Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (2010)

If I thought the 2005 version was poor, then this dull, cheap and silly Syfy channel produced and action-lite adaptation is without question the absolute nadir of Mysterious Island screen adaptations.

Bermuda Triangle time-travelling

It keeps the US Civil War escape, the hot air balloon, Captain Nemo and the island, and then introduces a Bermuda Triangle time-travelling aspect when a modern jet plane crash lands.

that sucker is now nuclear

Fortunately for our heterosexual male castaways, out of the wreckage step a pair of glamorous young white women, very much inappropriately dressed for the environment, and perilous encounters with strange creatures create opportunity for romance, as well as lame moments of culture clash comedy.

giant octopus

One is named Julia Fogg, presumably in homage to Jules Verne and his creation Phileas Fogg, from Around the World in Eighty Days.

Nemo is a very white and American genial grandfather, who has put aside his grudge against the British to pursue world peace. As for his submarine the Nautilus, to paraphrase Marty McFly, that sucker is now nuclear, and lightning is harnessed to facilitate the castaways escape.

electric gun

There’s pirates, a volcano, a giant octopus and an electric gun, the last two have clearly wandered in from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But at least that suggests someone on the production team is at least passingly familiar with Verne’s work.

However there’s no stars, no dog, a minimum of not-so special effects, poor acting, dreadful dialogue, and tepid direction. Devoid of tension, excitement or sense, this is worse than the most cheap episode of Dr Who, even the Sylvester McCoy ones.

fantastical element

Amazingly, it’s clear someone involved had hopes of a sequel, or maybe a franchise or spin-off TV series, which is the easily the most fantastical element of this entire sorry enterprise.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

Read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Mysterious Island (2005)

This Hallmark TV movie is an uninspiring adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic colonisation adventure novel which is chiefly remembered for featuring the return of famed aquanaut Captain Nemo.

Reasonably faithful to Verne’s story, a starry headline cast of Patrick Stewart and Kyle MacLachlan is supplemented, or possibly squandered alongside screen stalwart Roy Marsden, TV stars Gabrielle Anwar and Gabrielle Anwar, footballer-turned-actor, Vinnie Jones, and Omar Gooding, the brother of Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr.

giant rats, scorpion and giant bees!

Cleaving reasonably close to Verne, MacLachlan stars as Cyrus Smith, the leader of a band of US Civil War castaways stranded on a desert island and suffer various perils including giant monsters and pirates.

Verne’s upstanding hero Smith is nicely subverted by the casting of MacLachlan, an actor who’s incapable of not suggesting a less than healthy and far from incorruptible moral fibre beneath his square jawed Hollywood leading man looks.

The younger of the two women is kidnapped twice.

Impressive Caribbean location, compensate for lack of CGI, and what special effects there are make you feel nostalgic for the virtues of MacLachlan’s 1984 sci-fi adaptation, Dune.

Anwar and Calvert play characters invented for the film whose job is to provide glamour and be rescued. The younger of the two women is kidnapped twice.

As ever, Neb is the only non-white character and unlike in Verne’s novel is an equal member of the team, and often at odds with the cowardly southern ‘gent’, Pencroft.

nuclear weapons

Verne’s Indian prince, Captain Nemo is once again whitewashed, but at least Stewart adds gravitas to his portrayal of the ageing aquanaut. This version of Nemo was born an Englishman who was raised in India and committed acts of war against the British Empire killed his wife and child.

Nemo now wants to end all war by creating a weapon so powerful it could obliterate an entire city. This not so-veiled nod to nuclear weapons would have been perfectly at home in the post-war paranoia of the 1950’s.

But here Nemo seems more a low-budget steampunk 007 Bond villain. Nemo’s Neru jacket-wearing English henchman alludes to Nemo’s Indian upbringing, but also calls to mind 007’s adversary, Dr No, itself a riff on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

There’s a dinner party scene with Stewart and MacLachlan where some actual acting breaks out, and
at least both actors are in the same room when it was a shot, unlike a later scene where Stewart is palpably absent, and seems a post-production inclusion to make Nemo a more sympathetic character.

swashbuckling intellectual property

I suspect in their thespian heads Stewart and MacLachlan are playing out a version of The Tempest, with the outcast scientific ‘wizard’ Nemo as Prospero, and Smith as Prince Ferdinand.

Jones contributes his unique acting skills in a pleasingly minor role as the pirate Captain Bob, and I’ve a strong suspicion his vocal performance has been dubbed out of existence.

Anyway, the side effects of Nemo’s experiments cause local flora and fauna to grow to prodigious size, producing giant rats, scorpion and yes, giant bees! They have nothing to do with Verne and were first introduced to The Mysterious Island mythology in Ray Harryhausen’s 1961 film version, as well as recurring in the later 2012 version.

However the special effects seem to have gone backwards in quality since Harryhausen’s time, and the giant Preying Mantis is sadly laughable.

Cast, crew, production designers and presumably the effects guys are all trying hard, but this whole enterprise is a great example of what happens when the budget and schedule are far from sufficient.

There’s no obvious love of the source material, and Verne’s work seems treated as a convenient vaguely swashbuckling intellectual property to be exploited in a mediocre-at-best manner in the wake of the Oscar-nominated blockbuster box office success of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

the door ajar for a sequel

Mysterious Island aims for mainstream family swashbuckling fun but everything feels geared to just passing muster, and will make you feel a lot kinder to even the most bloated episode of Keira Knightley’s pirate franchise.

