In the first episode of Syfy’s “12 Monkeys,” post-apocalyptic time traveler and long-haired tough James Cole (Aaron Stanford) returns to the wasteland of 2043 disappointed that he still exists. Accomplishing his mission “didn’t change anything,” he tells Jones (Barbara Sukowa), the enigmatic leader of an effort to prevent the pandemic that has pushed humankind to the brink of extinction. “There were others. There are always others.” Indeed, in both narrative and form, “others” loom large over the series, which sets itself the impossible task of living up to not one but two visionary filmmakers and, like Cole, comes up frustratingly short.
“12 Monkeys” is not an exact replica of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film of the same name, which drew inspiration from “La Jetée” (1963), Chris Marker’s revolutionary portrait of a world annihilated by nuclear war. Rather, the series re-imagines a similar universe: Cole leaps back and forth in time using the imprecise mechanism of Project Splinter, eliciting the help of renowned virologist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) and tracking down mentally ill math genius Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire) in order to reverse the deadly course of events set in motion by the mysterious Army of Twelve Monkeys.
As a result of the changes, the narrative becomes much roomier than Gilliam’s; the serial format has the potential to improve our understanding of the main characters by examining their personal histories more closely. Indeed, “12 Monkeys” already appears poised to use time travel to establish new points of contact between past, present, and future. In the first two episodes, we see Cole in 2006, 2013, 2015, and 2043, with at least one allusion to an even wider range of possibilities. “I didn’t meet you in 1987,” he says to adversary Leland Goines (Željko Ivanek). “Not yet,” Goines replies. “But you will.”
Unfortunately, rather than allow the zigzagging chronology to become the keystone of a fractured, irreverent adventure, “12 Monkeys” soon retreats to neutral ground. Though some will surely accuse me of failing to evaluate the series on its own merits — already, i09’s Katherine Trendacosta regrets that “the show’s going to have all the baggage of the film to deal with” — reprising source material of such pedigree invites (unfavorable) comparison. Against Gilliam’s tattered, quasi-steampunk style and vertiginous camera angles, or Marker’s radical tapestry of still photographs, voiceover narration, and unsettling whispers, Syfy’s “12 Monkeys” is numbingly sleek; visually, it’s no more dystopian than a car commercial.
In effect, then, “12 Monkeys” shoehorns an idea that Gilliam and Marker once used to lob bombs at the establishment into a nondescript sci-fi procedural — one that, comparisons aside, offers few artistic risks to match its warped narrative. While it’s true that “La Jetée” and Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” are bolder statements of the same dire notions, Syfy’s version fails to conjure up a viewing experience that reflects even its own stated understanding that meddling in the past carries dangers of its own. “I’ve learned enough about time to fear it,” Jones says to Cole. “And so should you.”
Instead, the series seems to fear its own complexities, sanding down the rough edges of the premise until there’s nothing left to hold. By the time we see Hampshire’s manic caricature, Jennifer Goines, scrawling black ink on a psychiatric ward’s white walls, or hear the characters discuss timelines, paradoxes, and coordinates, it’s clear that one not need idealize Gilliam and Marker to find the series wanting. For those new to “12 Monkeys” — or, perhaps, in order to attract those new to “12 Monkeys” — images of swanky parties and brute scavengers may be effective shorthand for the frivolous present and the ruined future, but neither fulfills the tacit promise at the heart of science fiction: the invention of a brave new world.
“12 Monkeys” premieres Friday, Jan. 16 at 9 pm on Syfy.