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"On the surface, men still exercise their endless laws, fight and
indulge in all their bloody earthly horrors. But below the surface, their power
ceases. Their dominion vanishes. To live, gentlemen, in embrace of the sea. Only
here is there independence. Here, I recognize no master. Here, I am
Jules Verne's classic got the adaptation treatment in not one but two made-for-TV movies in 1997, possibly to cash in on the huge success of Titanic. This review is not of the one starring Richard Crenna and Ben Cross, but of the one starring Michael Caine (Batman Begins) as the mysterious Captain Nemo. Now, this almost three-hour mini-epic has risen from the depths onto DVD. All ahead full!
Facts of the Case
It's 1886, and ships out in the ocean are being destroyed without explanation. A young scientist, Pierre Arronax (Patrick Dempsey, Run), believes a prehistoric sea monster is the cause. Others in the scientific community, however, argue that it's a gigantic manmade vessel behind the attacks, one that somehow operates independently from the world's governments.
To investigate the mystery Arronax heads out to sea, with a crew full of sailors and two new friends, the cold-hearted Ned Land (Bryan Brown, Spring Break Shark Attack) who hunts whales only for sport, and aspiring hero Cabe Attucks (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Lost). Solving the mystery brings these three into contact with Captain Nemo (Caine) a brilliant but possibly dangerous man who calls the ocean his home. Nemo has many secrets, and discovering them all will mean a journey 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Normally, I'd consider it bad form to begin discussion of a movie with the special effects, preferring instead to put the initial emphasis on story, direction, and acting. In this case, though, the disconnection between the effects and the story is so strong, that it's the one criticism of the movie that stands out more than any other. The writers and director are thinking big. They want a huge, globe-hopping epic with outrageous thrills and operatic drama. The philosophy behind the special effects, however, seems to be one of doing as little as possible in order to get by. This was most likely a budgetary decision, but it nonetheless leaves viewers with a film in which the effects do not match the story. For example, Nemo's famous vessel looks a little less magnificent and a little more like any old submarine. Plus, the sea monsters the characters encounter, including the famous one at the finale, just don't match the actors, so that the effects become a distraction, rather than part of the thrilling narrative.
With budgetary issues crippling the movie, its good points really have to struggle to get our attention. First among these is another solid performance by Michael Caine. Nemo is a complicated character. He's intelligent and witty, but also menacing and potentially dangerous, sometimes doing both in one scene. It's clear that Caine really enjoys the role, and he plays it with all the eccentricity he can. Patrick Dempsey spends a lot of the movie as an observer, learning more about Nemo's world piece by piece, but when the time comes for him to get all heroic, he does the job. And then there's none other than Mr. Eko, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who's just as physically imposing here as he is on Lost, even though his voice sounds completely different. Mia Sara (Ferris Bueller's Day Off) shows up late in the film for some romance, and she's also quite good in her role. Bryan Brown, on the other hand, goes overboard making Ned Land a sneaky paranoid. His failed attempts to escape from Nemo just make the situation worse for everyone. Brown plays the character as selfish and untrustworthy, and many viewers will likely hate him by the time the movie's over.
At one point, Cabe challenges Nemo to a fight, and the two of them spend a good 10 minutes or so duking it out, bare knuckle style. That's right; we're supposed to believe that the aging British guy can successfully hold his own against a muscle bound giant of a man. The fight ends with a nifty twist, but it's still too much of a stretch to ask audiences to accept this is happening. A few more revisions in the script stage could have had this scene ending with the same reveal, but not coming across so unintentionally silly. This scene demonstrates how the film overall could have been improved if a little more thought had gone into it. There are other examples, such as an extended action scene with some underwater volcanoes that doesn't appear to add to the story, and an odd subplot about Arronax and his father both attracted to the same woman. More work on laying out these various story points would have benefited the movie as a whole, and then we'd only have the poor effects work to worry about.
The transfer here is a good one, preserving the bright vivid colors on display, especially with deep, rich blue tones during the many underwater scenes. The 5.1 track is a winner, making the most of the flat-out excellent score by X-Files and Smallville composer Mark Snow. As for bonus features, they must have been left in the deepest trenches of the ocean floor, because you won't find any here.
Jules Verne's story is one of those rare ones that can hold up to numerous adaptations (does anybody remember the old 20,000 Leagues TV cartoon, in which Captain Nemo showed two little kids how to make ice cream out of seaweed?), but this version comes across as incomplete more than anything else.
If you're a Michael Caine completist, pick this one up for his fun performance. But for the rest of us, it sinks.
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