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20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Starring: Kirk Douglas, James Mason
Director: Richard Fleischer
Rated: G
RunTime: 127 Minutes
Release Date: December 1954
Genres: Action, Classic, Kids, Sci-Fi/Fantasy

*Also starring: Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, Robert J. Wilke, Carleton Young

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Long time ago there weren't such things as computer games, movies, TV shows or even comic books. So, young boys and other people yearning to experience strange new worlds of imagination had to rely on the written word. One of the people who delivered those worlds was Jules Verne, 19th Century French novelist who is often regarded as the father of science fiction genre. There were, of course, authors who had used elements of science fiction in their works before, but Verne is the first one whose complete opus is associated with that particular genre. On the other hand, Verne's novels, although definitely belonging to the genre, are in their nature adventure stories, and thus responsible for future misconception of science fiction as nothing more than worthless juvenile escapism. Escapist or not, Verne's work provides entertainment to its reader, and even today we are still fascinated with his technological prophecies, although many of them became obsolete with the passage of time. The best known Verne's novel and one of the classics of the adventure literature is 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, mother of all underwater exploration novels. Its popularity among the readers was tremendous, but the 20th Century filmmakers were rather reluctant to adapt it to the big screen, mostly due to the huge technical problems associated with the production. Some of those problems were solved in 1954 when Disney produced its version, directed by Richard Fleischer, one of the very first films shot with the use cinemascope technology.

The plot begins in 1868 when numerous ships are rammed and sank by huge and unknown object. Surviving sailors bring stories about sea monster, creating hysteria in the world's ports. Professor Arronax (played by Paul Lukas), French marine scholar visiting San Francisco, is asked by US government to join expedition that should investigate the phenomenon. Arronax boards US Navy vessel, together with his trusted servant and apprentice Conceille (played by Peter Lorre) and Ned Land (played by Kirk Douglas), cocky expert harpoonist. The expedition spends many months in fruitless search, until it finally encounters the sea monster in violent collision. Arronax, Conseille and Land are thrown overboard and after a while they stumble on the object of their search. To their great surprise, they realise that the "sea monster" is actually man-made submarine. Its crew, led by mysterious Captain Nemo (played by James Mason) take them as prisoners. For the next few months they would experience numerous adventures and witness many wonders of the underwater world. In the same time, while Arronax tries to reason with Nemo and convince him that he should share his discoveries with the rest of the world, Land plots escape.

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is embodiment of Disney at his best - family entertainment that superbly uses brand-new wonders of film technology. Special effects, combined with the underwater photography, are still impressive after almost four decades, and the "Oscar" award for them is well deserved, especially after we take into account the use of brand new cinemascope technology. Production design of "Nautilus" was also very good, both original and faithful to Verne's vision. The result is a film that should be viewed as a very good adaptation of the science fiction classic, in many ways comparable to the adaptation of H.G. Wells' THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, produced one year earlier.

Of course, technical innovation and visual splendour isn't enough for a movie to be successful. Script by Earl Felton took some liberties with the original text, which is quite understandable. Some of the situations are quite recognisable from the novel; on the other hand, Felton spiced up the characters and, in some way, improved Verne's material. The biggest difference is the moral ambiguity; Nemo, played by James Mason, is portrayed as genius whose disgust with civilisation and conventional morality reaches almost pathological levels, while, in the same time, deeply personal and quite understandable causes of such disgust provide strong emotional impact, making that character very alive, believable and almost sympathetic. Land, enthusiastically played by Kirk Douglas in his prime, is portrayed as a "normal" and even extremely likeable man, but, on the other hand, his actions portray him as not very bright. Paul Lukas as narrator is shadowed by those two, same as Peter Lorre's Conseille, rather unsuccessful and almost pathetic attempt of comic relief.

Since the film was targeted towards family audiences, some of the darker and more adult aspects of the story were compensated with rather unnecessary plot additions intended to lighten up the mood of the film. First we see Kirk Douglas doing the song number in the beginning, and, later, we have a pet seal as much more successful comic relief. Those elements give some charm to the film, but in the same time they reduce film's realism. On the other hand, Felton's script gives a different but more powerful ending to Verne's story. Obviously inspired by the dark realities of Cold War and looming threat of nuclear holocaust, the violent and spectacular finale is very effective warning about the danger of uncontrolled scientific progress. Verne, who had lived in an age of scientific optimism, would probably disagree with such ending, but, on the other hand, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is a film worthy enough to be part of his ever lasting legacy.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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