By Tom Shales
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Well, there is a looking glass, and a kind of rabbit hole, and a girl -- or rather, a karate-kicking young woman -- named Alice, but otherwise the Syfy channel's new "Alice" movie bears just passing resemblance to its source, Lewis Carroll's satirical masterpieces "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass."
Passing, in fact, is just what to do when faced with the prospect of spending four hours over two nights (Sunday and Monday) following this latest incarnation of Alice as she stumbles across a crazy-quilt landscape cooked up in a special-effects lab -- with interiors looking sometimes like the lobby of a gauche hotel and other times like the cosmetics counter at Bloomingdale's.
Apparently as part of some kind of consumer-society commentary, the Queen of Hearts has become the chairman of a board; Kathy Bates, one of the big names in the cast, at least has some fun in the role, though writer-director Nick Willing (who did Syfy's far superior "Tin Man" in 2007) obviously told everybody to play it straight and somber. Among the painful exceptions: Matt Frewer hamming it up in the role of the White Knight. He looks more like Don Quixote.
Perhaps the film is tolerable when taken as the appetizer for a main course due in the spring: Tim Burton's feature-film re-imagining of "Alice" with Johnny Depp, having another fey heyday, as the Mad Hatter. In Syfy's "Alice," that character is called simply Hatter and, as played by plucky Andrew-Lee Potts, owes more to the Artful Dodger of Charles Dickens's "Oliver Twist."
Alice herself is played with no sense of spunk or vigor by Caterina Scorsone. We first meet her as she teaches an urban martial arts class, white rabbit nowhere in sight. She gives chase when her boyfriend, Jack Chase (oh, subtle!), is dragged through the looking glass by some of the Queen's mangy minions, everyone fighting over possession of a dull and derivative MacGuffin: Alice's magical ring, which holds the secret to the whole big mess.
This is indeed a revisionist Alice, "fiercely independent" (according to Syfy publicity), as virtually every female hero is required to be these days. Thus in pursuit of political correctness we get an Alice who beats up a knife-toting pirate after first warning him, "Don't even think about it, buddy!"
The "Looking Glass" is some sort of Matrix-y organization that dispenses "instant gratification" in the form of commoditized emotions like bliss, excitement, serenity and even lust, apparently to keep the masses mollified and malleable. Tim Curry appears for about seven minutes as a very un-rabbitty March Hare, Colm Meaney plays the King of Hearts, and Harry Dean Stanton plays "Caterpillar," code name for the head of "the resistance," determined to overthrow Queenie.
Jack Chase (Phillip Winchester) turns out to be the over-doting son of the Queen of Hearts, thereby injecting an incongruous note from "The Manchurian Candidate." The character of the Dormouse is now some sort of stock broker, and the Walrus is a large man who looks like the Wilfrid Brimley balloon, if there were one, in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And so on, with Carroll's inventions tweaked into imbecility.
There is a reference in dialogue to "another Alice," one who came to presumably a different Wonderland 160 years earlier, and in one of the last scenes, the new Alice picks up a copy of one of Carroll's books -- and then quickly puts it down again. Putting it down quickly, however, is a preferable alternative to spending four hours at the same joyless task.
(four hours) airs Sunday night at 9 on Syfy; Part 2 airs Monday at 9.