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Film's high-tech tricks hide novel's 'Rex' appeal

Eric Garcia's ''Anonymous Rex" was a novel so captivating, so original, you prayed that somehow it could elude the clumsy grasp of Hollywood. What film could possibly do justice to the story of Los Angeles private detective Vincent Rubio, who, by the way, happens to be a velociraptor in a human suit?

That 1999 book and Garcia's continuation of the series -- ''Casual Rex" and ''Hot and Sweaty Rex" -- imagine dinosaurs who dodged extinction, evolved to human dimensions, and live quietly among us. It was a clever gimmick that never succumbed to cheap gimmickry, and Garcia (who also wrote the novel ''Matchstick Men," which became a Nicolas Cage film) made sure his droll tale, which at its heart is a detective novel, owed more to Raymond Chandler than Ray Bradbury.

Alas, this stillborn adaptation of ''Anonymous Rex," airing tonight at 9 on the Sci Fi channel, is all atwitter with computer tricks at the expense of its story. In Garcia's book, the dinosaurs wore well-crafted latex human suits, which always presented the comic possibility of a stray tail unfurling at an inopportune moment. Here, the dinosaurs' true identities are concealed by high-tech holograms, which aren't nearly as interesting but allow the film's special-effects department to earn a living.

Garcia's gift was to get his readers to completely identify with his dinosaurs. They're classic outsiders who've managed to assimilate by erasing all visible signs of their real identities. But this film, written by Joe Menosky, starts somewhat distastefully when Vincent (Sam Trammell) and his partner Ernie (Daniel Baldwin) hunt down a man who has discovered their secret. The man is killed by another dino-human, and when Vincent and Ernie arrive at the man's home to break the news to his wife, it seems as if Vincent may dispatch the rest of the family when his hologram suit short-circuits in front of a wide-eyed child.

After a quickie science lesson about the asteroids that wiped out the dinosaurs, the real story begins. ''Anonymous Rex" is actually based on Garcia's second book, ''Casual Rex," in which Vincent and Ernie investigate a dinosaur cult, Voice of Progress, which preaches out-and-proud dinosaur-hood. When a young cult member -- the brother of Ernie's former wife -- is murdered, Vincent and Ernie try to discover how his involvement with the group may have led to his death.

In between, there are lots of scenes of herb munching (dinosaurs are agog for such spice-rack staples as rosemary and basil) and dino-humans talking about how much better the world would be if they could just let their inner triceratops run free. On paper, this all came across as poignant, but something has clearly been lost in the translation to the small screen. The only funny scene comes when Vincent flashes back to a particular Halloween when the neighbors marveled over his clever dinosaur ''costume," before his father scolded him and dragged him home.

Oh, and there's one other laugh -- the sight of the once-great Faye Dunaway absolutely slumming in the role of Shin, leader of the local dinosaur council.

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