Given the drama of the Ebola outbreak in Africa, now is a perfect time for “12 Monkeys” to shake us up and ruthlessly exploit our fears. The Syfy series is an adaptation of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 movie, in which a man is sent back to the present from a grim future to stop a virus that will go on to hobble humankind.
Instead, the new “12 Monkeys,” which premieres Friday night at 9, ruthlessly exploits our patience. If you know someone who can time travel, please ask him or her to go back a few years and tell the makers of this flat remake to either step up their game or abandon the project. The movie had flaws and excesses, for sure; but ultimately it was a powerfully doom-ridden vision, from its paranoid performances to its evocation of a bleak, subterranean future. The series is a powerfully stupidity-ridden vision of poorly done science fiction, an inexcusably generic take on the movie.
I want to say the series is like a grammar school production of a great Broadway musical, but at least that grammar school production would have spirit and energy and cuteness. Those kids would sing “Oklahoma!” off key and make the audiences smile. No, Syfy’s “12 Monkeys” is too dull and gray for that comparison.
Aaron Stanford stars as James Cole, the guy who has been sent to 2013 from 2043 to stop the bad guys from spreading a disease that will kill 7 billion people. He connects with a virologist, Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), and once he gets her to believe his story they unite to combat the mysterious Army of the 12 Monkeys.
The set design is amateurish and monochromatic, but that’s not the real problem. Sometimes, the acting and the script in a futuristic series are compelling enough to overcome flimsy productions — “The Twilight Zone,” for instance, which can still cause chills despite sets that sometimes look like a playground structure made of cardboard. But the acting is below par, with a heavy-breathing Stanford working overtime without pay to seem frantic and gonzo, and the teen-looking Schull straining for gravitas.
Meanwhile, some of the performances are so over-the-top, they’re almost comic — “almost” being the operative word. Emily Hampshire wants, no needs, no hungers desperately for her math genius character to appear feral and mad. And Barbara Sukowa hams it up — and I’m talking thickly sliced ham — as a fierce physicist in the future named Jones, who is engineering James’s journey. With her German accent and exaggerated delivery with lines such as “Everyone you see is already dead,” she approaches camp, “approaches” being the operative word.
There’s an awful lot of expository material in the script about the back story, and how time travel works, and what that means in terms of fate. It’s headache city. “You break the past,” our hero James mumbles at one point, “the future falls.” Whatever. The more we learn about the rules of the game, the more it feels like a long math equation that we are never, ever going to parse. If other aspects of the show were more engaging, perhaps this spiral down into confusion and illogic wouldn’t matter. Perhaps then we’d want to set our DVRs in the present, in order to watch the show in the future.