Wednesday, October 29, 2008

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1997: the Michael Caine version)


So. Michael Caine.

I love him, love him, love him, but the man digs acting so much that he's not always as picky as I'd like him to be about the roles he takes. And unfortunately, this is one of them.

Adding to the disappointment are a couple of other favorites from back in the day: Ferris Bueller's girlfriend and the kid from Can't Buy Me Love (aka McDreamy). I had the biggest crush on Mia Sara as a teen and I'm a big fan of Can't Buy Me Love (and Grey's Anatomy), so I was all ready to love seeing these familiar faces in 20,000 Leagues.

I think I've made it clear by now that I've got no problem with folks' tampering with Verne's novel. It needs tampering with. But there are a couple of things about it that aren't broken and it's exactly those things that this version throws out.

For example, Professor Aronnax is supposed to be a respected authority on marine life. That's one of the reasons Nemo keeps him and his friends alive when they're stuck aboard the Nautilus. There's this cool, sort of uneasy, but immediate respect between Nemo and Aronnax where each wants to win the other over to his point of view.

In this version, Aronnax is played by Patrick Dempsey as a young kid with extreme father-issues who's written a fantastical book about marine cryptozoology. He's respected by exactly no one, including his dad (John Bach, who played Nemo himself in the 1995 Mysterious Island TV show as well as Faramir's right-hand man in the Lord of the Rings movies), so when young Aronnax boards the Abraham Lincoln to go hunting for whatever's destroying shipping in the Pacific, he does it to finally make a name for himself and earn the admiration he craves so badly.

Another big change is Nemo. They don't really focus on his destroying ships. There's a lot of talk about freedom (for example, in this version Conseil is a freed slave named Cabe), but for the most part, Nemo is a mad scientist. The reason he's traveling around the world is to check on some explosives he's planted on the ocean floor all over the globe. When detonated, the bombs will shift the Earth's crust in such a way so that there will never be earthquakes again. That's not entirely altruistic, because Nemo's also building an underwater city in the ruins of Atlantis and he doesn't want another earthquake to mess it up again.

Okay, taking a second look at Nemo, that's actually pretty awesome. I wish Verne had thought of all that. I mean, Verne's Nemo is very cool, but it's hard to beat New Atlantis and shifting the Earth's crust. They even pay homage to Journey to the Center of the Earth by wondering if the explosives might accidentally break through to the Earth's hollow core, draining the oceans into it, and throwing the Earth out of its orbit. That's pretty frickin cool.

So, Nemo's not the literary Nemo, but he's okay in hindsight. It's Aronnax who's the real problem. He's far too mopey in general and his relationship with his dad is so damaged that it's ridiculous and unbelievable. The filmmakers wanted us to know so badly that these two men don't get along that they pushed their interactions over the edge into absurdity.

And because young Aronnax is so immature and issue-laden, we don't get the uneasy respect between him and Nemo. Or we do, but it's not convincing because there's no reason for it. That relationship is the one thing I really liked about Verne's novel (and a huge reason for the Disney version's rocking so hard), so - as cool and pulpy as Caine's Nemo is - the movie's weakened by not having a good Aronnax to play against.

I should say out loud though, that none of this is Dempsey's fault. He's a fine actor and totally convincing in the role he was given. I actually did feel badly for him; even while I was wishing he would man up. It was his dad who was cartoonish in how resentful he was of young Aronnax, and even then, that wasn't Bach's fault. It's the writing.

The writing also fails to give us a good squid fight, by the way. There's a tentacled beast, but it's bad CGI and it only attacks part of the cast in a quick, throwaway scene.

Speaking of special effects, the producers must have learned film-making from Stephen Sommers. Why actually shoot something as easy as cannons firing at a submarine when you can suggest it with crappy computer animation? Get some stock footage of a flat ocean, have your intern PhotoShop in a ship and the top part of a sub (don't worry about having the water lap up around the sub either, surely no one will notice), and then drop in fakey little CGI water bursts wherever you want the cannonballs to hit. I mean, how sad is it that the 54-year old Disney version kicks this film's ass in the special effects department just by filming models in a frickin water tank?

I need to mention Mia Sara because she's a bright spot in the movie and I need to calm down. She plays Nemo's daughter and doesn't appear until about half-way through because Nemo keeps her hidden from Aronnax, Cabe, and Ned Land (adequately performed by Bryan Brown, but he's no Kirk Douglas) in another part of the sub. By the time she comes on, we need a lift in spirits as badly as Aronnax does, and Mara (Mia's character) succeeds in bringing us both up. She's the fan of Aronnax's cryptozoology book and she helps him grow out of his father-issues by loving him for who he already is.

At that point, the rest of the plot becomes believable because there's a good reason now for Aronnax to want to stay on the Nautalis regardless of Cabe and Ned's feelings. And those of the hot, island pearl diver who accidentally discovered one of Nemo's explosives and was forced to come along on the voyage in spite of the captain's speechifying about liberty. (Her relationship with Cabe was sweet though, so I'm glad she was around.)

I've spoiled a lot of the movie, but I'll leave the end for you to discover if you're still interested. It's a crazy ending and I didn't like it, but I can see why the writers thought they needed to go in that direction. They didn't, but I can see why they thought they did.

Three out of five hot, island pearl divers.

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