Friday, April 24, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Captain Nemo and The Underwater City (1969)

Across the various Jules Verne-inspired films surveyed here on the blog, we've seen the classic literary anti-hero Captain Nemo depicted as self-sacrificing savior and anguished anti-hero (Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea [1954]), Nemo as older (and perhaps wiser?) benevolent benefactor of mankind (Mysterious Island [1961]) and even a futuristic Nemo archetype (Reinhardt) who has succumbed to his darkest, most narcissistic tendencies in the quest for immortality, in The Black Hole (1979).

1969's Captain Nemo and The Underwater City provides yet another interpretation of the character, and to put it bluntly, it isn't one of my favorites.

Here, as played by diminutive, thin Robert Ryan, Captain Nemo is portrayed as a soft-voiced, beardless, kindly, grandfather-type. In this British-made feature, Nemo commands not merely the advanced submarine Nautilus, but serves happily as friendly ruler of a golden undersea utopia, a domed metropolis called "Temple Myra," if I have it right.

More to the point, however, this 1969 version of Nemo is rather toothless, given to the occasionally 'bout of grumpiness, but overall most determined, apparently, to forge a romantic relationship with a castaway named Helena (Nanette Newman) whom he has rescued from a sinking ship. I suppose there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a film dramatizing the softer side of Nemo, but it's still a bit jarring to see such an edgy character rendered so bland, so...harmless.

Captain Nemo and The Underwater City (shot by the always-impressive Alan Hume) depicts the tale of six men and women who are rescued by Nemo when their vessel sinks during a storm on the high seas. These characters include the honorable U.S. Senator Robert Fraser (Chuck Connors), plucky widower Helena Beckett (Newman), her young boy, Phillip, a twitchy claustrophobic named Lomax (Allan Cuthbertson) and two petty crooks -- Barnaby (Bill Fraser) and Swallow (Kenneth Connor) -- who comprise the film's egregiously tiresome comic-relief duo.

Nemo transports these survivors to the bottom of the sea and to his gold-plated commune, a domed city of peace and prosperity. In fact, Nemo is even planning a construction expansion there: two additional domes are in the offing. Life in Temple Myra is a paradise, but for the people from the surface, it's also a cage. For Nemo won't permit the new arrivals to return home to the surface out of fear that they will reveal the existence of his amazing metropolis to the warring nations above. Soon, Fraser romances a sexy citizen in the city, Mala (Lucianna Paluzzi), which enrages her current beau, Joab (John Turner). We know Mala and the Senator are hot for each other, because she serenades Fraser with a strangely phallic musical instrument that she strokes romantically (and in soft-focus), while Fraser looks on, entranced.

Meanwhile, Nemo becomes a kindly father-figure to young Phillip, and develops a a close friendship with the obstinate women's libber Helena. When offered the choice to betray Nemo and leave the city, or stay with Nemo and form an ad hoc family (along with Phillip's little kitten...), Helena chooses to remain.

As all this soap opera occurs inside the safety of the city walls, a deranged giant manta ray named "Mobula" threatens the peace outside. Fraser becomes a hero after dispatching the murderous beast while in command of Nautilus. Despite this act of bravery, Fraser plots escape aboard a brand new Nautilus #2 with the help of the treacherous Joab and the avaricious Barnaby...

I first saw Captain Nemo and The Underwater City with my (patient) parents sometime in the very early 1970s, on a drive-in double-bill, as a I recall. As a child, I loved the movie simply because it featured cool submarines, undersea domes, and the giant Mobula monster. And did I mention Lucianna Paluzzi in a bathing suit?

Watching the film as a more discerning adult, however, Captain Nemo and The Underwater City doesn't wear quite as well. For instance, the production design is rather underwhelming. Specifically, the underwater city is saddled with an unfortunate and hackneyed leitmotif: not only is everything gold futura, but every architectural detail is ridiculously marine-life centric. What I mean by that is that Nemo makes his announcements through a microphone that is molded into the shape of a fish. And when a siren sounds, the alarm bell features a vibrating lobster figure. Nemo's diving suits are also somewhat silly in appearance. The suits feature transparent shoulder epaulets in the shape of fish fins. In toto, this sort of decoration resembles a bad seafood theme restaurant rather than the utopian headquarters of the world's greatest genius.

