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12 Monkeys: Season One

Universal // Unrated // January 19, 2016 // Region 0
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jesse Skeen | posted January 24, 2016 | E-mail the Author

The "Syfy" channel series "12 Monkeys" takes the basic concept of the 1995 movie of the same name and stretches it out in episodic form. Bruce Willis' character James Cole is played here by Aaron Stanford- Cole is still rather mentally unstable but is given the task of traveling back and forth through time from the year 2043 (with help from his life-long friend Ramse, played by Kirk Acevedo) to prevent a deadly virus from being unleashed upon the world by a renegade group known as "The Army of the Twelve Monkeys" that would kill off most of the population. A group of scientists known as "Superiors" have developed a form of time travel known as "splintering" but one person doing this too many times will eventually die from its effects so it has to be used sparingly.

The first episode sets things up similar to how they played out in the movie- Cole first splinters back to 2013 to find and enlist the help of Dr. Cassandra Railly (Center Stage's Amanda Schull), first carjacking her and telling her of the coming plague- while she doesn't buy his story at first, he manages to convince her eventually. He first thinks that Dr. Leland Goines (Zeljko Ivanek) is responsible for the outbreak and seeks out to eliminate him- while he succeeds, traveling back to the present he realizes that the outbreak still happened and so he has far more work to do. He finds that Goines' institutionalized daughter Jennifer (Emily Hampshire, replacing Brad Pitt's "Jeffrey") might be connected to the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, but also might be one of the only hopes of stopping the plague. From this point the series deviates from the movie as Cole and Ramse are sent to different times (going back to 1987) and countries in their quest to find and eliminate the deadly virus and those who would spread it.

While I've always liked the movie (Terry Gilliam was already one of my favorite directors when it was issued), "12 Monkeys" just didn't work too well for me as a series. Usually the disadvantage of a network or cable series from a feature film is that they aren't afforded the budget for visual effects and other production values comparable to a movie, yet they are given an upper hand by ultimately having much more time to tell their story. Terry Gilliam creates unique worlds for most of his movies with 12 Monkeys certainly being no exception, but that world looks much more plain here. Most obvious is the point in the story's present-day from where Cole and Ramse travel to different times- in the movie Cole was addressed by his "Superiors" though a cluster of video screens, but here he's just in the same room with them. I couldn't quite buy Aaron Stanford's performance as Cole either- while Bruce Willis played it as being a bit unsure whether he was really sane or not and whether the events were really happening or all in his mind, Stanford is more certain that everything is for real but speaks in a rather "thuggish" tone of voice through all of it. I haven't seen any of his other work so I don't know if that's just his acting style in general or how it was decided to be played here. The series' Dr. Railly also seems much more convinced that Cole isn't playing around compared to Madeline Stowe's Doctor in the movie, but it's likely the writers decided to downplay the characters' doubtfulness in order for the story to be more viable as a longer-running series.

Regardless of budget, the series loses a lot being in a plainer world than Terry Gilliam's movie, and while it ultimately tries to enlarge the story the results come off a bit confusing. Ironically the show uses full-screen title cards at every point where the year changes, which should make it a bit easier for viewers to tell when things are taking place but the title cards are a bit too long and often make it feel like everything's stopping when they come on. The past few series that I've watched on disc, where I've been able to see as many episodes as I had time for in one sitting rather than waiting an entire week for the next one, have usually been immersive making me not want to stop watching until reaching the last one, but "12 Monkeys" dragged in many places for me and I found myself not really caring a lot about what happened in the next episode. Given the complexity of the story I should watch these episodes at least once more as I might have a more favorable opinion after revisiting them. A few interesting new concepts of altering future events by going back to the past are explored here, including one episode that find Ramse spending eight years in a Japanese prison focusing on an important move he'll have to make after being released, and another where Cole's life is saved by visiting himself as a child- though he's not able to interact with his former self as that would just make things go crazy. The final episode in the set ends with a number of unresolved points in order to drive interest in the next season.


Universal presents the 13 episodes spread across three Blu-Ray discs, and the picture quality is likely a factor of my not being more engaged with the series. Compression and gradient banding (which if you don't know what that is, you certainly will by the time you finish watching this) are rampant here, and certainly the worst I have seen so far on a Blu-Ray disc from a major studio. While the details are sharp as they should be, compression artifacts present themselves as dancing pixels especially in any dark spaces, and gradient banding appears almost as a circular pattern in many shots- having many scenes take place in the dark don't help matters either. Overall the quality here is about on par with what I typically see on Vudu's "HDX" quality streaming video- reasonably well-detailed but just a distracting amount of compression that doesn't appear on a well-done Blu-Ray disc. I often felt that in fact I was watching this via streaming rather than on disc.


The 5.1 DTS Master Audio track presents a sound mix that keeps most of it up front, but has a few moments where the surrounds kick in as a bit of a surprise (such as when gunshots suddenly break out.) Dialogue is well-recorded, with only some of the actors' methods of delivery getting in the way.

There is also a French dubbed track, hearing-impaired subtitles and subs in French, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian.


While nothing is included that focuses on the production aspects, which would have been rather helpful in seeing exactly what the intents of the series were, we do get a few minutes of deleted scenes, a gag reel, some cast auditions (most looking like they were shot on a cell phone) and some rather nonsensical "webisodes" which are scenes that somehow tie into the series and likely put online before the show debuted. Disc One opens with promos for Mr. Robot, Defiance and Continuum (all of these also show heavy compression artifacts). Universal has left Java off of these discs for a change, eliminating the long loading times of their other Blu-Rays.

Final Thoughts:

This series adaptation of "12 Monkeys" fell a bit short of my expectations, partly due to the sub-par picture quality of the discs but also because most of the visual elements from the movie that I found so appealing were gone here, and most of the cast's performances didn't click with me as much either. It does beg me to check these out again later however, and I'll be interested to at least hear what's in store for Season Two.

Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.

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