Copy of a Copy: The Lowbrow Charm of Syfy’s ’12 Monkeys’

What would the unfailingly modest Chris Marker (who died two years ago) have said about Syfy’s update of 12 Monkeys, the Terry Gilliam film that was itself an update of Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée? As an intellectual and aesthetic omnivore, a lover of art high and low, I’m certain that Marker would have enjoyed the new series, even though it barely acknowledges the existence of his film beyond the name of a single character (Aaron Marker, played by Noah Bean). “Certainly, for me 12 Monkeys is a magnificent film,” Marker told Libération in 2003, speaking of the Gilliam film, on which the series is exclusively based. Marker then described his own film as “automatic writing”:

It was in the editing that the pieces of the puzzle came together, and it wasn’t me who designed the puzzle… I’d have a hard time taking credit for it. It just happened, that’s all.

The TV version of 12 Monkeys — starring Aaron Stanford as time traveler James Cole and Amanda Schull (most famously from the film Center Stage) as Dr. Cassandra Railly — also seems like it was written, produced, and directed automatically. By this I mean only that the series takes given elements and plot points from the Gilliam film and accelerates through them at dizzying speeds, rushing blindly into the future as it dips in and out of the past. It’s a strange, probably accidental effect. Or at least the show’s breakneck pacing seems more a function of a rushed production schedule than a considered strategy.

It hardly matters. Time travel as a narrative concept has a way of bringing together high and low. Marker himself loved animation and illustration; Gilliam’s earlier time traveling feature, Time Bandits, is a Criterion film that features little people; Doctor Who is in many ways the most revered lowbrow TV show in history. The new 12 Monkeys is insanely self-serious, but it is nevertheless on the Syfy channel, which is not exactly a vehicle for highbrow TV. The point is that none of this matters: the show still manages, in spite of itself, to be entertaining. And time travel is time travel. La Jetée‘s plotting is arguably the most elegant in all of cinema, and no third-generation copy is going to come close. The best thing to do is not to try.

If you’ve somehow missed both La Jetée and 12 Monkeys (the film), you probably don’t like science fiction. The films are linked by a shared time travel plot, and in the Gilliam version, and now the show, the story revolves around a future where the human race has gone underground to avoid a deadly virus. Much of the joy of the series, and the film, was the whodunnit vibe: who unleashed the plague? The TV series jumps right in. Cole is sent from the future to the past, where he promptly hijacks the car of Dr. Cassandra Railly, a virologist who soon becomes his partner. In the film, the relationship between these two characters builds over time; on television, Railly trusts Cole, who sounds like a time traveling lunatic, almost immediately. Her trust is abetted by Cole’s time traveling tricks, as when he scratches a watch from the future only to see it scratched in the present. There are the moments when he vanishes (into the future) in plain sight. No, the special effects aren’t very good.

If you are obsessively faithful to Gilliam’s version, you will probably hate 12 Monkeys the TV show. It routinely reconfigures major plot points, characters’ genders, possibly even the entire logic of the film. But then again: Gilliam’s “version” totally upended Marker’s original. It’s true that the copies get worse and worse, but somehow the spirit remains. No version of this story will do justice to Marker’s original, but Marker never cared about that. 12 Monkeys is a serviceable plague show in an era of plagues. And, right now, it’s probably even better than Doctor Who.