20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1997)

I remember some film critic ages ago talking about how rare it was to find an adventure film without a woman in it.

I suspect, in our current politically motivated age, that might seem an appalling sentiment, but it actually reflected the awful reality of Hollywood at the time.  We kept seeing the love interest shoehorned into these films, running around in the jungle after the hero in her high heels, or keeping her makeup perfect despite being on that Jungle Safari with Stuart Whitman.  The rare film, like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, that stuck to the original and dumped its heroes into trouble so desperate that they were lucky to get out alive was definitely a refreshing change.

I find myself thinking about this because here we have a lush, handsomely produced Hallmark Channel Jules Verne film, which replaces Professor Aronnax’s assistant with his young daughter who just happens to be a brilliant scientist, but is pretending to be a boy.  For those of you dim on the story, that’s the same part Peter Lorre played in the Disney version.

But of course this is a young, darkly handsome Nemo, played by Ben Cross, who has suddenly become the classic  hero of Gothic Romance:  dark, mysterious, troubled by a terrible secret or two, and possibly evil — or is he just misunderstood?

And naturally, we end up with a classic romantic triangle between the daughter, Nemo and Ned Land.

Think Rochester and Jane Eyre in a submarine.

The end result is that very little of the original story seems to make the cut.  There’s a lot of talk, then more talk, a murder attempt, some underwater scenes and even more talk.  We do get a (digital) Proto-Leviathan monster that’s supposed to top the squid in the 1954 version, although it doesn’t look like much and the whole evolutionary theory that’s supposed to justify its existence is absurd (sorry, Professor, but modern whales are bigger than their prehistoric ancestors).  And it bothers the heck out of me in some geeky know-it-all sort of way when we see all these colorful costumes on board the Nautilus and are told that they are made from byssus.  Byssus can’t be dyed, folks, didn’t anyone bother looking it up?

I suspect there might be a drinking game here, if you take a shot every time the Captain of the Lincoln says “Fire at will!”  He manages to say it two or even three times in some scenes.

Richard Crenna does a workman-like job as a British version of Aronnax, but one expects more from such an old pro.  Ben Cross is good, but he isn’t playing any version of Nemo we know.  And I have to wonder whether those who would applaud a dedicated female scientist character would be quite as happy with her decision to chose love over advancing her career?

Oh, well.  If you love Gothic romances, then you might like this one.

Otherwise, it might seem a bit disappointing, even if you accept the sad truth that no film adaptation of Jules Verne is ever allowed to be like the book.



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