This was directed by Russell Mulcahy with the love of hammy performances seen in his far superior 1986 fantasy action movie, Highlander, and he provides a more open ended finale than Verne did, leaving the door ajar for a sequel which so far hasn’t occurred.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

You can read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island is HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea {1954}

This definitive big screen big budget adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1870 science fiction novel is a handsomely-staged family adventure mostly remembered for Kirk Douglas star performance and fabulous design. Yet there’s also a surprising degree of Cold War concerns bubbling beneath the surface, making this hugely entertaining version far more interesting than most subsequent adaptations.

Running at just over two hours, the filmmakers sensibly abandon the vast majority of Verne’s self-aggrandising scientific posturing in successful pursuit of huge box office success.

Broadly faithful to the wide-eyed adventurous spirit and plot of Verne, we follow a Professor, his servant and a harpooner, who’re kidnapped at sea by the mercurial and revenge-driven submariner, Captain Nemo, and join him for several escapades onboard his submarine, the Nautilus, while plotting their own escape.

The trio were recruited by the US government in San Francisco, a reassuringly ‘Western’ opening location for the audience, before sailing to the South seas to confirm or deny the existence of a sea monster which has been sinking ships. 

The smooth but shady US recruiting agents want to to beat other nations in capturing this sea monster in order to establish and exploit any military capability it may possess. And thus the 1950’s audience is immediately plunged into an allegory of the post-war arms race with the Soviet Union.

Whereas the French writer Verne had the US government employ Professor Aronnax in order to have a compatriot hero to appeal to Verne’s home readership, here Aronnax is not only valued as a scientific advisor but his nationality offers the cover of political neutrality to a US military expedition in contested overseas territory.

This accurately reflects the use of other nation proxies to project US power and further its national interests during the then developing Cold War and establishes a degree of paranoia which the film later develops when it deploys mushroom cloud imagery. 

However while the film demonstrates the destructive power of nuclear weapons, it also offers an argument in their favour and sympathy to those who developed them. More of which later.

Peter Lorre is a wonderfully cowardly cynic as Conseil, servant to the dull Professor Aronnax, played by Paul Lukas, who’s performance suggests the Hungarian actor fully understands he’s not there to upstage the top-billed star, Kirk Douglas, who plays the two-fisted harpooner, Ned Land.

Already a household name and a double best actor nominee for 1949’s Champion, and 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, Douglas perfectly understands the material, and delivers a wonderful cigar- chomping, scenery-chewing and scene-stealing performance, which screams ‘movie star’.

A role tailor-made to demonstrate his athleticism, humour, charisma and boisterous comic ability, Douglas also commits fully to the required singing and dancing, and if he’s not the greatest at either, well I doubt there was anyone on set with the authority or nerve to tell him.

It would be hard to find a scene in his career more joyous than the one where he shares a song and kiss with a pet seal, and their duet is a piece of wonder that is comic, angry and tender. If only Douglas had always been this generous to his co-stars.

And in the fight scenes you have to worry for the stunt team as the 38 year old Douglas, still six years from  playing rebellious Roman slave, Spartacus, seems determined to never pull his punches. At times he seems to be auditioning for a live action version of Popeye the sailor.

Director Robert Fleischer would re-team with Douglas two years later with The Vikings, and in a lengthy career, Fleischer would go on to make 1967’s serial killer drama, The Boston Strangler, 1973’s sci-fi conspiracy thriller, Solyent Green, 1980’s musical remake, The Jazz Singer, and 1984’s Sword-and -Sorcery sequel, Conan the Destroyer.

The mysterious Captain Nemo is revealed by turns a brilliant scientist, ruthless, an intellectual and a sympathetic victim, an ‘other’, i.e. a non-WASP, who serves his ‘guests’ ‘unusual’ food.

All this is true to Verne, but although early film incarnations of Verne’s novel recognised Nemo’s royal identity as an Indian prince, here Nemo is played by white British actor, James Mason. His other major role that year was alongside Judy Garland, in A Star is Born.

Here the template is set for subsequent interpretations to whitewash the role and those who follow in Mason’s footsteps include the very non-Indian actors, Herbert Lom, Michael Caine and Patrick Stewart.

But Mason’s character is more interesting than many later interpretations, with Nemo’s non-white otherness being coded as Jewish, and Nemo’s struggle for revenge on the British empire being substituted for the fight to use nuclear power to defend the state of Israel.

Verne’s Nemo wants revenge for the slaughter of his wife and child by the British during the 1857 Indian War of Independence, but Mason’s Nemo is a widowed state-less refugee, a survivor of slavery in a mine producing phosphate for war weapons. 

We later see the mine which is visibly intended to evoke the Holocaust of the Second World War. Nemo was sent there after refusing to divulge the secret of the power source of the Nautilus, implied as nuclear power. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the European Jewish emigre scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and its development of the first nuclear bombs, will be able to see the intended parallels.

The world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was delivered to the US Navy in 1955. Thus Nemo using nuclear power for world peace dovetails nicely with contemporary US military policy, he’s also trying to protect his island sanctuary from assault, a haven which can be read as a proxy for the recently established state of Israel. Nemo repeats, ‘There is hope for the future, when the world is ready for a new and better life then all this will someday come to pass in God’s good time.’

There is hope for the future, when the world is ready for a new and better life then all this will someday come to pass in God’s good time.

