Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something truly strange turns up.
Soviet SF has a tendency to be a little dry, more intelligent than similar US efforts, with a fondness for hardware-heavy portrayals of space travel, vague socialist futures where everyone is happy together (and therefore politics don’t matter) and sometimes, a turgid load of blatant propaganda.
It was also a refuge for those who wanted to avoid the routine propagandizing and ideological control imposed on the Soviet film industry – and towards the end of the Soviet era, a mostly safe way to criticize the status quo.
But Amphibian Man doesn’t quite seem to fit this pattern.
Here we have a bright, colorful film set in what is supposed to be some Mexican port (although they filmed it in Cuba), where everyone is terrified by a mysterious “Sea Devil”, who has been seen riding a dolphin and blowing a conch shell!
This is really Ichthyander, the son of the local not-quite-mad scientist, whom he saved from a deadly childhood illness by transplanting gills into his body (and then gave him a massively strange silver fishscaled suit with fins on its back and helmet).
But instead of going off into more familiar mad scientist territory, Ichthyander (literally “fish man” if you know your Greek) rescues an incredibly beautiful girl from being attacked by a shark and falls in love! Before long, he escapes into the city to find her, which is the cue for a series of songs, including a romantic ballad sung in local tavern about the sea devil.
Later, he and the girl end up sharing a very Hollywood dance scene – and he fantasizes an incredible Esther Williams water ballet in which she joins him under the sea in a matching silver suit (it’s interesting to note that Esther hung up her swimfins for good four years before this film came out – somehow Soviet film always seemed to be a decade behind American films. Perhaps that’s how long it took to get them past the censors).
Another curious detail is the film’s political subtexts (something very important in that age). There is a capitalist oppressor – but we get to see he’s human and really loves the girl, even if he doesn’t understand that he can’t buy her. There is the scientist with his noble dreams of building a fishy republic under the sea – once he can find a few volunteers to undergo his surgery – a dream as big as any that Marx or Stalin or Lenin ever conceived. Yet this plan is clearly portrayed as foolish, and in the end he realizes his son is far more important. Icthyander wonders “why can’t we all just…get along?” but is clearly naive in his belief that man can live in harmony. And then there’s Olsen, the practical reporter who helps the lovers, who at first glance seems to be a reliable socialist type – and yet he clearly believes that evil is a normal part of mankind, something quite alien to dogmatic Marxism.
But it is such a lovely fairy tale of a movie that you can safely ignore all that and just enjoy it…
Although I will warn you that the ending is as bittersweet as anything in Hans Christian Andersen.