Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Mysterious Island (1929)

The Mysterious Island has to be one of the biggest sc-fi extravagances I hadn't seen before. The film was a huge project and gamble for MGM (and it also may be the first sound sci-fi film): four million dollars, shot in Technicolor, a change in directors, changes in actors, sound added toward the end of production....

Like another MGM extravaganza beset by troubles, Ben-Hur (1925), The Mysterious Island was released with great fanfare. Unlike Ben-Hur, The Mysterious Island was a huge financial failure, and a setback for sci-fi films for years to come.

Using concepts from several of Jules Verne's novels, The Mysterious Island stars Lionel Barrymore as a scientist who's built two submarines designed to travel to the bottom of the sea, where he has reason to believe exist creatures related to mankind in the distant past.

His plans are interrupted by a revolutionary coup straight out of Sergei Eisenstein, headed by Montagu Love. It isn't explained how a scientist as clever as Barrymore would confide his secrets to a "friend" diametrically opposed to his goals and beliefs.

After plot complications, the two subs make their way to the sea's bottom, where a race of midgets, all vaguely resembling ducks, explore and eventually attack the group of sea explorers. It's here that the film really comes alive. The special effects, though primitive, have a surreal, dreamlike quality, and one has to marvel at the ambitious audacity of it all: seemingly hundreds of little creatures pulling a submarine with ropes; a set that seems a mile wide; midgets propelling an octopus forward to attack; the bizarre creatures going into a feeding frenzy at their first exposure to human blood... It would have been good to be on the set that day. The effects work on their own level, and one can see many echoes of Melies' films (especially A Trip to the Moon) in the set design. The Technicolor print of this film, unfortunately, seems to be lost.

The Mysterious Island is only partly sound; the rest is silent with orchestral background or stock library crowd sounds (yelling, people running, etc.). The early dialogue scenes featuring Barrymore are some of the most static I've seen; in some endless, maddening shots, I would have paid cash money for a close-up.

Don't see The Mysterious Island expecting a coherent, intelligent story, good acting, or a sci-fi film with great special effects. View it instead if you're interested in an historical curiosity or an early American attempt at sci-fi spectacle which remains compelling despite its clumsy methods.

Not available on DVD; has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

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