The giant squid which threatens the Nautilus is direct from Verne’s novel, but allied to the theme of nuclear power aligns 20,000 Leagues with sci-fi monster movies of the day, which saw humanity threatened by insects and other creatures mutated to enormous size by nuclear sources.

Nuclear paranoia of sci-fi classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still, had been released in 1953, and Ray Harryhausen’s 1955 The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, saw a hibernating dinosaur released by an atomic blast to terrorise the world.

Released the same year as 20,000 Leagues, Them! saw huge radiation-affected ants bring terror to the US, and Godzilla stomped into cinemas in 1954. The US was threatened by aliens in 1953’s It Came From Outer Space, and by giant spiders in 1955’s Tarantula! Whether aliens, monsters or giant insects, and whether nuclear powered or not, 1954 was hotbed of paranoia about the Soviet nuclear threat.

It must also be noted that 1954 was the height of McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and the communist ‘witch-hunts’ in Hollywood. Ever the patriot, Walt Disney had testified before the HUAC hearings in 1947, and it’s interesting that the ultimately sympathetic Nemo argues in favour of the benefits of nuclear power, and the film ends on an audience-reassuring note in faith in god, science and the future.

The nuclear subtext is dressed up in art direction and special effects and 20,000 Leagues deservedly won Oscars  in both those categories, as well as scoring a nom for the editing. 

The sets, model ships and submarines are great and the locations are epic, representing Hollywood at the top of its game. If the Nautilus is more a metallic fish than the tube of Verne’s imagination, the submarine is a gorgeous steampunk creation, with brass fittings, red upholstery and a magnificent organ. And long before Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur adventure Jurassic Park, the animatronic work of the giant squid is spectacular.

Although stock footage of whales and dolphins is occasionally mixed in with scenes on deck clearly filmed in a studio, there’s an impressive commitment to the underwater diving sequences, made when aqua diving was a novelty not an easily-accessible holiday activity. 

These sequences were filmed in the photogenic waters of the Caribbean, as was the silent 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues, and if that gives some sections the air of a travelogue, it’s worth remembering foreign travel was an expensive luxury at the time and this form of visual escapism was very much intended to drive box office. 

Still, the shark attack is very impressive and the location work helps retain Verne’s tone of wide-eyed wonder and his view of the sea as a resource to be worked. Mind you, the man-handling of crabs and giant turtles by the underwater performers wouldn’t be allowed today.

Sadly the same couldn’t said for the depiction of the South sea islanders, who Nemo describes as ‘cannibals’, and whose appearance is played for laughs, and their portrayal is no less sophisticated than similarly portrayed people in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. 

And though Nemo drolly asserts the ‘cannibals’ right to attack the Nautilus, true to the book he then defends the Nautilus with electric shock treatment. 

Similarly to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, there’s no denying the scale of the action is impressive, perhaps ever more so than then, in our CGI era. And seeing Douglas run through the jungle reminds us of his son Michael, in 1984’s Romancing the Stone.

Despite the film throwing a series of grandly staged set-pieces at us, it’s possible a modern multiplex audience may find the pace plodding. Yet the crowd-pleasing ticking clock plot and punch-ups of the finale are pure Hollywood entertainment, harking back to Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, and anticipating the missions of 007 of the following decades.

And though the final scene of the novel is downbeat, the filmmakers compromise by cleaving closely to Verne yet also providing a note of uplift, in which Kirk Douglas’s seal is seen to survive, and Nemo is given the last word.

To do this a cinematic sleight of hand is used which would be echoed two years later in Elvis Presley’s big screen debut, Love Me Tender. The enduring fascination with and longevity in popular culture of Verne’s greatest creation, Captain Nemo, lies with his mercurial nature which allows for continual reinvention. However, never did I think when I began writing this that I would end with a comparison with the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Available on Disney+.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Verne returned to Captain Nemo in his 1875 novel, The Mysterious Island, which has been filmed several times. Read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

Read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Mysterious Island (1961)

A showcase for the sublime talent of stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, this sci-fi fantasy family adventure sensibly swaps the plodding civilisation building of Jules Verne’s source novel for monster action and romance.

Faithful to Verne’s novel, the story begins during the US Civil War where we see a handful of men escape the war in a hot air balloon and cast by a storm to a Pacific Ocean island. And it’s at this point the film and the book depart ways, only to be reunited towards the end with the appearance of Verne’s greatest creation, the legendary sub-aquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Nemo introduces the castaways to the Nautilus

Though not related in to Disney’s 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is Verne’s other novel featuring Captain Nemo, this version of The Mysterious Island is very much an unofficial sequel in tone and style, and was clearly intended to capitalise on the box office success of previous film, even if the $2m budget of Mysterious Island pales next to the $9m cost of Disney’s movie.

Very much in the Disney mould of the time, the men are suitably manly, the women exist to be rescued and romanced, and everyone is white, except for Neb who is black. He is however promoted from being the freed slave of Verne’s book to a ranking soldier, albeit only a corporal. There’s no pet dog or adopted orang-utan as in the novel, and I doubt Disney would never have failed to include those opportunities for cuteness.

A British production shot at Shepperton Studios, England, it’s directed by Cy Endfield, whose most enduring work is 1964’s action adventure, Zulu, a period war movie set during the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War in south-eastern Africa. Well worth a watch, Zulu features the terrific Stanley Baker, a rousing Welsh choir, and is responsible for introducing Michael Caine to the world.

