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TV Sweeps Round-Up Part Two

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

This is the handsomest piece of TV I've seen in a long time. Done with style and verve for ABC—following a flatfooted version on CBS a few months ago—the new four-hour miniseries of the Jules Verne classic is thick with ideas, condensing the novel in well-thought-out ways and adding absorbing new wrinkles such as racial difficulties and family conflicts. The narrator Aronnax, portrayed by a surprisingly good Patrick Dempsey, becomes a more active character here, adding action and conviction without sacrificing the character's intelligence. This miniseries avoids having obvious villains—a smart choice, as Nemo (Michael Caine) is one of the greatest ambiguous characters in science fiction. In fact most of the characters, whether from the novel or newly invented, have their own ambiguities, and all are well-drawn; no one acts like a simple hero or a simple villain, but like an individual with personal motivations. This simply makes for better drama, especially at the finale, when Aronnax commits an act that he would not have done any other time before. Even Verne's other works, particularly Journey to the Center of the Earth, have an intriguing role in this story.

The attention to detail is eye-opening. The submarine's sonic environment is rendered to an extent that television rarely bothers with, and makes the Nautilus that much more believable. I also admire special effects that are well-done and subtle, and 20,000 Leagues makes admirable use of these. Such effects include a 20-foot-long shark swimming between two rows of divers (one of the best composite shots I've ever seen on a TV show) and, to close the miniseries, a long pull back from one yard above the ocean to hundreds of feet over it.

If I were just evaluating the first half of this miniseries, I'd be an even happier reviewer. Like the eight-hour miniseries The Stand mentioned last time, whose first four hours really sold the story successfully, this new rendition struts with confidence, conveying the spirit if not the exact plot of the original tale. However, also like The Stand, the story loses some of its focus about halfway through, and has to struggle back toward the heights of the opening. At the end, the story doesn't unravel so much as stop, resolving only a couple of plot threads. This dilutes the story's power. (And unlike the ending of the novel, which left open the fate of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, the miniseries doesn't exactly present a chance for a sequel that could tie up these threads.)

I should say that I almost began to play "what might have been" concerning the score, but upon looking at the miniseries a second time I have to admit that the music has grown on me. I perked up when I learned that Mark Snow, who has done superlative atmospheric work on The X-Files, was scoring this miniseries. My impression upon viewing the show, though, was that it was fairly standard orchestral work, with occasional moments of cheesy synthesizers. The third opinion can be a charm, however, and my current feeling is that this is a well-crafted, effective score with hints of Herrmann. The use of synths is still there at times, and they work less well than does the orchestra, but once again Mark Snow does what he is highly capable of: achieving an intriguing atmosphere. This music is still more straightforward than X-Files, which might have been why I wasn't too impressed at first, but is light-years ahead of his work on those Ernest movies.

Source: Christopher Walsh; Film Score Monthly [www.filmscoremonthly.com] July 7, 1997

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