Utilizing a dangerous and untested method of time travel, a man from the post-apocalyptic future, James Cole, (Aaron Stanford, Nikita, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand) travels to the present day on a mission to locate and eradicate the source of a deadly plague that will decimate the human race. But as he and virologist, Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull, Suits, Center Stage), track the mysterious cult behind the outbreak, the "Army of the 12 Monkeys", the effects of time travel threaten to destroy humanity's last hope. Tense, haunting and daring, 12 Monkeys is a "fast-paced, sci-fi, thriller," (Mary McNamara - LA Times) to experience again and again.
I have to be honest, when it came time to review this first season of SyFy's '12 Monkeys', my recollection of the original Bruce Willis/Brad Pitt movie was pretty faulty. Not knowing if this new TV series was a reboot or a continuation of the film, I opted not to go back and watch the 1995 movie, hoping it wouldn't be a prerequisite. Turns out, I needn't have worried, as this new '12 Monkeys' is a total reboot, with Aaron Stanford taking on Bruce Willis' role of James Cole, Amanda Schull taking on Madeleine Stowe's Dr. Railly (now with the first name of Cassandra instead of Kathryn), and Brad Pitt's Jeffery Goines replaced by the older Leyland Goines (Zeljko Ivanek) who, in turn, is shortly replaced thereafter by the character's daughter, Jennifer (Emily Hampshire).
For those that remember the movie, the premise isn't all that different, as James Cole has been sent back from the future in order to try and stop the creation and spread of a deadly virus that will wind up wiping out the vast majority of the human race. Unlike the original movie, however (which was based on a French short film titled 'La Jetée'), the series doesn't have the luxury of presenting a 'doomed' hero – since that would mean the end of the series lead. But it does toy with the idea a bit towards the end of Season 1, as Cole is faced with the idea that all the jumping back and forth in time has slowly been killing him.
Before I get to some of the problems with '12 Monkeys', let's start with the fact that the pilot episode – which was shot a year before the rest of the series and can be viewed very much as a 'stand-alone' story – is very well done. It's certainly not as complex as some of the episodes that follow, but it does a great job of 'world building' and setting up the premise for the show. Although viewers will note a lot of similarities and 'nods' toward the original Bruce Willis/Brad Pitt film, I think the first episode compares even more favorably to the original Terminator flick, with a guy from the future coming back to warn a young female that she plays a big role in whether the world is going to survive or not. Heck, actor Aaron Stanford even looks a little like a young Michael Biehn, doesn't he?
Now let us get to '12 Monkeys' biggest problem, and that may be it simply tries to be a little too ambitious and complex with its time travel scenarios. Almost every episode of this season has Cole jumping back and forth in time – to the point where you wish he'd just stay put in one place for a while. It doesn't help that the series also turns Cole's friend - and potential new enemy - José Ramse (Kirk Acevedo) into a time traveler as well. While the episodes do a surprisingly good job of explaining the 'rules' as they go along, they don't do a very good job of making those rules consistent from episode to episode. For example, in early episodes it's pretty firmly established that if Cole is able to stop the virus from being released, the future will be 'corrected" and he'll simply blink out of existence (you know, like Marty McFly almost did in the first Back to the Future movie). Yet later episodes – much like those later 'Back to the Future' films – imply that changes to the past can instead result in alternate timelines. Personally, I like the alternate timeline theory better, as early on in '12 Monkeys' the idea of destroying your own existence to save seven billion people that were wiped out seems noble, but I never bought the idea that people would be willing to do it.
Despite the inconsistencies as the season unfolds and the fact that much of Season 1 feels like a series that is trying to figure out what it wants to be, I can't say I was bored with watching these episodes, although a big part of how they'll be viewed in the long run may actually depend on what direction the show goes in Season 2. Will the showrunners build on what they started or – like many SyFy series (and many sci-fi series in general) – will the sophomore season head off in a totally new direction that more or less invalidates everything we see here? Still, regardless of some bumps in the road and detours, I liked Season 1 enough to give it a slight, if not hearty, recommendation.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'12 Monkeys: Season 1' swings onto Blu-ray in an Elite keepcase. The first two 50GB discs of the set are on an attached plastic hub, while the third disc is placed on the inside right of the case. The case also includes an insert for an UltraViolet copy of this first season's episodes. The reverse side of the keepcase slick (seen from inside the case) has a listing and short synopsis for each episode, as well as which disc it appears on. Bonus features and their corresponding disc are also listed. A slightly embossed slipcover with artwork that matches the keepcase's slick slides overtop the case.
The first disc in this set is front-loaded with trailers for Mr. Robot, Defiance, and Continuum. The main menu design is an animated one that eventually turns into the '12 Monkeys' symbol as seen on the box cover. The menu design is an odd one – something I've seen on a few other Universal TV titles – where, instead of using text to show what each menu option is, symbols are used. So you have to figure out that the triangle is for "Play", the asterisk is for the bonus features, etc.
The Blu-rays in this release are region-free.
'12 Monkeys' is shot digitally using Arri Alexa EV cameras and is presented here in the 1.78:1 ratio. For the most part, the transfer of each episode is decent, but not free of some problematic noise and what looks to be macroblocking happening in the background of a lot of scenes, some worse than others. There almost certainly seems to have been a compression issue with the transfer – which is further proven by the fact that the second disc in this set – which contains five episodes instead of the four the other two discs hold – has the most evident marcoblocking.
However, it's also important to point out that the above problems aren't of a horrific nature, and most with smaller TV screens (under, say, 50") will be hard pressed to see the problems. I have a 48" screen, and it was only through close-up examination (and looking at some stills on my computer screen when I went to create the screenshots) that I was able to notice the issue. You can see it pretty well in the second screenshot below if you look across the jacket of actor Noah Bean, or on the wall to his right. The image is taken from the problematic Disc 2. As you can see from the first and third screenshot (taken from Discs 1 and 3, respectively), macroblocking is less evident there, although you can see some creeping into the solid background of the third screenshot – although hardly to the extent of the second disc.
With all this in mind, the uneven video quality results in an uneven video score. I'd say the episodes on Disc 1 and 3 still look pretty good, but those five in the middle (on Disc 2) are not what one hopes to see from Universal, which is usually pretty good about the quality of their releases. None of these issues make any of the episodes unwatchable, but it's a shame a little more quality control – or just a four-disc release – couldn't have been applied here.
Otherwise, details are decent throughout, black levels are pretty good (nice, since a whole lot of the material seems to take place at night or in darkened buildings), and facial tones and colors are consistent across the 13 episodes.
The primary track for each episode is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio one that is more than enough for a series like this, which is a little more restrained on the action aspects than one might immediately suspect. The nicest thing about the audio here isn't that it's loud and boisterous (it's not), but that it's crisp and distinct, with the rears often providing some very subtle ambient noises that one doesn't immediately realize are there, but provide a sense of immersiveness to otherwise low-key scenes. Dialogue is primarily up-front, and there's sparse use of directionality throughout, such as when gunplay or other action is occurring.
In addition to the lossless English track, French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are available for each episode. Subtitles are available in English SDH, French, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
While not as powerful or memorable as the original film (or the French short upon which it was based), the creators of the TV series have done a decent job of establishing an ongoing plot based upon the same premise and characters that should keep most viewers entertained. Although I had some issues with consistency as it regarded the rules of time travel, as SyFy original series go, '12 Monkeys' is one of their better endeavors. Recommended.