Few things in the world caused me to titter with delight when I was young quite so much as the name “Lake Titicaca.” There was a moment in time when underwater photography was a big selling point for mass media, and people such as the late, great Jacques Cousteau brought their pure sense of wonder for the deep into millions of families’ households on a regular basis. In fact, it was through that man that I first heard this lake’s moniker, so blame him. After all, what child wouldn’t get joy out of pronouncing two words you weren’t supposed to pronounce? Together? In the same word? To my eternal shame, the name still manages to bring a smirk to my face. Incidentally, the name “Titicaca” translates (according to some) as “Rock Puma,” and this only makes it sweeter to a pre-adolescent (and adolescent, and even adult) mind. “Rock Puma” would be a great name for a superhero character (and, more obviously, a rock band; apologies to Dave Barry). Nevertheless, Lake Titicaca is a large body of water, and like all large bodies of water (and some small ones) it contains mysteries both mundane and exotic. I mean, who among us can say what truly lies at the bottom of a lake, what doesn’t want to be discovered, what will resist being dragged out into the cold light of reason? Even with the most modern equipment overseen by the most stolid of explorers, some enigmas refuse to be unraveled. And that’s their charm.
Don McDougall’s The Aquarians opens with plenty (and I mean plenty) of footage of the ocean depths (courtesy of Ricou Browning, director of Mr. No Legs but likely better known to cinephiles as the Gillman from The Creature From The Black Lagoon [at least in the underwater scenes; the monster was played by Ben Chapman for the scenes on land]) narrated with expository parchedness by none other than Leslie Nielsen. In due course, we are introduced to Luis Delgado (Ricardo Montalban), the head of Deep Lab, a research station located five hundred feet beneath the waves. After an interminable amount of nothing occurs, Delgado and his lackeys are whisked away to the African nation of Aganda (which to the best of my knowledge is fictitious, though I was never any good at geography) to investigate the sudden death of almost all sea life in the immediate vicinity. The answer to the mystery is intriguing (and spoiled right in the film’s IMDb synopsis, not that it’s in any way shocking or all that important to the plot; it’s a straight up McGuffin), but what’s done with it isn’t.
I’m going to say right off the bat that I was let down by this film, though it posits enough compelling aspects that it’s kind of inexcusable. A group of adventurers cruising around the bottom of the ocean is one of the most innately exciting premises ever. There’s tension simply in the surroundings (which could kill you if you walked out the “front door”), but unlike outer space, the locales (theoretically) are easier to get to. Add in some espionage goodness, and you bring in Disaster film elements (something Irwin Allen exploited to the hilt with his movie and subsequent television series Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea). Further, there are Science Fiction components like the creation of an artificial gill and a deepwater submersible that’s a cross between a UFO from Monster Zero and the Venus Space Probe from what we all know were the best episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man (outside of those with Bionic Bigfoot, naturally). Montalban proves hands down that he could carry a feature (with or without a neckerchief), and I found myself dreading the moments he wasn’t onscreen.
So, how could all of these things add up to a dry, dull viewing experience? For starters, there is an overabundance of underwater photography. I get that a large portion of the reason this was even produced was to showcase such images, but they tend to drag on aimlessly, becoming a blue-tinted visual drone. The footage that does have action in it is glacial (more a matter of physics than anything else, I’d wager), and it’s not exploited properly to ramp up suspense, at any rate. It’s all very matter of fact. Outside of Delgado, the cast of characters are distinguishable as characters in name only. They exist solely to be the jobs they perform, with little to no differentiation between them (the one standout being Katherine Woodville’s Barbara Brand, though this is more due to biological happenstance than anything written into the script).
Further, the film is focused on procedure to the point of tedium. Now, I am a fan of procedure. I love Police Procedurals, and a good Heist film can thrill me to no end. I am enthralled by the scrutinization of the details of a plan/crime and watching said minutiae be laid out to the smallest dust mote. I tend to be myopic in my own approach to procedures. That’s just me. Nonetheless, there is no excitement generated in the procedures in The Aquarians. It doesn’t hit peaks and valleys of overcoming and being overcome by obstacles culminating in ultimate success. It is instead the stereo instructions of plot progression (and I mean that in the bad way). Even when depth charges are being flung at our intrepid protagonists, it’s reacted to like plucking a long nose hair: Sure, it stings, but no biggie, and it has to get done regardless. In fact, if an enterprising person were to research wasted opportunities in filmed media, one would be the casting of Walton Goggins in Django Unchained. The other would be the sum totality of parts that is The Aquarians. The filmmakers even managed to never have any direct physical conflict with the bad guys; astounding, since three of the film’s heroes are very able-bodied young men, and the villains include Chris Robinson, no stranger to badassery (see Revenge Is My Destiny for further proof).
The film isn’t empty-headed. It’s simply poorly handled. It has an eco-crusader angle that was big (and getting bigger) in the Seventies. It does a nice job balancing its respect for the ocean with its notions about exploiting it (for the betterment of man, of course). It deals with the perversion of science and the manipulation of good men for evil purposes. The potential for the character of Delgado is enormous, as he’s a clinical prick of a man, but he cares about what he does and the people he does it with (again, expertly portrayed by Montalban). And the film wastes all of this. Perhaps as background noise (along the lines of the Yule Logs stations used to air around Christmas), The Aquarians could serve a purpose. Unfortunately, entertainment isn’t one of them.
MVT: Montalban gets the dubious distinction. He really does carry himself with authority, and you believe that he believes every word he says.
Make Or Break: The Break is no one scene. It is the aggregate of the lack of action and lack of personality in the plot and every character engaged in it (save one; I’m sure you can guess their identity).