Disclaimer I: Spoilers are in this review. Read at your own risk.
Disclaimer II: If you’re going to watch 12 Monkeys (2015) you need to forget about 12 Monkeys (1995). Nothing in one truly connects to the other. Any argument to the contrary would be about preference, thus academic, thus a waste of everyone’s time.
Have you ever heard a good cover song? There are many of those, as the bands that cover are usually diehard fans of the original and go to great lengths to do it justice. But have you ever heard of a cover that surpasses the original? As something of an audiophile, I thought I would’ve heard of many. But as I dig through my brain I can only really think of Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” and Karen O and Trent Reznor’s “Immigrant Song”. I tried, but couldn’t think of more. Now, I’m not ready to say that this version of the cyberpunk classic surpasses the brilliant mind of Terry Gilliam—who brought us another masterpiece in this genre with Zero Theorem, and no one could forget Brazil—but if they were trying to, this was the right way to start.
From the year 2043, where an engineered plague has ravaged humanity as a whole, driving them up to the point of extinction, scientists, seemingly in charge of what civilization remains in the world, discover a time travel experiment begun sometime in the 2010s. They were able to complete it in their present, and Cole, a former prisoner in America’s cold, oppressive, survivalist future, is picked by them to travel to the past to find the man most directly responsible for the world’s end and kill him. Having erroneously arrived in 2013, he meets us with Dr. Cassandra Railly, the woman he and his team have historically linked to Leland Goines, the defense contractor behind this superbug. After a skirmish with the police, Cole is pulled back through time, and the two years that follows leaves Railly with in a psychological vacuum as she tries to explain the vanishing man to her colleagues and herself. Pushed out of her profession in the present, she meets up with Cole at a date and time he’d whispered to her in his last moments of life in 2013.
Through family connections and sympathy she’d been given for a rough two years, Cole gets his chance to meet Goines at a corporate/government function in Washington DC. Money and power prove more influential than survival—Cole’s first attempt to fire the shot that would save the world has failed. He’s captured and examined by Giones who learns that he is a medical marvel that could push forth their biomedical experiments forward decades. Intrigued by familiarity, Giones tells Cole that they’d met some thirty years before, and he was espousing the same fears of a destroyed future and his hunt for the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Using Giones’ own curiosity of time travel, Cole regains the upper hand and kills him. With the mission complete, he’s pulled back to 2043, and the team who’d sent him into the past learn that the origin of the virus that would kill man spreads to more hands than they previously knew. Back in 2015, Giones’ corporate machine continues to run, and his daughter, Jennifer, a young woman shown to be working through some psychological episode, one revolving around the 12 Monkeys, is tapped to continue her father’s work, thus ensuring the virus’ creation at some point in the future.
What was presented in the pilot was a good example of what vigorous writing looks like for television. Not a moment is wasted, not a line, not a character. Every second presented to the audience has purpose to service the plot, deliver appropriate amounts of exposition, and flesh out the characters that will service the story to its ends. It lacks the acid-trip psychosis many were possibly expecting, but this turn towards harder sci-fi not only helps the presentation of the plot, but it reinforces SyFy’s commitment to serious sci-fi they made last year. And with the production values present in this pilot, I have to think the channel is diverting all funds to make this series work.
If fans of the original can move past the title on the screen, and bits of accompanying art, what I think they’ll find is a well-crafted dystopic sci-fi thriller with enough cyberpunk elements to stand, not above, but beside the originals, and other sincere contributions to the genre. But can this goodwill toward the concept continue?
To learn more about 12 Monkeys, go to their official site here.