In Endfield’s hands Zulu is a Western in all but name, with British imperialism taking the place of American imperialism. And Enfield similarly delivers Mysterious Island as a Western, and has the story play out – at least until Captain Nemo appears – as disparate frontiers-people coming together to face local challenges to survive. Only with mutated creatures are the principle threat, rather than ‘injuns’.

Plus the pyrrhic endings of both films are free of triumphalism and prefer to strike a downbeat note, suggesting a disillusionment with and a critique of the development of the US, viewing it as an errand of violence, exploitation and squandered utopia.

Sting in the tale

It’s no surprise these are works of Endfield, who was exiled in Europe as a result of being blacklisted by HUAC*.

*HUAC - The House Committee on Un-American Activities - an investigative committee of the United States which investigated alleged subversive activities of citizens and organisations suspected of being communist.

The monsters are crafted by ingenious care and dedication by the peerless stop-motion master, Ray Harryhausen, who enjoyed a lengthy partnership with American producer Charles H. Schneer, one which lasted up to Harryhausen’s final creature feature, 1981’s Clash Of The Titans.

Harryhausen introduces into Verne’s work an creatures of enormous size, including a flightless bird, a crab and giant bees, the latter also appearing in Dwayne Johnson’s 2012 adaptation, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

As well as the stop-motion work, the production uses scale models and giant props such as a crab’s claw. Plus some lovely matte paintings complement the decent location work in Catalonia, Spain.

Lady Fairchild is aiming to survive

The island’s volcano provides lots of bubbling lava which is always great to see on screen, especially when it flows in torrents in the explosive finale. And the underwater photography is fun, as is the ‘incredible’ electric gun.

Plus the lost sunken city finally gives the film something of the sense of the epic, as does the battle with another great Harryhausen addition – a giant octopus. Meanwhile the exterior of Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, owes far more to Disney than to Verne.

Leela, sorry, Elena

In contradiction of Verne’s strict ‘no gals allowed’ policy, a Hollywood sensibility catapults a pair of women onto the island in the glamorous upper class form of Lady Mary Fairchild and her niece Elena, whom the balloonists find washed ashore.

As Lady Fairchild, Joan Greenwood is wonderfully, assertive and courageous in cut-glass accent, and the notorious Rank Films starlet, Beth Rogan, is generally either screaming or swooning, and ends up dressed as Leela from TV’s Dr Who. There’s little room for working class women in the world Verne.

South African-born actor, Dan Jackson, appears as Neb, the only non-white character, and the first of the balloonists to be attacked on the island. Then true to the book, he’s relegated to the domestic sphere while the other four men go off manly adventuring.

But least in this film Neb has the two ladies to keep him company, which must be something of an improvement in circumstance, for in the book he’s left home alone with an adopted orang-utan called Joop.

Neb’s dead, baby. Neb’s dead (almost)

Michael Craig plays Captain Cyrus Harding* as a stolid leader of men, who relies on his rank to lead, instead of any noticeable charisma. Far from being the genius engineer of the book, Harding breaks the balloon’s only control device and is therefore responsible for casting them across the ocean.

*Smith in some versions

Once on the island Harding immediately imposes martial law, and ‘drafts’ into his command the two Confederate balloonists: Sergeant Pencroft and Gideon Spilitt, who serve as light comic relief to Harding‘s gruff leadership.

Firmly men of the Union in the book, they’re now Confederates, presumably to help garner an audience in those US states who were on the losing side of the war.

Having previously originated the role of Riff in West Side Story on Broadway, Michael Callan is enthusiastically energetic as the romantic lead, Herbert Brown and makes an attractive pairing with Beth Rogans Elena.

Best remembered for his role as an agitated police inspector in Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther franchise, Herbert Lom appears as Nemo. Presumably the budget didn’t stretch to a return for Disney’s Nemo, James Mason.

Lom’s late entrance was echoed in 2018’s superhero movie Aquaman, and the Czech-born actor’s accent gives Nemo a sense of being ‘other’, though he doesn’t reveal he’s the deposed Prince Dakkar of India, as happens in the novel. And instead of having a grudge against the British Empire, Nemo is trying to solve the world’s food crisis.

Nemo and the castaways. We’ve circled Neb’s shoulder so you can see him

As with Harryhausen’s other classic productions such as 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, the musical score was composed by Bernard Herrmann. Though it’s more than adequate for this film, the Oscar-winning composer for Hitchcock’s Psycho and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver would probably be the first to agree this is not among his finest work.

Mysterious Island hasn’t aged terribly well, the pace will seem slow for a modern action audience and the effects will feel very creaky and stiff. And they don’t represent Harryhausen’s finest work which is undoubtedly the skeleton fight in 1961’s Jason and the Argonauts.

Nevertheless Harryhausen’s work retains its charm and should be appreciated for the craft and dedication involved in its making, and of course it’s part of an important chapter of the history of movie special effects. Plus they anchor this still very watchable film, one of the superior adaptations of Verne’s book.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

Read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Mysterious Island (1951)

Treating Jules Verne’s 1875 novel The Mysterious Island as a leaping off point, this black and white sci-fi adventure serial of 1951 is a throwback to two decades earlier and the days when Larry Buster Crabbe took to the skies as Flash Gordon.

Yes it’s preposterous and silly, yet it’s also daftly enjoyable, due in large part to its enthusiastic and impressively straight-faced cast, as well as for possessing none of Verne’s reluctance to embrace cosmic romance.

