The Amazing Captain Nemo

The Return of Captain Nemo. Warner Bros. 1978.
The Return of Captain Nemo. Warner Bros. 1978.

Before watching the movie:

I try to stick to movies with a theatrical release, but I’m not sure this had one, as it was written as a three-part television pilot. I do know that it brings Captain Nemo to the modern era, and it stars Jose Ferrer as Nemo and Burgess Meredith as the bad guy, and the contrast between great cast and silly concept caught my curiosity and attention, and I could not leave it on the shelf.

After watching the movie:

Somewhere under the sea, Professor Cunningham declares to the President of the United States that unless a billion dollars in gold is placed in a buoy at a specific location within one week, Washington will be destroyed “with a nuclear missile from my doomsday device”. Shortly thereafter, two Navy reconnaissance divers looking for Cunningham find a submarine from a totally different era, and inside, a man in hibernation who claims to be Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo. Nautilus, despite being over a hundred years old, has capabilities still fantastical by modern standards, including incredible speed, diving depth, and a focused light beam weapon the sailors recognize as a laser, all powered by a nuclear reactor. The Navy provides Nemo with repairs, modern communication equipment, and a crew, and in return requests that he track down and stop Professor Cunningham, whose deadline is now only hours away.

The point of this story, clearly, is to have a reason to have adventure stories with laser weapons under the sea, while also playing with a Jules Verne aesthetic. Most of the movie is set on the Nautilus, but it’s contrasted by Cunningham’s 70s-futuristic Raven, billed as the past versus the future. Having stepped into a smoke-filled tube for over a century because Nautilus got stuck under a reef, Nemo slides into his role as a sci-fi hero a little too easily, protesting early on that he only wants to find Atlantis and doesn’t have patience for the Navy’s agenda, but after meeting Cunningham for a second time, seems to have accepted him as his personal nemesis.

In the spirit of pulp adventure, Ferrer and Meredith don’t seem to have much room to play more than archetypes. Captain Nemo is an unflappable genius adventure hero, and Professor Cunningham is a totally flapped mad scientist who wants to take over the world for Reasons. They both look perfect in their costumes, Ferrer filling out a Captain’s uniform beautifully and Cunningham looking much more like an actual professor than any other mad scientist I’ve seen, perfectly at home in a baggy cardigan and tie.

This movie is really three stories, which probably would have worked better as the separate television episodes they were conceived as rather than the single adventure they’re presented as. Cunningham’s plans get smaller and smaller each time, going from holding Washington ransom for enough gold to buy the planet to destroying the world so he can rule the ashes to… mind controlling people so he can destroy Nautilus and take the secrets of Atlantis. Dividing the parts would also make it feel more more Cunningham had time to set up his latest scheme rather than running right into it using new abilities that would have been useful last time. The second part introduces a female character who joins the crew permanently, only to get frozen out of the story in the third segment.

I can’t ask too much out of a failed adventure series from the 70s. Everyone involved seems paper thin, but most contemporary episodes of Star Trek, Doctor Who, and pretty much anything else from the 60s and 70s that wasn’t specifically meant to be about complex characterization are about as disposable. It actually maps pretty well against Doctor Who, starring a genius whose function is largely defined by his ability to provide access to an unbelievably advanced vehicle and opposed by a villain for villainy’s sake who is evenly matched in brilliance and technology. Anyone who can enjoy Star Wars can enjoy this bit of serial fluff.

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