introduces the time-traveling Cole (played by Aaron Stanford), who comes from 2043 to the present day to murder Leland Goines (Zeljko Ivanek), and in the process meets scientist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull). Like the movie Cole, the TV version is looking for information about a group called “The Army Of The 12 Monkeys,” which may be led by Goines’ institutionalized genius daughter, Jennifer (Emily Hampshire).
It’s not impossible to turn a classic film into quality television. (M*A*S*H and Fargo have proved that.) But 12 Monkeys’ creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett—who’ve previously written for Terra Nova and Nikita—haven’t figured out a good way to break up the taut narratives by Marker and the Peoples into an episodic, no-fixed-endpoint form. Their solution is to build out the movie’s universe, adding more characters and giving Cole more to do. In 2043, Cole’s best friend Ramse (Kirk Acevedo) has his own missions that reveal more about the harsh conditions and ongoing conflicts in the future, while each week Cole is projected back to a different place and time in the past to try and piece together a little more of the mystery of how the world was ruined.
The problem with this approach is that the movie version of 12 Monkeys (taking its lead from Marker) is driven by fatalism and finality. Throughout the film, Cole carries with him a sense of doom. The TV show, meanwhile, is open-ended, and the hero proceeds accordingly. He’s less haunted and more glib, with no sense of urgency. Stanford plays Cole as a typical action hero—cocky and deadpan, with a low, raspy voice—but his stubble and long, scraggly hair can’t counter-balance the boyish quality that’s been Stanford’s go-to mode since his breakout role in the indie dramedy Tadpole. Stanford’s not a bad actor, but he’s miscast here. His Cole feels too inconsequential.
The rest of the performances are all over the map. Acevedo is as reliably gruff as ever, and Schull (best-known for the underrated dance-school melodrama Center Stage and for playing Louis Litt’s gung-ho protégée on USA’s Suits) has a pleasantly grounded presence. But guest stars like Ivanek, Todd Stashwick (who plays the leader of a predatory band of scavengers in the future), and Tom Noonan (as 12 Monkeys’ mysterious, malevolent super-villain) grunt and cackle as though they’re in a much pulpier show.
Ultimately, those bit players might have a better overall vision for 12 Monkeys than Matalas and Fickett do. Syfy sent out more than half of the first season’s 13 episodes for review, and after the premise-establishing pilot, the series settles into the established pattern for mythology-heavy fantasy shows, alternating stand-alone stories with episodes that tie more directly into the larger plot arc. But none have the clever twists, intense action, and eye-popping imagery that would make any given hour appointment television.
The closest the show gets to being consistently gripping is the fourth episode, “Atari,” a digression from the main story that bounces between 2043 and Cole and Ramse’s life in 2035. The rest of the first half of the season ranges from the generic (Cole and Railly infiltrate some indistinct facility or institution, searching for clues) to the tedious and ugly (Cole hunts for a doctor amid the dusty tents of a Haitian quarantine zone). Though 12 Monkeys nods to its origins here and there—naming one character “Marker,” and sticking another in a hospital called “J.D. Peoples”—it lacks the battiness of Gilliam or the artiness of “La Jetée.”
What’s left then are a few good end-of-episode kickers (a major curveball at the end of episode five, “The Night Room,” is especially strong), and the occasional clever line like, “Don’t lose this… It’s gonna save our ass again a minute ago.” What 12 Monkeys’ high points have in common is that they embrace the storytelling possibilities and the larger repercussions of time-travel. Early in the series, Cole is callous toward the people living in 2015, because by 2043 they’re almost all already dead. By the sixth episode, “The Red Forest,” when Cole has to revisit the scene of an earlier caper to fix a catastrophic mistake, he’s started to take the past more seriously.
But that dawning awareness doesn’t make the episode any more exciting, or soulful. The genius of the movie 12 Monkeys is that it pulls apart “La Jetée” and finds the raw material for a thriller, rooted in the cruelty of fate and the cognitive gaps between different eras. The TV version of 12 Monkeys pulls apart the movie, and finds the ingredients for just another dark, violent genre show.