The miniature work is also unarguably terrible. I should add, this is not a case of the years being unkind to good special effects, to be certain. If you go back to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in 1954 or Mysterious Island in 1961, you can see some amazing and convincing miniature work and opticals. In both cases, those effect still hold up remarkably well: you believe the Nautilus is a full-sized vehicle ramming actual surface vessels. Captain Nemo and The Underwater City's effects never achieve that level of verisimilitude. It is simply inferior -- and obvious -- model work.

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City also wastes an inordinate amount of its melodramatic narrative concentrating on unfunny comic-relief. Barnaby and Swallow make pests of themselves -- and in one cringe-worthy moment -- Barnaby squirts a stream of alcohol in his face while trying to master an undersea drink dispenser. Again, you just think of a seafood restaurant...or maybe Jar Jar Binks.

Much more troubling and difficult to accept is the fact that secretive Captain Nemo not only goes out of his way to rescue a few survivors from a passing ship (when in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea he was willing to let Ned and the others die in the sea...) but that he here turns around and bestows upon them his instant and unquestioning trust. Specifically, Nemo permits Joab to give the squirrely Lomax and the gold-hungry Barnaby and Swallow full access to the city (except for a carefully labeled "Forbidden Area.") Joab obediently and politely shows these visitors everything: the gold repository room, and the pressure control room...the one room in the city that could be sabotaged, and could destroy the utopia.

Frankly, Nemo's insistence that these visitors remain at the bottom of the sea (10,000 fathoms below the surface...) is also more than a little mystifying. The good captain should have just dropped the survivors off on the nearest island, or given them a small raft so they could find help from a passing vessel. Nemo's stated motive for not permitting Fraser and others to return to the surface is that they would tell the world about his underwater utopia.

Yes, but what could they do about it? I mean, it's not like any nation in the world at this time in history (roughly the period of the American Civil War) boasted the technology to reach the city, let alone attack and pillage it. Nemo is the only human being in the world with the capacity to even reach the bottom of the sea at this juncture in time. Fraser and the others could be sent back freely with their wild story, and even if by chance they were believed by the authorities, there would be nothing that could be done about it. In fact, if you follow my logic, the only way malicious forces (or spies...) from the outside world could reach the domed city would if they were...rescued by Nemo and brought down by him as guests. Once inside they could then sabotage the city and escape back to the surface in his submarines. And that, in fact, is what happens. This is purely and simply a case of a narrative scenario without a whit of logical consistency.

A couple more things: it seems to me that if you wanted to write the story of Captain Nemo falling in love and becoming a father-figure, you would want to highlight his sad past, especially his alienation from the world-at-large. You'd want to include much information about the family he lost too. Captain Nemo and The Underwater City does none of that, providing instead a lukewarm romance between the elder Nemo and one of his much-younger visitors. It is also baffling that the anti-social Nemo, who exiled himself in the sea to escape his past, would cheerfully become the very visible leader of an undersea commune, presiding over school swimming competitions and the like. I'm not kidding, either. That's actually what Nemo is doing (celebrating All-Seas Day, poolside...) when Fraser steals the Nautilus # 2.

I've been rather tough on Captain Nemo and The Underwater City, but in closing, I would like to write something positive about it. And that is this: for all the hoary aspects of the movie (from design to the pedestrian script by Pip and Jane Baker), the film does boast a unique approach to villainy: Not one character is really a "bad guy" in the traditional movie sense. Lomax is a sick man, mentally unbalanced. Barnaby is simply greedy. And opponents Fraser and Nemo come to respect and admire one another, despite the fact they end up in conflict. Too often, movie villains are evil "just because," when in reality we know that battles are waged over ideologies or differences of opinion. As childish as Captain Nemo and The Underwater City sometimes seems, it's at least a little rewarding that the characters are occasionally less two-dimensional than the production design. The movie has a nice way of focusing on character motivations and decisions instead of assuming that all the visitors to Nemo's world would reflexively want to return home.

"Even Utopia has its hazards," one character states in the film, but Captain Nemo and The Underwater City's best quality is that it realizes our world has hazards too. And that choosing a "home" ultimately comes down to more than just returning to the place where you started out.

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