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'12 Monkeys' review: Intelligent TV adaptation of the cult favorite

"12 Monkeys" (Syfy, Jan. 16 at 9): Terry

"12 Monkeys" (Syfy, Jan. 16 at 9): Terry Gilliam's 20-year-old movie put Brad Pitt on the map. Now it stars Aaron Stanford ("Nikita") as a future time traveler sent back to prevent a plague from wiping out humankind. Credit: Syfy / Alicia Gbur

THE SHOW "12 Monkeys"

WHEN | WHERE Friday at 9 p.m. on Syfy

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The year is 2043, and 7 billion people have been wiped out by a plague. But a group of surviving scientists who have gone underground to escape the scourge have (sort of) perfected a time machine which they use to send James Cole (Aaron Stanford) back to 2012 to kill the evil plutocrat who they think set the plague loose on the world. For a complicated set of reasons, Cole must first find one Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) when he goes back because she may know where to find the bad guy.

This is based on the 1995 film by Terry Gilliam that starred Bruce Willis as Cole, Madeleine Stowe as Railly and Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines, the madman leader of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, which -- Cole and the scientists initially believe -- had released the plague. In the Syfy version, Goines is played by a woman, Jennifer (Emily Hampshire), whom viewers will meet at the end of Friday's opener.

MY SAY Presumably the first and only question any hard-core "12 Monkeys" fan wants answered is the following -- did Syfy screw this up?

After all, an adaptation of a cult film is tricky business, particularly a film so specific to the tragicomic-satiric sensibilities of Terry Gilliam. Recall that his "Monkeys" was a dystopic time loop, in which the insanities of the past mirrored those of the future, and vice versa. Willis' Cole was a pawn sent on a wild-goose chase by mad scientists, only to be trapped by what's called a "predestination paradox." Simply put, he traveled back in time to stop something (the coming plague and the Army of the 12 Monkeys) but inadvertently created the very thing he was meant to stop. The horror of his predicament is that he is therefore doomed to return to the past, only to witness his own death, over and over again, into infinity (and beyond!).

That works fine for an intricate film exploring the nature of knowledge, memory, fate, destiny and time. (Phew.) Not so good for a TV series. Plus, Syfy clearly wants to draw in new fans while bringing the hard-cores along for the ride.

So producers Natalie Chaidez, Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett had to make some tough choices, and for the most part, they're sensible TV ones. They establish the Cole/Railly relationship immediately, push the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" vibe to the background, and create a new set of puzzles and paradoxes that promise an intriguing ride and a not too confusing ride.

A funky watch that does funky things to time is another addition -- but that's mostly just a needless and distracting element.

And like the film, "Monkeys" is constantly checking over its shoulder to make certain the time elements line up. That tends to hinder the action, or convolute it, but time travel paradoxes will do that, you know.

So -- no -- Syfy did not screw this up. Hardcores, who tend to quibble anyway, probably won't like the humor-free tone, and will wonder what happened to the crucial Cole-as-a-boy element. (Missing, at least in Friday's opener.) It's the new version that counts, and most other viewers should like what they see.

BOTTOM LINE Intelligent adaptation absent the dark humor, satire -- or horror -- of the original.


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