Verne’s book is a semi-sequel to his 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and is notable for featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

The novel: hot air

Set during the US Civil War, the book sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where Captain Nemo assists their survival.

This fifteen chapter movie serial from Columbia Pictures is subtitled ‘Captain Harding’s Fabulous Adventures’, with the upright engineering officer and leader of the balloonists is played with no-nonsense square-jawed heroism by Richard Crane.

It all begins faithfully enough, and spending a lot time at the Civil War allows for plenty of opportunity to hook in any Western fans who may be watching by mistake.

 My name is Darth Vader. I am an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan

Anyway, five intrepid men and a dog escape in a balloon from a stockade, and when a storm carries them to an island they have to – check notes – foil an alien invasion.

As Verne’s novel is a bit of a slog, I can’t help but think had the author known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction‘ built this kind of excitement into his story, it might be more widely read today. Sadly Verne never did and the world had to wait until HG Wells‘ arrived for Martians to invade.

Bring out the gimp

The alien invaders of this story however, are from Mercury, a nod perhaps to Orson WellesMercury Theatre, whose 1938 radio play of HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ became infamous for terrifying those who listened to it. Well, perhaps not. There isn’t the budget here for that kind of meta-behaviour.

Referred to as ‘a girl’ who has ‘the appearance of one from another planet’, Karen Randle manages to maintain her dignity as the comely alien scientist, Rulu, whose mission is to extract a super explosive element in order to conquer the Earth, using a laser gun and a mind-controlling wand.

And then you simply reverse the polarity of the neutron flow

Caught between the Volcano People and Mercurians, err, Mercutions? Mercuroorians? Ohh, whatever. Caught between the Volcano People and aliens, the balloonists are assisted in saving the world by Leonard Penn as the suave and avuncular Captain Nemo, who appears early but doesn’t have much to do.

African American actor Bernard Hamilton, plays Neb. He’s billed last, is often stood apart from the others or excluded from the frame entirely, and is generally the last man in line as the balloonists queue up to escape from yet another threat.

There’s a huge amount of what looks suspiciously like stock footage used at the beginning, and the costumes and props have been recycled from a production with a more generous budget than this. Which I’m guessing is any other production.

Neb; not first

The emphasis is on action with many enthusiastic fistfights and shoot-outs. Director, Spencer Gordon Bennet, a name who you may feel compelled to partially invoke at the serial’s weaker moments, seems happy enough to always accept the first take of any shot, and the editor is seemingly under strict to always, but always, cut to the chase. Plus there’s a lot of running about the Southern California countryside, later to be a favourite location of TV’s sci-fi series Star Trek.

The story rockets breathlessly along as if it’s scared it might lose your attention at any moment, consequently the balloonists aren’t able to do any of the building and farming work which occupies much of their time in the novel.

Neb, not even third

On the plus side the writers know their audience and the myths and fears of the US are played upon by dressing the pirates as English merchant seamen, a decision which has echoes of the Revolutionary War, and the technologically advanced alien invaders point to 1950’s anti-Soviet paranoia.

I have a strong nostalgic liking for this kind of nonsense, especially as no-one involved in this is under illusion as to the value of what they’re making. Cast and crew are all aware they’re making a disposable action adventure for kids of all ages, but everyone gets stuck in like the pros they are, and their love of the game is just about enough to overcome myriad shortcomings and jolly the audience along with them for the ride.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

The Mysterious Island (1929)

This epic sci-fi melodrama feature is absolutely terrific fun due in no small part to its gleeful abandoning pretty much all of Jules Verne’s novel on which it’s based.

Discarding fidelity for crazed creative ambition, it hits the creative sweet spot between the high-minded social consciousness and outrageous spectacle of Fritz Lang’s German expressionist classic, Metropolis, and the all-out gung ho whizz bang of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon adventure serial.

An army of mermen pull along a captured and tethered submarine

Verne is often referred to as the ‘Father of science fiction’, and 1875’s The Mysterious Island, is a semi-sequel to his 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It’s notable for featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Verne’s novel is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865) sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where an elderly and dying Nemo secretly assists their survival and only reveals his presence at the end of the story, and discloses himself to be Dakkar, an Indian Prince deposed by the British Empire.

The novel: absent

There’s an absence of Verne in terms of character or story, but a filmmaker’s love of their source material is never a guarantee of fidelity. Yet the author’s spirit is in every frame of this tremendous movie bursts with Verne’s spirit of adventure, love of exploration, and sublime imagination. Plus it’s wrapped up with a moving and respectful finale.

Plus we have land and underwater battles, a giant squid, an army of humanoid fish people with costumes inspired by Melies, and – I kid you not – a drunken orgy. Verne was a writer who hunted down every opportunity to avoid including women in his stories, and would presumably be aghast at the very thought. Great fun for the rest of us, though.

We’re treated to twice the usual number of submarines and other wondrous technology, plus there’s a volcano, a giant squid and rapacious European powers seeking to overthrow Lionel Barrymore’s Count Andre Dakkar, a generic European aristocrat, rather than the Indian Prince of the novel. The name of Nemo is never mentioned.

However we can sense Verne’s influence extending beyond this film, with Nemo/Dakkar cast as a proto-Dr Who, an irascible older scientist accompanied on his futuristic vessel by two younger and attractive companions to provide across some across-the-class-barricades romance.

