20000 Leagues under the Sea is not just an important milestone in the history of science fiction movies, being one of the biggest SF films that came out of the 1950s in terms of production and most enduring in terms of popularity with audiences and critics alike. Nor is it worthy of note simply because it represents an early example of what decades later came to be recognized as steampunk.
It is a sweeping, if somewhat fluffy in parts (fifties, fifties!), and engaging movie in its own right. Moreover, it is a movie with depths of meaning which do not carry over at first watching, but lurk, shark-like, just underneath the surface ready to pounce on the unwary.
Review by SAndman
July 5, 2010
Director: Richard Fleischer
novel: Jules Verne
screenplay: Earl Felton
James Mason as Captain Nemo
Paul Lukas as Prof. Pierre Aronnax
Peter Lorre as Conseil
Kirk Douglas as Ned Land
Professor Pierre Aronnax: A strange twilight world opened up before me, and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.
Based on the famous novel by Jules Verne the plot follows the adventures of Professor Aronnax, renowned biologist, and his two companions, the whiny assistant Conseil and brash harpooner Ned Land, who set out to sea in search of the elusive "monster of the deeps" responsible for sinking a number of ships in the latter half of the 1860s.
Aboard an American Navy ship they scour the south seas and just when it starts to look like their efforts will have come to naught they find what they have been looking for, or rather IT finds them. What ensues is the ageless tale of camaraderie, exotic underwater vistas, deadly fights with sea creatures, and, yes, the lynch-pin that holds it all together - the darkly charismatic antihero, self-styled outcast bent on vengeance, the mysterious Captain Nemo.
If you are, or at one point or another in your life have been, in love with stories of the deeps, the Atlantis, daring pirates, intrepid sailors, you can watch 20000 Leagues under the Sea as the mother of all them all - one of the predecessors of Patrick O'Brian, the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Abyss or the Hunt for the Red October. Excellent, and above all harmless, fun which helps while away an evening without making you regret the hours of idleness.
But maybe, just maybe, about midway through the movie, suddenly you get a shock - like an unexpected edge on the pet puppy's bite. You realize that what you are watching is not just another Disney movie. Instead, it is a serious, even haunting, yarn about obsession, and persecution complex, and delusion of grandeur.
It also a movie steeped in some very contemporary anxieties: charismatic leadership and the pitfalls thereof, the fear of technology, ecological sustainability, technocracy versus democracy, imperialism, international terrorism...Last but not least, the archetypal motif of the fall from grace.
Yeah, 20000 Leagues under the Sea has a lot to recommend itself to modern sensibilities. Part of the credit goes to Jules Verne's story, and its universal message, and part, undoubtedly, goes to the men who brought Verne's vision to the silver screen. Extra credit goes to James Mason, whose take on the character of Nemo is nothing short of a class-act. He tapped into some deep reservoir of freakiness, megalomania and sheer greatness to dredge up his outstanding performance.
After all these years 20000 Leagues under the Sea may have lost some of its luster, mostly due to the fact that the special effects technology has since improved so stupendously, and it may not appeal to the tastes of audiences raised on streamlined, 3% characters-97% action, movies. But its mythical core is left untouched by time and (sea) change of taste. Across the span of years, the gripping yarn and its brooding antihero still possess the charm to entrance hearts and minds.
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