Captain Nemo's Nautilus surfaces in the Gulf of Caution TV: ABC miniseries updates '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' by Jules Verne, giving it a '90s sensibility and spoiling a great yarn.


ABC has taken Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," a rip-snorting 19th-century adventure yarn that anticipated all sorts of technology to come, and turned it into a wearying cautionary tale about the dangers of zealotry.

It's also insisted on grafting a '90s sensibility onto it, filling it with men who despise the killing of whales and scientists who fear what their science is doing to the Earth. I don't know how Verne would feel about that, but viewers may simply opt to find out what else is on.

Not that the two-night miniseries, debuting at 9 p.m. todayand concluding at the same time tomorrow, is devoid of merit. Although advanced screening tapes were sent to critics before all the special effects were completed, what's there looks good enough -- particularly a first-night gunfight between the frigate Abraham Lincoln and the submarine Nautilus.

And best of all, it stars Michael Caine as the egomaniacal Captain Nemo, who so despises the surface world that he's taken to life aboard a submarine, establishing a fiefdom where absolute loyalty to his self-proclaimed benevolence is the only price of citizenship.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much where the pluses end.

The movie opens with tales of a mysterious ship/monster (no one quite knows what it is) that has been attacking oceangoing vessels. Pierre Arronax (Patrick Dempsey) defies the scientific community (in particular, his own father) by insisting the culprit is a giant narwhal. His peers scoff, but the shipping lines don't; the idea that their ships are falling victim to a creature is preferable to believing they've fallen victim to pirates.

So it is that young Arronax finds himself aboard the Abraham Lincoln, sent to find the offending monster and dispatch it forthwith. Only Arronax was wrong; it's not a narwhal, but rather a submarine (new technology when the novel was written in 1870) that's doing all the damage. A battle ensues and the ship is crippled; Arronax and two companions are thrown into the water (in one of the film's least-convincing plot twists) and taken aboard the Nautilus. There, Nemo tells them they are free to roam the ship at will, but insists they make no attempt to escape -- the surface world, he insists, can not know of his existence.

Nor can they know of his mysterious quest, about which he is purposefully vague, saying only it has something to do with his own underwater paradise.

In Verne's novel, as well as in Disney's 1954 film version (with James Mason as Nemo), "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" is first and foremost an adventure yarn, filled with giant squids, battling natives and all sorts of undersea thrills.

But that's not enough for writer Brian Nelson and director Rod Hardy, who turn their version into a morality tale with two morals: 1) Zealotry and single-mindedness are not good things, and 2) It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

The prolific Caine rarely turns in a bad performance, and his take on Nemo holds the four-hour film together. Speaking as though he's a professor delivering a lecture to particularly dense students, his Nemo comes across as a brilliant man who doesn't exactly suffer fools gladly. Still, a touch of humanity comes through; it's little surprise to discover Nemo's hatred for those who live above doesn't apply to society's downtrodden. Nor does it seem outlandish when young Arronax begins to regard him as a father figure.

Unfortunately, Nemo is the only character who displays more than one dimension. Arronax is a disavowed son desperately searching for a father figure (his real father is a class-A jerk). His companions, a harpoon expert named Ned Land (Bryan Brown) and a black man anxious to escape the racism of his native America (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje), are simply angry.

Nelson even throws in a romantic subplot. Turns out Nemo has a beautiful daughter (Mia Sara), who's allegedly on board to help her dad with his scientific pursuits, but who's really there just to give Arronax someone to make goo-goo eyes at.

Pub Date: 5/11/97

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