You’ll forgive me for occasionally confusing the daughter Sonia here, for the granddaughter Susan in Dr Who. And yes, though the terrific Jacqueline Gadsden’s Susan spends a lot of time waiting to be rescued, is also sexually confident, violently combative, loyal, daring and scientifically trained.

The island itself is not isolated in the Pacific but just offshore the fictional European kingdom of Hetvia, and the story swaps the US Civil War for an attempted European coup. There are no balloonists, dog, castaways or pirates, and no sign of the former slave Neb, or indeed any non-white characters.

Dakkar is a scientist inventor and an egalitarian hero in this version, while the villainous black-caped Baron Falon and his army of henchmen resemble Cossack horsemen, whose invasion of Dakkar’s island home seems designed to invoke the 1917 Russian revolution and the threat of Communism. It also speaks against over-reaching power of European monarchy and in favour of the equality of all ‘men’. That is, it seems designed to play to the political prejudices of its audience in the New World by demonising the Old World.

‘I dunno boss, it sounds as if they’re singing. Something about, radio gaga?’

Produced on a grand scale which suggests this was intended as a Hollywood response to Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, the filmmakers commit to their barking vision in quite magnificent style. We’re encouraged to gasp in awe at the glorious Art Deco design, extensive use of miniatures, large crowds of extras posing as workmen, futuristic control consoles and prodigious industrial machinery.

Plus they give us giant underwater lizards interacting with live action humans long before Ray Harryhausen did it in the stop-motion classic One Million Years BC. And the giant octopus is wonderful. Various sizes of submarines and parts of submarines are used, with the smaller scale models possessing a lovely Gerry Anderson charm, and clearly inspired the look and feel of 1936’s Flash Gordon. Watching this you realise Gordon‘s rocket ships were really re-tooled flying submarines.

It’s not all a hymn to modernity and the machine age though, with the story drawing on imagery of European legend as a beautiful maiden is used as a Siren to draw an enormous sea beast to its doom.

And we’re given actual hymns, with sweaty chest-baring workmen praising god in song as a prelude to a submarine launch, a surprisingly moving scene in itself despite it being presumably included as a calculated appeal to a US Christian audience.

The not-Nautilus is ready for blast-off

Writer and director Lucien Hubbard previously produced 1927’s Oscar winner, Wings, and he fills his 90 minute running time with all manner of great stuff, such as platoons of horse guards, sunken triremes, a duel to the death and a race to repair a sub before the crew asphyxiates.

Hubbard provides us with some very impressive underwater photography where he can, and the rest of the time he uses theatrical tricks, such as making the diving-suited actors mimicking the effect of walking in water, much as later films would have actors mimic the effect of zero gravity.

And the use of sound in this this hybrid production reminds us there was no clear divide between ‘Silent’ films, and Talkies’. Many of Barrymore’s scenes’ using synchronised sound for his dialogue, and inter-title cards used elsewhere.

Plus it’s as noisy as hell. The constant score is accompanied by wonderful and frequent array of industrial noise hisses and clanks, plus hoofbeats, gunfire, animal noises, sung prayers and general alarum.

Despite the name this tremendous entertainment bears almost no relation to the novel, but it captures something of the spirit of Verne, while speaking to the versatility of his ideas and the great flexibility of his greatest creation, Captain Nemo.

I enjoyed this immensely, and if you’re more a submarine than sci-fi fan, there’s still plenty for you to enjoy as well, so dive right in.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island is HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916)

Deep dive into Verne

Breathtaking in its pioneering use of underwater photography, this silent two-hour feature is a globetrotting epic of action adventure, romance and comedy, and though contains some problematic elements, it’s an early high water mark in Hollywood spectacle, an impressive early entry into the canon of Jules Verne adaptations, and by far the biggest box office success of its year of release.

The novel

An adaptation of not one, but two major works of the man often referred to as the ‘Father of science fiction’, 20,000 Leagues combines elements of two of Verne’s novels, namely 1871’s adventure, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and 1875’s semi-sequel, The Mysterious Island, bringing together the twin adventures of Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

From this rich material we experience a tale of rape, murder, child abuse, kidnap, and betrayals. Plus there are fistfights, a sea battle, a colonial uprising, a reconciliation of long lost family members, as well as ghosts, devils, and real live sharks.

For those not overly familiar with the source material, 20,000 Leagues is set in 1866, and sees Professor Aronnax and two male companions kidnapped by a middle aged and vigorous Nemo, who takes his captives sailing around the globe in his technologically advanced submarine, The Nautilus. Meanwhile The Mysterious Island is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865) sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where an elderly and dying Nemo secretly assists their survival and only reveals his presence at the end of the novel.

The Professor & niece

When it came to adapting this material for his 1916 production, for the sake of cinematic expediency, Verne’s appallingly contradictory timeframe is rightfully given the old heave-ho by Scottish director and screenwriter Stuart Paton, who sensibly also jettisons much of the ballast of Verne’s ponderous scientific explanations, and in true Hollywood fashion introduces female characters to provide romance and intrigue to Verne’s nearly all-male world.

Paton also introduces female characters such as Aronnax’s adult niece, who replaces the manservant Conseil as one of Aronnax’s companions, and on the Mysterious Island there is a young woman wearing a leopard print dress, who replaces the male castaway of the novel. Although Aronnax’s niece plays little part in the film, the female castaway ‘A Child of Nature’ as she’s billed, is central to the story. And yes, though much of what she does is invented by Paton, there’s no denying it’s an exuberant and captivating performance by actress Jane Gail.

