Changing fate

12 monkeys
Review by Tim Lam

Television | 12 Monkeys | M

Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys was released in cinemas 20 years ago to critical acclaim. The time-travel classic quickly became a cult favourite with its quirky vision, intricate plot and brilliant performances.

Two decades later, 12 Monkeys has been adapted into a television series for the Syfy channel by co-creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett.

The premise closely follows the 1995 film, which itself was based on the 1962 French short film La Jetée. In the near future, Earth’s population has been decimated by a plague that killed 7 billion people. James Cole (Aaron Stanford) is a reluctant hero sent back from the year 2043 to the present by a group of scientists. His mission is to find a way to stop the deadly virus from releasing. He is assisted in his quest by virologist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) and a patient from the mental health facility, Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire). His search leads him to the Army of the 12 Monkeys, an enigmatic organisation with connections to the virus.

Despite expanding the two-hour film into a season-long show, 12 Monkeys remains fast-paced and engaging. Adapting the story to television allows the writers time to explore the imperfect science of time travel and the consequences of altering timelines. The series has the feel of a sci-fi thriller, but it is the rich mythology of the 12 Monkeys universe that entices audiences to come back each week.

The idea of ‘playing God’ and changing humanity’s fate is central to Cole’s mission. The power to alter history is a tempting one, particularly when it means reversing the deaths of seven billion people.

Time travel is more than just a clever storytelling device in 12 Monkeys. The series uses time travel to construct an intelligent and thought-provoking examination of fate versus free-will. Can Cole change the course of history or are all his actions in the past simply fulfilling what has already happened? This constant tension between fate and free-will creates an intriguing, and at times poignant, journey.

The television adaptation is accessible for both newcomers and fans of the 1995 classic, but there is a distinct tonal shift from the movie.

Terry Gilliam’s film explored Cole’s struggle with his own sanity in a typical Gilliam-esque manner and created a decadent and surreal dystopian world.

The vision of the future created by Matalas and Fickett is more grounded in reality. It has been updated with modern visual effects and presents a muddy and bleak vision of the not too-distant future.

This dying world depicted in 12 Monkeys parallels the destruction of the Earth we are witnessing today. A different type of virus is consuming our planet – one of rapid environmental degradation resulting from excessive consumption.

The relentless pursuit for profits at the expense of environmental stewardship has contributed to extreme weather events that are destroying the livelihoods of some of the poorest communities in the world. One only has to look at the recent Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, which destroyed 96 per cent of food crops and left 75,000 people in need of emergency shelter, to see the devastating effects of human-induced climate change.

The post-apocalyptic world in 12 Monkeys is a frightening vision of the future. We can avoid changing the past by taking steps to protect the future today.

12 Monkeys is now showing on Syfy on Thursdays 8:30pm and will be available on DVD later this year.

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