(Originally shown under the title The Return of Captain Nemo)
What hath Star Wars wrought? Irwin Allen–he of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno fame, he who had created fun but idiotic television fare such as Land of the Giants and Lost in Space–decided to have one last go at series television…and he came up with this weak mashup of Star Wars and his own Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
The Return of Captain Nemo aired as a three-episode “miniseries” on CBS in the spring of 1978. While most miniseries at the time told one story over a minimum of four hours (with commercials) and were adaptations of books (think Helter Skelter or Roots), The Return of Captain Nemo was, literally, a mini-series, consisting of three hour-long episodes featuring the same characters. Why CBS thought that airing this would be a good idea is beyond me. I have a hunch that one of the episodes was shot as a pilot, and when CBS decided not to pick up the series, a deal was made between CBS and Allen to shoot two more episodes using the same cast, sets, models, and stock footage. In this manner, CBS would get a “miniseries” out of the deal for not a whole lot more money than it cost to finance the pilot that they turned down, and Allen would be able to use a couple of the scripts that had been planned, and possibly even finished, for the projected series. This is total supposition on my part, however, and I dearly hope that no one takes this and runs with it, reprinting it as gospel truth all over the Internet…although, on second thought, that might be pretty cool.
So, the three-episode miniseries aired to complete indifference by the American public, and that was that. The three fifty-minute episodes were then edited into one 102-minute feature, the name was changed to The Amazing Captain Nemo, and the film was released theatrically in Austria and West Germany a few months later, then slowly rolled out to the rest of the world.
These days, the only way to see this miniseries is as the overseas theatrical release. For a while, The Amazing Captain Nemo was virtually impossible to find. Several years ago, a bootleg copy sourced from a Canadian television airing made the rounds, and that was my first intro to Irwin Allen’s TV swan song. In 2010, the Warner Brothers Archive Collection released the theatrical cut of the film on an MOD (manufacture-on-demand) DVD-R disc. I now have this version, and its quality is miles and miles above the quality of the Canadian broadcast bootleg that I have.
I suppose that I should take a moment and actually tell you what the movie’s about. Burgess Meredith plays Professor Cunningham, an evil genius who’s built a futuristic submarine manned by several sorts of robots. Essentially, he wanders the oceans on his sub, trying to raise money from various governments by threatening their countries harm if they don’t pay him. Meanwhile, during war games in the Pacific, Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus is rocked by depth charges. One hundred years ago, Nemo (played by Oscar-winner Jose Ferrer) had gotten the Nautilus stuck under a rock shelf, so he told his crew to swim to the surface while he put himself in suspended animation. Luckily, two Navy guys board the ship and are there to explain things to the Captain when the depth charges wake him up. Nemo makes a deal with the Navy to let him dry dock in San Francisco to make repairs in exchange for his help in neutralizing Cunningham. So he spends the next hour and a half stopping Cunningham three times.
Now, about the Star Wars connection–robots and lasers supply that link. There’s a (very, very) vaguely Darth Vaderish-looking robot who serves as Cunningham’s muscle (and he even has a deep, James Earl Jones-y voice); there are several faceless worker robots aboard the sub who have an Imperial Stormtrooper air about them; and then there’s a goofy li’l’ robot who acts as the turret gunner…not too unlike R2-D2 during the attack on the Death Star in Star Wars. Plus everybody shoots lasers, whether they’re on the sub or in the ocean.
As for the human actors, Jose Ferrer is the only cast member who makes much of an impression. Burgess Meredith is in full-on Penguin mode, Mel Ferrer shows up for an episode, and Tony Geary (General Hospital’s Luke) plays a citizen of Atlantis named Bork. Special bad acting kudos go to Lynda Day George for her memorably awful impression of a woman passing out from oxygen deprivation.
So, that’s The Amazing Captain Nemo. It’s one of those cases where the history of the film is more entertaining than the actual film itself–unless you’re a connoisseur of bad cinema, in which case you need to head to the Warner Archive website and purchase the movie ASAP.
Just so you can see that I’m not fibbin’ about the robots and lasers, here’s the trailer from YouTube: