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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Alice (review)

Some Kind of Wonderland

I just spent most of Sunday watching an advanced screener of Alice, the two-night miniseries that debuts on Syfy tonight at 9pm Eastern, and I’m sorry to say that the most intriguing thing about it is the fact that this screener Syfy sent wasn’t completely finished, FXwise. So there were lots of bits with green screens and temporary concept art standing in for what will be, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever, totally spectacular and dazzling visuals to come in the cablecast for public consumption. I love seeing all that making-of, behind-the-scenes shit, and I’m always especially delighted to see how actors manage to do what they do — like look genuinely astonished — even when they’re looking at nothing but a studio wall draped in what looks like surgical sheets.
More’s the pity that it ends up feeling pointless and empty and humorless, for it starts off rather intriguing, this modern update of Lewis Carroll’s classic novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]. (There’s a lot of this going around: Tim Burton’s production arrives this coming spring.) Alice (Canadian actress Caterina Scorsone) is not a little girl but an adult, a modern woman with a black belt in karate and a cute and mysterious English-accented boyfriend, Jack (Philip Winchester: Flyboys, Thunderbirds). And when Jack is spirited away by thugs in a panel van, she does not hesitate to follow him with plans to rescue him from whatever is going on. We sort of guess right away that Alice will be following him into Carroll’s wonderland, and dang if it ain’t actually a place called Wonderland she ends up, the same world “the Alice of legend” discovered a century and a half ago, though it’s moved on in the same way that our world has: Alice goes through a looking glass and ends up in a place that’s a literal underworld, in both the fantastical and the criminal senses of the word.

It’s a grimly appealing place, the stuff of urban punk fantasy, where liquid emotions — harvested from people kidnapped from world above — are for sale by the Dormouse at a place that’s more like an OTB than a tea shop, and there’s an organized resistance to the Queen of Hearts, who rules the land with an iron fist, or something. (Later, there will be torture, which has become the tedious shorthand for “dark and gritty” on TV of late.) This is where it all starts to fall apart, in so many ways. Alice, who had been so cool and tough and proactive, becomes little more than a tourist in Wonderland, voicing plaintive claims once in a while that she has to find Jack, but mostly just along for a sightseeing ride through this drug-addled, hedonistic, techno-brutal Wonderland.

Alice mistakes style, which it has in spades, with content, which it has hardly none of. All these cool ideas that it has — like emotions harvested from humans — it has not one whit of a notion what to do with. Carroll’s book was deliberately nonsensical and playful: this one dispenses with play and tries to impose order on the nonsense, but appears to have no other reason to exist beyond showing off how supposedly clever it is. It has nothing to say, and hopes you will be too distracted by all the pretty pictures it’s giving you to notice.

Cute: Andrew-Lee Potts (Primeval) as the Mad Hatter:

Cuter: Philip Winchester as Jack Chase:

Weird: Matt Frewer (Watchmen) as the White Knight:

Weirder: the android — or lupinoid — Mad March:

Weirdest: Kathy Bates’ (The Day the Earth Stood Still) Queen of Hearts is a Time Lord, and has a TARDIS:

It’s the same problem that plagued the then Sci Fi Channel’s Tin Man two years ago… which is unsurprising, perhaps, since this is from the same production team, including director Nick Willing (who also adapted Carroll’s book here). I’d say I dread to see what classic of fantasy they’ll attack next in order to pretend they’re all postmodern and bleak, but it hardly matters. With nothing at all to say, Alice will be as quickly forgotten as Tin Man was.


MPAA: rated TVPG-DLV

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
  • JoshDM

    I expected it to be just as crappy as Tin Man was.

  • Rob

    Well, I was a big fan of “Tin Man” and even liked it enough to get it on DVD. So this sounds up my alley.

  • It was certainly lacking something, but I enjoyed the visuals and imaginative retelling.

  • ccc

    I rarely add my opinion to any sites, but there were so many things I absolutely love about this version of “Alice…”. There was a certain gritty realism to this–the fight scenes were more like real fights rather than that kind of hanging-from- wires kind of fighting. The violence was not overdone and offensive. I liked that the King of Hearts softened the Queens punitive orders (and the feelings he expressed to her). The White Knight was terrific and I loved the chemistry between Alice and Hatter. Hatter was absolutely perfect as the somewhat reluctant hero who really grew into a full-on hero with an almost innocent romantic side that Alice brought out in him. I’ve watched these two episodes several times now, and each time I find more things to enjoy about them. The flying flamingo scene feels so much more real than some of those slick-looking scenes in other adventures. As a result, I could more easily imagine what it might feel like to be in that situation. The “Tweedles” were absolutely creepy-scary with their smooth voices. This may not be for everyone, but it certainly hit all the right notes of fantasy-realism-love story for me. I look forward to buying it so that I can enjoy these characters over and over again.

  • yp972

    I just watched this now and found it astonishingly great, far better than Tim Burton’s warmed-over Alice. Burton attempted to interject some sense of humanism, but he really fumbled it, since he, like Carroll, was just far more interested in the fancy stuff than the psychological stuff.

    So I must say, I find your “style-over-substance” critique of this version amazing, unaccountable, and frankly saddening — this movie is intensely humanistic, featuring classic literary themes and deeply felt characterizations, while Carroll’s version (and the many movies it inspired) is *all* style, and that’s the point! Yes, it eschews the puzzles and funny stuff of the original, but did we really need more of that? We’ve been seeing Alice remakes for years — I’m grateful it’s finally been reimagined in an inventive and moving way, and I’m absolutely going to look up Tin Man to see what else these creators have been up to!

    If you’d merely not cared for it, I’d have shrugged my shoulders and moved on — everyone has different taste — but you’re so disparaging of it, I have to say I think you had some preconceived notions you weren’t willing to let go of. (Frankly, it seems as though you weren’t paying attention — maybe reading some magazines or surfing the net while it ran in the background as aural filler?) Perhaps you’d have had a better experience if you’d watched it without worrying about whatever distasteful “cleverness” you perceived (I thought the cleverness was not particularly emphasized — the story focused on the characters with a great deal of complexity and nuance) or the script’s fidelity to the source material.

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