Following 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Mysterious Island (1961), seafaring antihero Captain Nemo returned to the screen in this colourful British fantasy, inspired by Jules Verne but not adapted from his novels. A violent storm casts Senator Robert Fraser (Chuck Connors) and five other voyagers into the sea, where they are rescued by the legendary Captain Nemo (Robert Ryan) and transported aboard his submarine the Nautilus to his latest creation, a fabulous underwater city called Temple-Mere.
Nemo grants the new arrivals freedom to enjoy their utopian surroundings, but warns they can never leave. For fear they’ll alert outsiders. This proves a problem for Fraser, who is on a vaguely defined mission to stop international arms-dealers. He clashes initially with the authoritarian Nemo, but the men slowly earn each other’s respect. Fraser also falls for lovely Mala (former Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi), after she saves him from a shark attack and performs a weird avant-garde musical number on her Victorian era Theremin, while Nemo warms to plucky single mum, Helena (Nanette Newman). But shifty Barnaby (Bill Fraser) and his brother Swallow (Kenneth Connor) are more taken with the miraculous machines that provide Temple-Mere with oxygen and drinking water, since their by-product is pure gold, and claustrophobic Lomax (Allan Cuthbertson) imperils everybody when he tries to escape.
While the special effects can’t compare to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this is a fairly lavish production, whose sets and costumes have that charmingly ornate, pastel hued look common to Sixties fantasy fare. Beneath that glistening golden dome, Temple-Mere is a rather appealing paradise with a Sergeant Pepper-style marching band, seals and penguins roaming freely, happy children playing amidst colourful rock pools and giant plants, and loads of dolly-birds in sexy mini-togas. Plus everyone merrily quaffs free alcohol, brewed from shark’s liver, and dispensed from the nipples of Hindu idols. Groovy, baby.
The extravagance extends to the characters’ rather kitsch, glittery diving suits with silver fins attached (macho western star Chuck Connors gets canary yellow - hah!), and the striking lighting effects used by cinematographer Alan Hume, whose diverse credits include Kiss of the Vampire (1962) and Return of the Jedi (1983). However, for all its camp splendour there is little meat to the story concocted by R. Wright Campbell, with husband and wife team Pip and Jane Baker - who later wrote for Space: 1999 and the Colin Baker era of Doctor Who.
Panicky idiot Lomax gets himself killed, there is a mild love triangle between Fraser, Mala and Nemo’s right-hand man Joab (John Turner) - a decent sort, who gets a rather excessive comeuppance - and occasional debates that pay lip service to Verne’s themes of idealism clashing with despair for humanity’s foibles, without seeming particularly profound. Haggard-looking Robert Ryan makes a particularly surly Captain Nemo and lacks the charisma to embroider his world-weariness with mystique. He finds a new family in feminist Helena and her son Philip (Christopher Hartstone), whose presence - along with his comedy kitten - is otherwise pointless. Elsewhere, ’Allo ’Allo/Carry On stalwart Kenneth Connor mostly falls over or bumps his head, and even does a Laurel and Hardy routine beside the drinks dispenser. Later he shows admirable moral fibre with a mildly moving speech about wanting to live happily in Temple-Mere “rather than die in the gutter”, but still inexplicably tries to escape.
If the human drama falls flat, the sea life footage is lively and beautifully photographed, with a documentary feel akin to James Hill’s more celebrated animal movies: Born Free (1966), Black Beauty (1971), The Bellstone Fox (1973), etc. Monster fans might also enjoy the presence of Mobula, the roaring (!), giant manta-ray that attacks the underwater city.