By Brandon Engel
While Terry Gilliam may have gotten his start in the comedy troupe Monty Python, he has become something of an authority when it comes to dark, genre filmmaking. All of Terry Gilliam's early films had at least some elements of science-fiction or fantasy stories, including Time Bandits and Brazil, but he became an even more important figure within the genre in 1995 when he released 12 Monkeys (which was his unique reinvisioning of Chris Marker's La Jetee). Although some viewing audiences weren't initially sure what to make of the film, 12 Monkeys developed a cult following and became regarded as a stellar science-fiction film. Twenty years after the film's release, SyFy has adapted the film into a television series called, of all things, "12 Monkeys."
Gilliam's film 12 Monkeys starts in the post-apocalyptic world of 2035. A criminal named James Cole (played by Bruce Willis), is sent back to 1990 to collect information on a virus that forced Earth's entire population to live underground starting in 1996. The plot becomes progressively more complex as Cole learns about the virus that has doomed Earth.
Much like his film Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys saw Gilliam using time travel as a narrative device to explore his thoughts on memory and the fate of our species. Terry Gilliam does not allow the time travelers in 12 Monkeys to change the past to further illustrate his point that memories are distorted organically over time. Although we try to use memory as a building block to construct the narratives of our own personal lives, one can never be entirely objective about their own personal history — especially when occurrences in the present color our perception of our own pasts.
Another thematic element that makes the story feel relevant is Gilliam's grim suggestion that our civilization will crumble if we continue to place greater emphasis on technology than we do direct human-to-human interaction. Gilliam's film was released before the advent of smartphones, which means that genre fans can't help but entertain the thought that Terry Gilliam's predictions about technology and the future are slowly proving to be accurate.
And although the show is in its infancy, it's already clear that the television show is differentiating itself from the film. In terms of the show's overall narrative arch: James Cole travels back from 2043 to 2013 to stop a deadly virus that will eventually killed the entire human race. We are getting keener insight into what the future holds, and we're also getting to learn more about Cole (portrayed by Aaron Stanford in the series), who is depicted in the show as a much more remorseful and sullen character. The show is doing ok thus far internationally, with decent viewership throughout Europe thanks to SyFy UK, and even better viewership in North America thanks to niche-oriented local DirecTV channels throughout the United States.
The last great science fiction film that was turned into a successful television show was Paul Verhoeven's Terminator, which was adapted into a program entitled "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" explored what happened between the second and third films in the series. "Terminator" and "12 Monkeys" both featured intriguing worlds that had to be saved using time travel. "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" was able to succeed because the show appealed to the right fanbase, which means that "Twelve Monkeys" show on SyFy should be able to succeed, if the show's production team can sustain the interest of cynical genre nerds (which, as we all know, is no simple feat).
Brandon Engel is a Chicago based blogger who writes about everything from old school comic books to gothic horror literature to environmental law. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonEngel2