Méliès’ Under the Seas Has the Potential to Be One of His Best Films
Note: This is the forty-third in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1907 film, UNDER THE SEAS, directed by Georges Méliès.
Of the various themes and mise en scène(s?) Georges Méliès employed with regularity across his vast filmography, his aquatic pictures may be the most singularly striking. THE KINGDOM OF THE FAIRIES (1903) is one of his greatest epics, and the underwater sequences in many of his other films are often highlights. Of course, Méliès’ interstellar and hellish stylings stand out nearly as much as his oceanic adventures. At the end of the day, however, there is some kind of beautiful, alluring quality to the rhythm of his liquid scenes that render them some of Méliès’ greatest works, and for spectacularly different reasons.
Typically, they inject into his manic escapades a cool, refreshing respite, replete with alien landscape and creatures that are nevertheless found in Earth’s waters. UNDER THE SEAS is not lacking in visual spectacle, but its approach, as a film focused on the seas instead of one with an outlying aquatic scene, is decidedly more typical Méliès. Even still, his over-the-top humor and adventurous spirit fits perfectly with an underwater story, in spite of his unique treatments of the environment previous. My infatuation with Méliès’ portrayal of the ocean is so strong that I would proclaim UNDER THE SEAS as one of his strongest major “epics.” That is, I would if more than half of it still existed.
Translated literally from the French title Deux Cents Milles sous les mers ou le Cauchemar du pêcheur, 20,000 MILES UNDER THE SEA OR THE FISHERMAN’S NIGHTMARE, as it is alternatively called, is clearly inspired by Jules Verne, like much of Méliès’ fantastical output. In fact, UNDER THE SEAS is actually a parody of Verne’s landmark novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Of course, the slapstick and frantic humor comes into play as a fisherman dreams of an impossible voyage to the bottom of the ocean. His story, however, is abridged from its original length of about 18 minutes to about 10 surviving minutes.
And those 10 minutes weren’t exactly preserved into pristine condition. The print circling around YouTube is washed out and low-res, but it provides enough insight into the nature and structure of UNDER THE SEAS. A fisherman enters a submarine at the behest of a fairy of some kind and encounters dancing naiads, and mostly, hostile marine wildlife. Huge crabs and fish waylay the fisherman at every turn, and the final sequence in a beautifully crafted underwater cavern is a harrying and hilarious series of encounters.
But how did the fisherman, who crashed his impressively scaled submarine cutout and was left to wander the bottom of the ocean, not need to breathe air underwater? Well, besides the film essentially being a cartoon, it becomes revealed in the fisherman’s final throes of fear that he was dreaming all along! He wakes up tangled in his own net in a bucket of water, and is revived by some fellow fishermen.
While UNDER THE SEAS’ limited survival status does make it feel fragmented, enough of its progressive scenes are intact and indicate the whole direction of the film. Even in its shortened form, its first half lags, but once the fisherman is out of his sub and interacting with the incredibly designed sea life, the visual spectacle and events really pick up. UNDER THE SEAS’ decay is especially ironic and sad considering Méliès’ career was entering its final, underwhelming phase. It could have stood as a tremendous counterpoint to the narrative surrounding Méliès’ final five years of output, but instead, we only have an inkling of what UNDER THE SEAS could have been. Even still, what we do have is pretty great.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.