"Tin Man" -- a re-imagined look at the Wizard of Oz -- paid off handsomely for the then-Sci Fi Channel, RHI Entertainment and director Nick Willing two years ago. Those parties have thus reunited on "Alice," another lavish two-parter -- this time derived from "Alice in Wonderland" -- with plenty of big-name cameos and equally uneven results. Willing has reshaped Wonderland into a kind of swinging psychedelic '60s, but it's all set design in search of a purpose. Despite a few surreal kicks, this headlong trip through the looking glass brews a rather weak tea party.
A grown woman and (conveniently) martial-arts instructor, poor Alice (Caterina Scorsone) finally brings a guy home to meet her mother, only to have her new beau, Jack ("Crusoe's" Philip Winchester), present her a gaudy ring before rather abruptly heading for the exit. Following him, she tumbles through a mirror and is whisked into the strange world of Wonderland, where the Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates, doubtless drawn to the role for its fabulous frocks) rules with an iron fist.
Like "Tin Man," "Alice" recasts this familiar place and its characters with a darker tint, with the confused heroine and her newfound pals -- including a resistance fighter named Hatter ("Primeval's" Andrew Lee Potts) and the addled White Knight (Matt Frewer) -- rebelling against a totalitarian state. Here, Willing has also incorporated exploitation of fellow residents from Alice's world who are lured to Wonderland and turned into unthinking zombies, held captive in casinos and derisively called "Oysters." Jack's ring, meanwhile, is an object of great importance (where have we heard that before?) -- one that the Queen desperately covets.
Mostly, it's an excuse for lots of chases and fighting, with the occasional CGI monster thrown in for good measure. The real star, however, is the kitschy sensibility, which falls somewhere between the 1960s version of "Casino Royale" and the Austin Powers movies -- including trippy artifacts like flying Pink Flamingos.
The opening night closes with the best sequence in the entire production, as a captured Alice is subjected to psychological torture by Doctors Dee and Dum (a very creepy Eugene Lipinski). After that, though, the narrative devolves into a series of unimpressive action sequences, augmented by a thin romantic triangle involving Alice, Hatter and Jack.
As for the aforementioned marquee players, most appear fleetingly, with Harry Dean Stanton turning up in night two as Caterpillar and channeling the late Hunter S. Thompson. It's obvious they're on hand mostly to impress international buyers, though one would think that trick would eventually yield diminishing returns.
Although Syfy scored with "Tin Man," it's difficult to imagine this Lewis Carroll-inspired lark (hopefully to be confused, presumably, with Disney's upcoming movie) possessing quite the same appeal. Laying down big bets on fantasy properties remains admirable in theory, but unless many Oysters crave another multinight disappointment on the heels of AMC's "The Prisoner," Syfy should discover all that glitters is not "Tin."