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Before I actually watched the pilot of 12 Monkeys, the newest drama from SyFy, my column was already writing itself in my head. I would lambast the lack of originality in television programming and lament that every film has to spawn a television series and vice versa. Why are there no new ideas in serialized storytelling? And then a strange thing happened: The 12 Monkeys pilot was pretty good. Not over-the-top amazing, but the beginning of something intriguing, something I want to see a little more of before I fully commit or pull the plug.
The premise will be familiar to the many fans of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 motion picture. Decades from now, a plague kills 90 percent of the world’s population. James Cole (Aaron Stafford) and a group of immune survivors perfect a means for sending Cole back in time to the year when the biological research that leads to the plague is being conceived. Kill the man responsible for the germ, and you save the future.
Cole tries to enlist the help of Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), an expert in epidemiology, but he misses his arrival target by two years, arriving in 2013. His interaction with Railly is nonsensical because the events his mission are based on have yet to occur. Before Cole secures Dr. Railly’s cooperation, he “splinters”, disappearing right before her eyes, returning to his own time, and leaving Railly with a life-changing experience that no one else will believe. But, when he returns in 2015, Dr. Railly is a true believer in Cole’s mission and commits to help him prevent the future plague.
The pilot moves at a brisk pace, establishing major characters while also hinting at the scope of the fictional universe that will be revealed over the episodes to come. 12 Monkeys has the potential to create an overarching mythology that could sustain the show for several years, or it could flounder around and devolve into hopelessly convoluted hokum ala Sleepy Hollow.
This initial installment is far from perfect. Aaron Stafford has just enough screen presence to carry the lead role for 45 minutes, but he’ll need to find a wider range of emotions and responses to remain interesting for twelve more episodes. And while I appreciate the desire to avoid a deep exploration of time paradoxes and logic loops during the first minutes of the series, Cole’s quick write-off of the subject was howlingly bad. “Mother Nature doesn’t like it when you rearrange the furniture,” he explains before all hell breaks loose. Ugh. Here’s hoping clunkers like that are kept to a minimum in future episodes.
That said, 12 Monkeys is the most interesting SyFy pilot since Battlestar Galactica. Sadly, that is fairly faint praise. The network has spent the last six years specializing in “sci-fi lite” with shows like Warehouse 13 and Haven. Big screen actors like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell are nowhere to be found. Ten years after its pilot, Battlestar appears to be a creative fluke rather than a leap forward in quality for SyFy. With a new space opera series based on The Expanse novels by James S.A. Corey on the way later this year, maybe 12 Monkeys will mark the beginning of a creative resurgence for the network. If not, there’s always Sharknado 3.
If you saw 12 Monkeys on Syfy let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
And check out our 12 Monkeys Podcast!
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.