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"20,000 Leagues' is underwhelming

Considering how popular science fiction has proven these days _ from the success of NBC's Asteroid miniseries to the revamped Star Wars movies _ it's easy to see why somebody thought a remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would be a good idea.

After all, who better to give a '90s-style special effects treatment to than the master of science fiction himself, Jules Verne, a mid-19th century author whose works predicted helicopters, air conditioning and television itself?

Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell the guys putting together CBS' version of Verne's classic novel that they should stick a little '90s attitude in the script, as well.

As a result, the latest attempt at filming 20,000 Leagues unfolds as a horribly well-mannered morality play, peopled by cardboard-thin characters acting on motivations barely explained by a shopworn script.

Students of literature know the basic story: Prompted by a series of strange ship sinkings on the seas between Europe and America, Professor Aronnax, a renowned marine biologist, takes to the seas with his assistant, Conseil, and harpoonist Ned Land.

Once on the high seas, their boat is attacked by the mysterious "creature," throwing the trio overboard. They are soon rescued by the animal itself, revealed to be a submarine called the Nautilus, run by the enigmatic Captain Nemo.

In CBS' version, Conseil is transformed into the character of Aronnax's daughter, Sophie, in an attempt to inject romance that falls flat, mostly due to Julie Cox's wooden performance. Here, she's so limited _ substituting flashes of her doe eyes for real emoting _ that it's tough to understand how Land and Nemo could both fall for her so hard.

Aronnax, played as a kindly, well-meaning father by TV veteran Richard Crenna, is largely irrelevant, mostly kowtowing to Nemo's wishes until he learns to respect his daughter's rejection of the captain's advances.

As a love triangle plays out among Sophie, rebellious Land (Paul Gross) and strong-willed Nemo (Chariots of Fire's Ben Cross), viewers may find their attention wandering; they simply haven't been given enough reason to care what happens to any of these characters.

For that, blame director Michael Anderson, who was at the helm of the Oscar-winning film version of Verne's Around the World in 80 Days in 1956. Here, his attempt to retain much of the book's classic language only underscores the stilted dialogue and soap opera-style performances that deflate this adaptation.

It doesn't help that the special effects are nothing special, either. In a TV universe where we've already seen major cities destroyed by volcanoes and asteroids this season, shots of the Nautilus charging through the water every 15 minutes or so remain less than compelling.

It's tempting to say this production sinks under the weight of its own pretensions, but such shameless seagoing analogies are hardly needed here. One can only hope the next time CBS tackles a classic it shows a little more, well, class.

On TV

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea airs at 9 tonight on WTSP-Ch. 10.

Grade: D-

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