Paton’s script cuts back and forth between the parallel stories of Aronnax on The Nautilus, and the escaped balloonists, eventually bringing the plot-lines together in a terrifically staged finale before ending on a note of poignant dignity which I suspect Verne would approve. This is a great example of how to ruthlessly hack an unwieldy source material into a platform for great cinema.

Child of nature, right

Typical of the era, the Asian characters of Nemo and ‘A Child of Nature’ are played in brownface, a now rightfully discredited technique. Yet A Child of Nature’s inclusion allows for an inter-racial Caucasian-Asian romance between her and a balloonist, which is quite the something in a film released the year after D. W. Griffith’s infamously racist, The Birth of a Nation.

This romance doesn’t occur in Verne, and is possibly inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which features a crew of shipwrecked men encountering a beautiful girl and her wizard father on a desert island. Nemo is explicably described as a ‘wizard’, and also deals with issues of colonialism and race.

On another note, the romance as portrayed may not be interpreted as such as by a modern audience, there’s no explicit kissing for example. However if we the audience are expected and required to interpret two rape scenes as rape scenes, and not ‘just’ assaults, then we’re similarly beholden to interpret their flirtatious behaviour in scenes as romantic and sexual in intent.

Neb, right

However the film is less kind to the balloonist, Neb, Verne’s sole Black character in these books. Treated with jaw-dropping racism in the novel, The Mysterious Island, this film introduces Neb only to quickly cut him from the film. This happens so alarmingly abruptly I first assumed the copy of the film I was watching was missing a reel.

However Neb’s very noticeably absent from an important scene at the end where the cast are brought together. We can only speculate what happened to poor Neb, and why he ended up so ruthlessly dispatched to the cutting room floor. The treatment of Neb and the casting of Nemo in subsequent adaptations is something I’ll address in another post.

Nemo himself stands alongside Sherlock Holmes as a great example of a literary character whose cultural existence has a life beyond his creator, and who’s longevity in the popular consciousness relies far more on countless and varied media interpretations for fame than for people reading the books. Many more people will be familiar with their names than will have ever read the source material.

Featured in graphic novels, cartoons and now in video games, such the 2015 Japanese mobile game Fate/Grand Order, Nemo’s been portrayed by Russian, Egyptian, Czech, and Puerto Rican actors, as well as by Indian and Pakistani ones. And it’s in The Mysterious Island, not the more famous 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, that Verne reveals Nemo is an Indian Prince whose wife and child was murdered by the British during the historical Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as The First War of Independence.

Nemo

It transpires Nemo is really Prince Dakkar, son of the Hindu raja of Bundelkhand, and a descendant of the Muslim Sultan Fateh Ali Khan Tipu of the Kingdom of Mysore. When Verne was writing The British Empire and the Third French Republic were competing for global superiority, and painting the British as the villains would no doubt be a winning strategy for the French writer, and not damage his sales either at home or in the US, a country often celebrated and the source of heroic characters in Verne’s work.

In 1914 when filming of this version of Nemo began production, the world had changed again, with The Great War, as The First World War was then known, was beginning in earnest. And here Nemo’s story is fudged considerably by Paton, who removes some historical context and shifts the blame away from the British.

The map showing India

We learn instead that Nemo’s life in aquatic exile aboard The Nautilus began after he was falsely accused of inciting a rebellion in the unnamed Asian country of his birth, one under colonial rule by an unnamed European. A map on the wall in one scene indicates it is indeed India. However the military uniforms appear more generically European, perhaps French or German than British. It’s possible all Europe colonialism looks the same to Americans. I’m not an expert in military uniform and perhaps the costume department had a surfeit of those costumes readily available.

Nemo’s tragic backstory role in the rebellion is relegated by Verne to a couple of paragraphs, however here it’s portrayed in flashback at the end of the film, with the rebellion allowing for some impressive sets and crowded battle scenes. Rather than being purpose built the sets look suspiciously as if they were borrowed from another production, but they add to the sense of spectacle and allow for a fittingly huge finale.

Williamson bros.

Despite readers of The Mysterious Island being familiar with Nemo’s origin story, interestingly, and presumably for publicity purposes, a title card claims Prince Daakar’s {sic} tragic story has never been told by Verne. The author died in 1905 and so wasn’t available to dispute the claim.

The title cards are fascinating in themselves. The first grandly proclaims this to be ‘The First Submarine Photoplay Ever Filmed’ which is catnip to fans of submarine films such as myself, as well as making this film hugely significant in the realms of special effects and cinematography.

Jules Verne

The second tells us it was directed by Stuart Paton and photographed by Eugene Gaudio, then the third card states the submarine photography was possible by using the inventions of the Williamson brothers, who ‘alone have solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography’ and we’re introduced to the Ernest and George Williamson themselves, who smilingly doff their hats for us. They can be justly proud of their work. And then we’re shown a still photograph of Verne himself, a shame he wasn’t around to see himself honoured so. Imagine if JRR Tolkien had been so honoured by Peter Jackson in his magnificent 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The shark hunt

There’s a strong commitment to exterior location filming, and the underwater work is phenomenal. An astonishing underwater shark hunting trip is executed with the type of contemporary disregard for health and safety associated with the worst excesses of Cecil B. DeMille, which makes for a very exciting watch.

