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Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Amazing Captain Nemo

Irwin Allen tried one more time to get an underwater sci-fi adventure series on television. This time, Allen would revive the legendary Captain Nemo and have him go on weekly adventures aboard his amazingly modern steampunk rendition of SeaView. Warner Brothers must have had enough confidence in the idea to have funded a three-part miniseries as a sort of grand pilot for what they hoped would be a weekly series. The Return of Captain Nemo was the title of the miniseries. The studio felt there was insufficient viewer interest to merit a series. But, to recoup as much of their investment as possible, the three installments were edited together to make one film for theatrical release. This would get the title of The Amazing Captain Nemo (ACN). Jose Ferrer stars as Nemo. Burgess Meredith plays the evil villain. Linda Day George plays the eye candy.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Sinister Professor Cunningham (Meredith) tells the President of the United States that he’ll blow up Washington DC if he doesn’t get a billion dollars in gold. Meanwhile, during war game maneuvers, some navy divers discover Nautilus stuck in a deep reef and Captain Nemo in suspended animation. They turn on power and Nemo is revived. Nautilus is damaged. The Navy agrees to fix Nautilus and supply Nemo with a crew if he will stop Cunningham. Nemo goes aboard Cunningham’s sub, Raven, and is naturally captured. Cunningham exposits about his nuclear miss-aisle to blow up DC. Nemo and Franklin escape back to Nautilus where they prepare a laser cannon. When the miss-aisle is launched, they shoot it down. DC is saved! (yay?) In the ensuing sub-shaking shock waves, Raven disappears.
Raven’s damage is repaired, but needs more nuclear fuel. They get it from nuclear waste barrels dumped in the Mariana Trench. Cunningham’s drilling of the barrels causes nuclear waste leaks. Nemo wants to resume his search for Atlantis, but Miller (navy boss) urges him to check out the leaks and stop them. Nautilus travels to the trench with Dr. Cook (the expert who oversaw the dumping) and his too-lovely wife Kate (Geroge). Turns out that Cook was offered much money by Cunningham to delay Nemo. He does this, even imperiling Kate. The sabotage is discovered. Cook and Nemo fight in old-school ways. Cook dies. Raven approaches to blast Nautilus, but Nemo has a poorly explained image projector, so Cunningham files his Delta Beam at images of Nautilus, causing a cave in of the trench. This sealed in the leaking barrels. Yay. But Raven disappeared again.
Nemo resumes his search for Atlantis, and within minutes, finds it. Nautilus is trapped in a forcefield. King Tibor comes aboard. He takes Nemo to the High Council, who want Nemo imprisoned as an enemy. (Cunningham had been to Atlantis too, and was a very bad guest.) Nemo convinces them that he’s a good guy. Tibor and two assistants join Nautilus to go get Cunningham, but the crew are all frozen. Cunningham captures Nemo and Tibor. Cunningham has another plot to kill millions and rule the world. He attempts to extract all of Nemo’s secrets with a brain reader. Nemo manages to get Tom to break Cunningham’s spell, helping all to escape. Nemo blasts Raven with lasers. The world is safe. Atlantis is happy. Nautilus leaves them in peace. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Nemo has been a staple character for decades. It’s nice to see he can still find work. The ’78 update retains some of the quaint steampunk decor, though heavily infused with “modern” blinking lights. ACN has the qualities of a 1930s serial, such as The Fighting Devil Dogs (’38) and obvious influences from Lucas’ Star Wars. Indeed, ACN almost plays out as Star Wars Underwater.

Cultural Connection
Shadow of Lucas — ACN is one of the earlier films that show influence that George Lucas’ Star Wars had on the sci-fi movie world. Note the laser battles, not the Tor character as a sort of steampunk Darth Vader (though not in a leadership position). Careful ears will note a remix of John Williams’ Star Wars themes underlaying the laser battles. The shadow of Lucas would extend of many more B-movies as the new paradigm for what sci-fi movies were expected to look like.

Dang Steam Pipes — The writers of ACN (and there were many) were fond of repeating a cliche of submarine movies: the broken steam pipe. The cliche goes like this: whenever a submarine is shaken up (depth charges, rammed by giant squid, whatever) the way to show that the sub sustained some damage is to have one or more of the abundant pipes spring a leak and start spewing a jet of steam. It does not matter if the sub is all electric, or nuclear or powered by gerbils in wheels. Whenever the sub takes a hit, a pipe will start leaking steam. The solution for the steam leak is always to crank down a valve which is always handily close to the leak. Watch for it in ACN. So many steam pipes burst that one begins to wonder why they bother having so many fragile steam pipes on high-tech submarines.

Serial Bowl — ACN was originally written as a miniseries, with aspirations of becoming a maxi-series. As such, the fairly complete story arcs for the three episodes are understandable. There is also an affinity to the style of 1930s theatrical serials, such as, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, The Invisible Ray, and Fighting Devil Dogs. The characters are caricatures. Nemo as the all-wise, unflappable genius hero. Cunningham as the unstable, maniacal genius intent on ruling the world. (don’t they all?). Kate, as the beautiful token lady scientist. There is the villain’s ‘army’ of soulless robots (who cannot shoot worth beans, but can be disabled with a single hit). The action in ACN is quickly paced enough to have made a good 12 chapter serial — in the 30s. Tastes in the late 70s were not so simple.

Higher Calling — Just when it seems that Cunningham will succeed, Nemo appeals to Tom’s deeply ingrained loyalty to the President of the United States. This loyalty proves stronger than Cunningham’s mind-control headband. Such devotion to government was anachronistic, even by the late 70s. It would certainly not be a credible tide-turner in the cynical 21st century.

Token Babe — Linda Day George plays the customary role of Token Babe. She is the apex of late 70s hot-ness, with her blonde feathery hair. Even though she says she is a nuclear physicist (and fashion model on weekends?), she does nothing in the plot beyond the usual damsel-in-distress and standing around looking lovely. No doubt, her role was written and cast in hopes of attracting young male viewers.

Bottom line? ACN is passable popcorn entertainment, if one does not have too high of expectations for quality. The situations and acting (especially by Meredith) are almost comic book. If one has a fondness for variations on Verne’s original, ACN can be worth watching. For most viewers, however, it’s okay for watching if it’s on TV, but necessarily worth tracking down a copy of your own.

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