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Picks and Pans Main: Tube

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EVERY SO OFTEN, AN ACTOR TAKES A role and stamps his name all over it. From Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina to Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski to Roseanne as Roseanne, there are performances so powerful, so personal that any newcomer to the role is bound to invite unflattering comparisons.

This is the problem the giant squid has in The Beast, a two-part TV movie based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling thriller, which airs Sunday, April 28, and Monday, April 29, at 9 p.m. on NBC. No one is suggesting that the giant squid doesn’t give it the old college try. She eats more than her share of divers, drags a respectable number of seafaring vessels down to the briny deep and generally holds the viewer’s interest for two evenings until somebody can figure out how to nail her.

The difficulty is: The Beast is such a shameless rip-off of Benchley’s Jaws—and Steven Spielberg’s legendary 1975 film—that the giant squid cannot help but suffer by comparison with her great white predecessor. Part of the dilemma is style. The great white shark that terrorized vacationers in Jaws was a sleek, efficient killing machine that somehow managed to seem elusive. But the giant squid in The Beast is kind of cheesy-looking and has such enormous body mass that she doesn’t look as though she’d be all that hard to kill. Didn’t anybody ever hear of rocket launchers?

A second problem with The Beast is that old “lore of the sea” business. Ask the average person what he most fears about going in the ocean, and he’ll probably say, “Being eaten by a great white shark.” But how many people are afraid of being eaten by a great brown squid?

The Beast is also hampered by a ditsy ecological twist. Two decades ago, when Benchley’s shark started scarfing down everything in sight, the pros did the right thing: They went out and killed him. But this being 1996, the squid’s nemesis is not a tough cop but an environmentally sensitive fisherman (William Petersen) who begs his neighbors to cut the creature some slack, arguing that she is only eating humans because the local waters are fished out.

Petersen changes his tune, however, when his future son-in-law turns into the Beast’s lunch. Somehow this theme of man’s inhumanity to calamari doesn’t add up. In the end The Beast comes across as a composite of the first three Jaws films, with a bit of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea thrown in. Moral: Never send a squid to do a shark’s job.