Last night, we caught an early screening of the pilot of Syfy's new series 12 Monkeys. And while it's clearly based on Terry Gilliam's original film of the same name, it takes great pains to set itself apart. Here are our spoiler-free first impressions.
In a way, it's almost a shame that the show's going to have all the baggage of the film to deal with. The original 12 Monkeys is a twisting time travel tale with some huge plot twists that propel it forward, great performances, and shots that should be iconic. That's a lot to compete with. From what we saw, the show deals with it all by keeping the bare bones of the plot, but changing as much else as they can.
In a way, the pilot of 12 Monkeys feels like the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica: it's picked and chosen what it wanted from the original, and anchored the rest in character and a gritty, hyper-realistic vision of the future.
Even just looking at the casting for the film, it's pretty clear that the show isn't the movie. Jeffery Goines is now Jennifer Goines. Kathryn Railly is now Cassandra Railly. While James Cole's name stays the same, Aaron Stanford is in no way a Bruce Willis-type. And the show's been updated to take place now.
Beyond that, the creators have wisely decided against recreated Gilliam's look for the show. That's evident in the trailer. That's something that would probably be unsustainable, both money-wise and in how hard it would be to get many directors to keep that shooting style over the course of many episodes.
The pilot doesn't begin where the movie begins. At all. And it ends with something that, for fans of the film, is a major, major departure. It may even be that two entities from the film have had their roles in the search for the pandemic's origin switched.
The main players in the pilot are Stanford, Amanda Schull as Railly, and the always excellent Zeljko Ivanek as Leland Frost. Schull is perfectly serviceable as a doctor, but she has excellent chemistry with Stanford, which is definitely more important. Stanford, while trying a little too hard in some scenes, is mostly great as a man committed to his mission to save humanity, not at all concerned about wiping this version of himself from history. He's intense, and rightfully so.
What the pilot really proved was that this is a show not afraid of the complications of time travel. It does not slow down and explain to the audience its fractured timeline, save for a few title cards in the beginning. Ivanek gives a speech at the end of the episode that wholly relies on the audience being quicker on the uptake about time travel tropes than the characters.
The pilot also builds in a lot of space in the characters' backstories to fill in later. And you actually want to know about them. you want to know how Stanford got to be in a position where he was picked for his mission. You wonder endlessly about how Railly can get from where we meet her to where she ends up. There's more than enough to carry more episodes.
The pilot did its job perfectly: it leaves you wanting more. I'm actually kind of pissed that I have to wait until the show premieres January 16, 2015 to get more.