The Syfy Channel has launched a new series entitled “12 Monkeys“, inspired by the movie of the same name from 1995.
The movie version of the story was directed by Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam and starred Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe, with a remarkable, crazed performance by Brad Pitt.
My friend Mimi and I watched the movie at the Granada Movie Grill in Dallas in ’95, and luckily for us, we had been warned by friends that the movie was very disjointed and that we should pay complete attention to every detail of the film or we would quickly get lost. We took this warning to heart: our eyes remained affixed to the screen for the duration of the film, and our monomaniacal focus was rewarded with a fascinating if mind-ripping experience. I’ll never forget the less attentive patrons around us murmuring things like “what the fuck was that?” as the lights came up, while Mimi and I were still basking in the epiphany.
The question I had going into the new TV series was this: can the emotionally disturbing atmosphere sustained in part by the disjointed, challenging storyline be reproduced on the small screen with commercials? The neat, linear story structure of almost all television programs is necessitated by frequent commercial interruptions – convoluted stories can become too choppy and fall into complete incoherence when someone breaks in to sell you car insurance.
So, if you are interested in the show, invest all of your focus on it. No flipping during commercials, and if you miss an episode, watch it through some cable system’s On Demand features or online.
Much of the narrative of 12 Monkeys mirrors The Terminator movie franchise, in which a cyborg assassin is sent back in time after a robotic apocalypse to stop a group of rebels from stopping the apocalypse post hoc. In 12 Monkeys, however, it is a biologically enhanced man, “Cole” (played by actor Aaron Stanford, “Pyro” from X-Men 2), who is “splintered” back from the year 2043 to try to stop a group of terrorists from releasing a biological plague in 2017 that killed 7 billion people and destroyed human civilization. In the first two episodes, Cole, a prisoner in 2043, is sent back to 2013, then 2015, then 2009, then 2015 again. It is also suggested that Cole went back to 1987 but this trip hasn’t happened yet – or has it?
You can see the first level of complexity here – the paradoxes and convolutions of time travel stories can be overwhelming unless you are strongly attentive to the story. The Syfy website has a handy time map if you need a clearer picture of the time splinters as they advance through the show’s 13 planned episodes.
Cole’s biological enhancements have not only unmoored him from linear time, but also increased his intelligence, fighting skills (like the character “River Tam” in Serenity) and healing ability (like “Wolverine” in the X-Men movie franchise), but each to a lesser degree. Cole is also a stone cold killer with a dangerous degree of mental instability.
As if time travel weren’t complex enough, mental disorders are the other major theme of the story: Cole is crazy, his allies are crazy, and the conspirators behind the plague – the 12 Monkeys – are nuttier than squirrel scat.
Cole’s accidental partner in the years 2013 and 2015 is the aptly named “Cassandra”, after the mythological psychic who was doomed never to be believed. Cassandra, played by TV actress Amanda Schull, is a physician and virologist kidnapped/carjacked by Cole in 2013. They rapidly and weirdly bond during the first few minutes of the kidnapping, just before a wounded Cole splinters two years into the future – and now everyone thinks “Cassie” is crazy as well.
Emerging as the bad guy is “Pallid Man”, played by the soft-spoken character actor Tom Noonan of Manhunter and Robocop 2, perhaps the archetypal nice-guy monster. He is deranged as well, and the perfect counterpoint to the bad-boy hero Cole.
Both men are fighting to destroy the future – Cole wants to obliterate both himself and the dystopia caused by the plague, while Pallid Man’s motives for afflicting the future have yet to emerge.
Although it seems inevitable that Cole and Cassie will do the mystery show hookup (like Booth and Brennan in Bones and Castle and Becket in Castle), their current relationship is certain to drive feminists insane: Cole kidnaps Cassie from a rapey, dark parking lot and Cassie is swooning over him five minutes later. In a scene dropped from the broadcast series but available through On Demand, Cassie talks to an unnamed female bartender as 2015 begins, so the show would’ve almost passed the Bechdel Test if the bartender had a name.
For now, though, Cole is a Man Going His Own Way, finding meaning in his squalid life of 2043 by retreating into the relatively prosperous life of 2015, where the women are the way he prefers: “clean-looking”. Actress Amanda Schull is a feminist nightmare: a beautiful, blonde, accomplished white woman in her late thirties with the thigh gap and torso of a woman of half her age. Cassie has survived trauma with aplomb and would look askance at any feminist calling her a victim of patriarchy.
The repeated themes of mental illness will certainly “trigger” most feminists into the shrieking hysteria they are known for.
At this point 12 Monkeys looks more promising as a series than Syfy’s Ascension, which I’ve previously reviewed. The show airs Friday nights on the Syfy Channel in the US, or when and wherever the time splinters take it.