Captain Nemo and the Underwater City/Captain Nemo and the Floating City (1969) **
I’m really starting to wonder what in the hell was going on during the 60’s that made everybody and his mother want to make a sci-fi adventure movie involving either a futuristic submarine or a city on the ocean floor. It would perhaps have been one thing if there had been one really good— or at least financially successful— film to serve as rip-off fodder, but that really doesn’t seem to have been the case. Instead, we see a range of quality with the moderately decent (Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, for example) at the top end, and the staggeringly craptastic (War-Gods of the Deep, anyone?) at the bottom, and no obvious standout trendsetter to account for the whole strange business. True, most commentators can be relied upon to namedrop Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea any time the subject of aquatic 60’s sci-fi comes up, but the six or seven years that separate that movie from the submarine mania of the 60’s would seem to rule it out as more than indirect inspiration. Nor does 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea seem like a very tempting target for a decade-long cash-in frenzy, since it was years before Disney finally turned a net profit on that film— hardly a promising model for those looking to make a quick buck. And if I’m at a loss to account for the popularity of underwater movies in general during the period under consideration, then I’m doubly at a loss to account for Captain Nemo and the Underwater City specifically. For by 1969, movies of this type were well along the road to obsolescence, and mounting the production at the studios of MGM’s British department rather than in Hollywood can’t have saved that much money.
As the movie opens, a sidewheel steamer on the sea lanes to Britain has run afoul of a tempest, and its crew has reached the conclusion that there is no hope for saving the ship. The scramble for the lifeboats is a disorderly one, however, and several of the passengers wind up in the water instead. The four men, one woman, and one child are quickly overwhelmed by the violent weather, and all sink beneath the waves. Now obviously it’s a wee bit early in the film to be exterminating the cast in this manner, and just as it seems certain that their fate is sealed, the drowning passengers are rescued by a team of divers wearing a snazzy, Victorian-style version of modern scuba gear. The divers bring the castaways aboard their ship, a ridiculous-looking submarine, and get to work reviving them. This leaves us with the following for our dramatis personae:
None of those six are especially thrilled with their circumstances upon waking up in the submarine’s infirmary, but their reactions vary greatly in detail. Fraser takes the collected approach, seeking out opportunities to learn all he can about what’s really going on. Barnaby and Swallow merely seek out chances to steal anything that looks valuable. Helena gets all haughty, huffy, and indignant. Lomax freaks out with ever-escalating stridency. And Philip doesn’t do much of anything at all. Eventually, Fraser convinces Joab (John Turner, of The Black Torment and Girls School Screamers), the leader of the divers who rescued him and his companions, to take him to the commander of the sub. As if you needed to be told, this is Captain Nemo (Robert Ryan), whose high-tech enterprises as portrayed in this movie go far beyond the design and construction of hyper-advanced submersibles. This time around, as the title implies, Nemo has an entire city on the ocean floor under his control, where he rules as a more or less benevolent dictator over a utopian society of peace-loving malcontents who have severed all their ties to the surface world. And given the terms on which Nemo’s people parted from their cousins upstairs, it is perhaps only to be expected that the folks the captain has rescued from the sinking steamer will not be permitted to return to the land now that they know about the city under the sea.
That piece of news does not go over well with anybody, but it is Lomax who responds with the greatest vehemence. Taking advantage of the openness of Nemo’s society, he gets himself a crash course in the workings of the city’s main power supply, whereby he discovers a chink in the dome covering Nemoville which a sufficiently desperate man might possibly use as an escape route— desperate enough, that is, not only to risk his own nearly certain demise, but to bring completely certain death to everyone else in the city. Nemo catches on in the nick of time, and not even Senator Fraser can fault the captain for leaving Lomax to drown in the sealed-off compartment that contains the power system’s control room when the scheme goes sour. The rest of the gang is more subtle about their efforts to escape from Nemo’s clutches. Fraser lets it be known that he has taken an interest in the Nautilus, prompting Nemo to instruct him in its operation. Why exactly the captain would do such a thing when the senator’s motives are transparently obvious is anybody’s guess, but it works out rather well for him, in that Fraser contributes immensely to the quality of life in Nemo’s city on one of his expeditions aboard the sub. You see, the city is periodically menaced by a gigantic mutant stingray which the inhabitants’ biological experimentation evidently created, and when the monster ray attacks the Nautilus, Fraser leads Nemo’s sailors in a counterattack that finally rids the ocean dwellers of their greatest enemy. (Incidentally, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City displays an unexpected hint of possible Japanese influence here by naming the giant ray “Mobula.” True, Mobula is merely the taxonomical name for the genus of devil rays [the smaller cousins of the mantas], but monster names ending in “ra/la” were long established in kaiju eiga by 1969, and Western filmmakers had surely had sufficient exposure to such movies by then for the formula to seep in subconsciously. Of course, since Mobula is clearly a stingray rather than a devil ray, it really ought to be called Dasyatra or some such thing instead…) Meanwhile, Barnaby and Swallow discover that Nemo has two submarines, the latter of which has only recently been completed, and does not yet have more than a skeleton crew assigned to it. That second sub could be the castaways’ ticket home, and Barnaby stealthily works to talk Joab into turning a blind eye while the surface-dwellers make an escape attempt. Joab, you see, has reason to want Fraser gone, as the senator has made no secret of his interest in Mala (Luciana Paluzzi, of War Goddess and The Green Slime), Joab’s fiancee. There’s an unexpected complication, however, for young David has taken to life under the sea like, well, a fish to water, and he doesn’t want to go home. For that matter, Helena and Nemo look to be making tentative steps toward a trans-pelagic romance of their own.
Like all too many science fiction movies of the “world of wonders” school, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City spends so much time waving those wonders in our faces that it often seems to forget that there’s supposed to be a story going on. The emphasis is on the admittedly quite lovely underwater cinematography and the overwrought and rather goofy production design, and once you get past those, this movie really hasn’t got a lot to offer. The constant scheming by Barnaby and Swallow to abscond with as much of Nemoville’s gold as they can carry (which consumes an enormous percentage of the running time) is as tiresome as any comic relief you’ll ever face, Chuck Connors appears to have left his charisma in his other pants, and neither of the two subplot romances seem at all plausible. The biggest miscalculation, however, concerns Captain Nemo. James Mason and Herbert Lom have nothing to worry about. Robert Ryan plays Nemo essentially like somebody’s vaguely curmudgeonly granddad, which, in conjunction with the treatment he receives from the screenplay, has the effect of removing all but the tiniest trace amounts of anti from the character of the most famous antihero in all of science fiction. Only in his response to Lomax’s wantonly destructive escape attempt does this Nemo come anywhere close to the characterization one expects, and indeed to the characterization a nearly conflict-free movie like this one needs. It looks pretty, and a kaiju-sized stingray is a neat idea, but Captain Nemo and the Underwater City is relatively useless otherwise.