Throwing a classic down a hole

TV preview

September 14, 1999|By Ed Bark | Ed Bark,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

Classic literature, look out! The Halmis, Robert Sr. and Jr., are dedicated to desecrating you.

Last year's waterlogged "Moby Dick" miniseries on USA found Captain Ahab and crew oddly imperiled in a polar region, where the good ship Pequod was nearly capsized by an iceberg. Even in death, author Herman Melville reportedly needed a sedative. His enduring novel had no Titanic implications.

Last spring brought the NBC miniseries "Noah's Ark," TV's all-time loopiest biblical epic. The Good Book makes no mention of a pirate attack on the sacred vessel. Or of Noah's wacked-out wife -- in white-face makeup -- riding a horse on deck while chanting, "We do what we must must must until we bust bust bust." Thank heaven God didn't incinerate the NBC peacock with a lightning bolt.

This week brings USA's Halmi-produced "Journey to the Center of the Earth," based on the Jules Verne novel.

"Journey" according to Halmi -- Jr. is in charge this time -- turns German professor Von Hardwigg into Bostonian Theodore Lytton. His nephew's name has been changed, too, from Harry to Jonas. And the explorer they're searching for is now Casper Hastings, not Arne Saknussemm.

This could be dismissed as little more than a trifle if "Journey" otherwise intended to be even remotely true to the original. Instead it concocts an underworld of lizard people, love interests, dancing girls and miracle drugs.

Jaunty Theodore is played by trusty Treat Williams. We first see him prize-fighting in a boxing ring to raise money for his expeditions.

Still short of funds, he's aided by comely Alice Hastings (Tushka Bergen), whose husband, Casper (Bryan Brown), vanished while journeying to the center of the Earth in New Zealand. She'll finance a search party, but only if she can go, too. Also in tow are Jonas (Jeremy London) and tattooed gun-runner McNiff (Hugh Keays-Byrne). En route to Casper's descent, they are captured by Maoris, who do a little routine that looks as if it was choreographed by Tommy Tune. It's a hint that "Journey" is going to get seriously campy and cockamamie.

The film starts going seriously awry near the end of tonight's Part One. It's when missing Casper Hastings reappears as the Kurtz-like lord of a partying tribe of Caucasians, many of them cute, seductive women in two-piece party outfits. Apocalypse Now, baby.

The underground humans, conveniently taught English by Casper, are still at cross-purposes with the lizardly Sauroids, ruled by a cackling human Queen named Mashowna (Sarah Chadwick). This leads to redundant skirmishes before Casper finally is ready to return above-ground. His comeuppance is telegraphed long before "Journey" finally delivers it.

London fares best among the principal characters, investing Jonas with enough appeal to make you hope he survives. Williams is OK, but never more than that. Bergen is often too mechanical.

Any schoolkids currently assigned to read "Journey to the Center of the Earth" shouldn't expect to get the gist by watching this instead. The TV version gets an F for faithfulness, a C-minus as a lark.

`Journey to the Center of the Earth'

When: 8-10 tonight and tomorrow night; repeats 10 p.m.-midnight both nights

Where: USA cable network

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