Karen Sillas and William Petersen star in THE BEAST, directed by Jeff Bleckner for NBC.

The Beast (1996, Jeff Bleckner)

The Beast is, like most television miniseries, engineered to be watchable without being compelling. It’s like a McDonald’s milkshake (are they still called milkshakes or are they back to shakes?)–you’re in the mood for a milkshake, so you figure it can’t be too bad and order one… only to finish it and discover you should have waited for a real one. The Beast is never real–it’s incredible how many opportunities the movie misses, mostly out of laziness, but also out of disinterest. It’s a TV miniseries about a giant squid, which is–according to wikipedia–a real thing. So I guess it’s a little real, anyway.

But it’s never too terrible, just like most event miniseries. There are sturdy, recognizable cast members. William Petersen does his TV leading man thing here, the working class guy–just look at his beard, but he’s well-groomed enough for the viewer to know he’s not any working class guy… he’s the soulful, quietly intelligent working class guy who’s going to get the job done. While battling his demons, of course. Petersen doesn’t have many demons in The Beast–though a scene where he impales his daughter with a stake (and Missy Crider does have some exceptional talons on her fingers here, scarier than any of the rubber squids) sadly did not make it into the film. It must have been in my imagination, since Crider’s one of the worst actors I think I’ve ever seen. And in a TV miniseries from the 1990s, the acting’s not supposed to bottom out… it’s supposed to be where the network showcases its actors who aren’t leads on popular shows. You know, so viewers will follow them from the event miniseries to the weekly show. (This entire system has all changed and I have no idea why, so I’m not even going to bother hypothesizing–but it worked to a degree).

In other words, most of Petersen’s fellow cast members are good. Karen Sillas is somewhat wasted as the Coast Guard officer who can’t get any respect because she’s a woman. Her really good moments just remind how Sillas never really found a great role. Charles Martin Smith’s in it a bit–he’s fine, though the character’s poorly written. Ronald Guttman is goofy. Both Sterling Macer Jr. and Denis Arndt are good. As Crider’s friend, Laura Vazquez doesn’t have enough scenes (and should clearly have gotten the bigger part). Larry Drake’s funny as a drunken moron, kind of an incompetent Quint.

The comparisons to Jaws are legion. Peter Benchley only has so many scenes he can do, regardless of what characters he can fill them with. The scenes generally move the same way, with a lot of the same props. I remember when Beast first aired, Entertainment Weekly pointed out it didn’t just rip off Jaws, but also Jaws 2 and Jaws 3. The Jaws 3 rips are stunning. I missed the Jaws 2 stuff.

Oh, I forgot to mention Murray Bartlett–he’s awful too.

Bartlett’s one of the movie’s Australian cast members (where it shot). Occasionally accents are iffy, but the production values are good. The special effects are lame. I kept wondering how it couldn’t look better than the original Jaws, given the developments in special effects in the twenty years between the two adaptations. Maybe because giant squids just look dumb. But there’s only one really terrible CG shot and there is one good sequence with a miniature boat.

The Beast kind of made me miss miniseries. Strangely, there’s an exceptional amount of potential for the format–the abbreviated third act in the first half and the abbreviated first act in the second half, it changes the pace of the storytelling… maybe even in good ways. There’s also the opportunity for a lot of character development. It’s just too bad the source material (I’m guessing) wasn’t very good here. With a lot of the cast–and maybe minus a giant rubber squid or two–it would have been fine.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Bleckner; screenplay by J.B. White, based on the novel by Peter Benchley; director of photography, Geoff Burton; edited by Tod Feuerman; music by Don Davis; production designer, Owen Paterson; produced by Tana Nugent; released by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring William Petersen (Whip Dalton), Karen Sillas (Lt. Kathryn Marcus), Charles Martin Smith (Schuyler Graves), Ronald Guttman (Dr. Herbert Talley), Missy Crider (Dana Dalton), Sterling Macer Jr. (Mike Newcombe), Denis Arndt (Osborne Manning), A.J. Johnson (Nell Newcombe), Larry Drake (Lucas Coven), Murray Bartlett (Christopher Lane), Laura Vazquez (Hadley), Robert Mammone (Ensign Raines), David Webb (Jameson) and Marshall Napier (Commander Wallingford).

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