This undersea footage was shot in the Bahamas where Walt Disney 38 years later shot his 1954 James Mason-starring version of 20,000 Leagues, and for the same reasons, a great deal of natural light and very clear water.

In 1916, underwater cameras weren’t used to shoot the underwater scenes staged in shallow sunlit waters, but the Williamson brothers used a system of watertight tubes and mirrors to allow the camera to shoot reflected images of the scenes as they took place.

The exterior of The Nautilus looks very close to how Verne described it, a very smooth cylindrical hull with a wooden platform on top for the crew to stand on. Whether in or on the water, it’s these scenes that make the film such a joy.

According to IMDB.com, 20,000 Leagues was produced at the unadjusted eye-watering cost of $500,000 by The Universal Film Manufacturing Company, a precursor to todays Universal Pictures. And it took a staggering $8million at the box office, comfortably outgrossing the second biggest hit of the year which could only scrape together $2.18million, thank you and goodnight, D. W. Griffith’s non-apology of an historical epic, Intolerance.

For the pioneering underwater photography which captures Verne’s love of technological innovation, this is madly impressive. When added to it being respectful and faithful to the source while offering spectacle, romance, comedy and action adventure, this sets an extraordinarily high bar that many of the subsequent adaptations of Verne fail to reach.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, is HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

FRANKENWEENIE

Cert PG  Stars 3

Director Tim Burton escapes from his locked attic room to unleash a darkly comic stop-motion animation spin on the classic horror, Frankenstein.

Young Victor is grief stricken when his pet dog Sparky dies and is invents a machine to bring him back to life. But mayhem ensues when his friends steal the device to do the same for their dead pets.

An overly dark monster mash-up of ideas based on Burton’s recycled 1982 short film, Victor, this is full of ideas the director has subsequently mined, and there is much here that is very, very familiar.

We presented with the friendless only child, carefully tendered suburbs with strange garden furniture, overly manicured poodles, graveyards on hills and antagonistic authority figures.

But there is none of the lightness of Burton’s 1988 ghost comedy, Beetlejuice, or the loopy optimism that makes Burton’s best film, 1994’s Ed Wood, such a joy.

Martin Landau previously played Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, and here is scarily excellent as  Victor’s teacher Mr Rzykruski, but is sadly shunted off stage left far too soon.

There are not enough laugh-out-loud moments and the film’s dark tone becomes oppressive and dull. For film bathed in glorious monochrome, it lacks chiaroscuro of mood.

The puppet and set design are excellent, as is the lighting and cinematography which is deliberately styled in the expressionism of James Whales’ classic Universal 1930’s horror films, such as well, Frankenstein.

Featuring one great scene, some good dialogue, and copious movie references, eventually Frankenweenie becomes a re-animated Lassie adventure without the emotional depth. Lazarus Come Home, would have been as good a title.

JURASSIC WORLD: THE FALLEN KINGDOM

Cert 12A 128mins Stars 4

Mammoth mayhem stampedes across the big screen in this meaty sequel to 2015’s monster smash.

This fifth dino-epic is set three years after the ending of the previous billion pound box office super-heavy weight, and the dinosaurs existence on the island home of the defunct Jurassic Park resort is threatened by a volcano.

So stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard helicopter in alongside a bunch of military mercenaries to ferry 11 species of dinosaurs to safety as the mountain erupts.

It’s a brilliant, breathless action sequence packed with dinosaurs, takes place on an enormous scale, and is exciting, scary and fun.

Once the creatures are saved, the second part of the film is framed as a haunted house horror and takes place in a huge gothic US mansion, where there is a nefarious plan to auction off the beasts to international arms dealers.

Though each half of the film is excellent in their own way, they’re very different and not entirely successfully spliced together, much like the new killer hybrid dinosaur on the loose, the Indoraptor.

Despite having more than enough of talent and empathy to anchor the series, Howard is sadly too often allowed to be elbowed out of the way so co-star Pratt demonstrate his smug wisecracking action-man prowess.

Veteran James Cromwell brings gravitas as Sir Benjamin Lockwood, and young Isabella Sermon as his vulnerable and brave granddaughter makes a strong debut. Rafe Spall plays his trusted right hand and is becoming one of my favourite actors.

Spanish director J. A. Bayona previously made tsunami drama, The Impossible and the teenage fable, A Monster Calls, and all his work is concerned importance of mothers.

Here he brings in elements of fable from his spooky horror, The Orphanage, which I suspect are closer to his heart than all his impressively staged blockbuster action.

Though at times too full on and grisly for the very little ones, the dinosaurs are back and they are roarsome!

 

THE LITTLE VAMPIRE

Cert U 82mins Stars 2

This bloodless animation offers thin pickings for all but the most undemanding cinema-goers.

It’s a cross-cultural bromance between two 13 year old boys, a Transylvanian vampire with punk hair, and a fresh-faced US holidaymaker on a creepy castle tour of Europe with his family.

They team up to rescue the vampire’s clan from a pair of inept villains. The head baddie is voiced by Jim Carter, best known as Downton Abbey’s butler, Carson. 

The only other recognisable names the budget stretches to are Miriam Margolyes and Tim Pigott-Smith, with not much left over for the animation, and even less for the script.

Mixes magic spells with some mechanical contraptions such as the Infra-dead vampire locating device, and I could have done with much more of the weaponised vampire-cow poo,

It’s so insubstantial it won’t cast a shadow in your memory, but it’s harmless and doesn’t totally suck. Though it’s probably best saved for the rainiest day of half term.