Wednesday 2 August 2023

Man from Atlantis (TV-movie, 1977)

Man from Atlantis started life as a series of four made-for-TV movies in 1977. They were quite successful and NBC gave the go-ahead for a weekly series which lasted just 13 episodes. I haven’t seen the series but the consensus seems to be that it was nowhere near as good as the TV-movies.

Patrick Duffy starred. He would soon go on to major stardom in Dallas.

The premise is rather silly, but then if you start worrying about the silliness of the premises of science fiction movies and TV series you’ll pretty much have to give up on the genre altogether. I figures that if I can accept impossibilities like faster-than-light travel then I can accept a water-breathing man.

The man (later given the name Mark Harris) is found washed up on a beach. He is taken to hospital but all attempts to resuscitate him seem doomed to failure. Then Dr Elizabeth Merrill figures out the problem. This man breathes water! She insists that he should be thrown back in the ocean, whereupon he immediately revives.

But where does a water-breathing man come from? The Navy’s super-computer has the answer. He must be from Atlantis.

The Navy sees possibilities in this young man, as a weapon. Dr Merrill doesn’t want him used in that way. Mark is also not interested in being used in this way. Mark is eventually persuaded to carry out one mission. The Navy has lost a super-secret deep-sea research submarine. It’s lying at the bottom of the sea, 35,000 feet down. That’s no problem for Mark.

What Mark finds at the bottom of the sea is not what he expected. He finds himself a prisoner of sorts. And mixed up in a terrifying plan for world domination.

It was clearly intended from the start to make this a series of TV-movies so, quite sensibly, lots of questions are left unanswered. They did after all want people to watch the next movie in the hope of getting those answers.

Mark, very conveniently, has amnesia. He has no idea of his own origins. All he knows is that the sea is his home and that he understands the language of whales. Maybe he is an Altantean. If so, does Atlantis still exist? Is he the last surviving Atlantean? Where was Atlantis? Was it really a fabulously ancient highly advanced civilisation? We don’t know and Mark doesn’t know.

He is suspicious of the US Government (this was 1977 so it’s the era of 70s paranoia) but we’re left unsure what plans the Government has for Mark. Those plans might well be somewhat sinister.

His relationship with Dr Merrill remains unclear. She has obviously developed an emotional attachment to him but whether it’s a kind of displaced maternal affection or whether there’s a romantic elements to it, and possibly a physical attraction, is uncertain. Mark may have developed an attachment to her but that is less clear.

All of this offers potential for further development, which is a sound storytelling strategy in this context.

There’s an over-the-top mad scientist/diabolical criminal mastermind involved, which is always a good thing.

Visually it’s reasonably impressive for a TV production.

There’s some action but it probably needed a bit more and it definitely needed a bit more zing.

The biggest weakness is that there are not enough exciting underwater action scenes. Such scenes are pretty much an essential ingredient for such a series. What they really needed to do was to get hold of someone like John Lamb, the man who did the underwater photography for Sea Hunt and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Lamb knew how to do that sort of stuff and make it look good on a tight television budget. As it stands the underwater sequences are OK but just a little disappointing.

The action climax also needed to be a bit more spectacular but there was of course a limit to what you could do on a 1970s TV budget.

Patrick Duffy is OK. He’s supposed to be a kind of alien so his slightly detached performance works well enough. Belinda J. Montgomery as Dr Merrill is an adequate female lead and does the idealistic doctor thing convincingly. Victor Buono makes a fine mad scientist.

The four original TV-movies have been released on DVD in the Warner Archive series and they look quite acceptable. The TV series has also had a DVD release. I believe the first TV-movie is also available on Blu-Ray.

Man from Atlantis isn’t great but it’s fairly entertaining and just interesting enough that I’ll probably watch the second TV-movie.