At the dawn of the twentieth century, a father employs a French aviator to take him deep into the Artic, where his son has disappeared in his quest for the whales' graveyard -' the mythical place where whales go to die. To the native peoples, the place he seeks, shrouded in perpetual clouds, is guarded by evil spirits. But the father, accompanied by a professor of Nordic studies and a reluctant Artic guide, presses on to the island at the top of the world. There, they will discover a lost Viking colony, separated from the rest of civilization for almost a thousand years.
The premise rivals the best of Jules Verne's fantastic voyage tales. The studio touted this comparison in its trailers. It's no 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, however. The perfect blend of actors, script and special effects wonders that marks that classic production eluded Island's makers. It's a good film -' don't miss it if the chance ever comes to see it on the big screen -' but don't let the story get your expectations up too high.
Three weak links keep Island at the Top of the World out of film lovers' lists of all-time greats: weak acting, a sharp contrast between real settings and soundstage footage, and a script that fails to mine the story gold this adventure promises. David Hartman looks the part of the University of Minnesota Nordic studies professor -' he's tall, blond and blue eyed. His pleasant, distinctive voice also recommends the character. But his acting skills are limited, a fact that his being a professor and not a more cavalier and dynamic figure does not mitigate. Compared to co-star, Donald Sinden, a Shakespearian actor, Hartman seems flat -' too casual and unimpassioned to sustain this story's epic undertones.
The inconsistent cinematography likewise disappoints. Some shots are superb -' the airship emerging from a rural French barn; the real animals running below the ship (POV fliers); the airship tossed in a clouded, stormy sky over the island and cast into icy cliffs; the killer whales attacking our heroes as they sail on a chunk of ice -' but other scenes all but announce they're shot on a soundstage. Particularly stark are shots inside the ancient temple, whose apparent light source is several large flaming vessels on an immense stage: all of the characters are heavily lighted from overhead, creating a halo that could only come from the many lights suspended from a studio ceiling.
Yet the biggest weakness is the film script. Instead of portraying these lost Vikings as a complex people with something to teach their modern "invaders," the script casts the Vikings into two uninspiring camps: benevolent simpleton, and raging warlord. The son's girlfriend's father is particularly underdeveloped, managing smiles and a sad face as encounters require, but showing us none of the ruggedness, wisdom or resourcefulness one might expect from a man wresting a comfortable life from a volcanic, ice-capped island untouched by modern science. The island chief is the opposite extreme, a glaring-eyed tyrant bent on killing the visitors without trial, without any effort to learn anything about their purposes or potential value to his people.
Part of the problem is the language barrier. The script has sown devices to deal with this into the story: the son has been here for two years and has taught some of the people English. The professor, with his command of ancient Nordic writing, is able to speak to them in their tongue. But we are still left with verbal translations by the son or the professor throughout the story. The Norse characters must speak briefly because we also need to hear the English-speaking characters' translation. It would have been much better either to have more of the Norse characters know English, or to provide subtitles so they could develop more complex thoughts. In a story like 20,000 Leagues, Captain Nemo, the nemesis, is an intelligent, wounded soul with profound observations of the world that condemned him, through its cruelty, to his undersea isolation. No Norseman in Island has a fraction of Nemo's depth. Weak nemeses make for less-than-compelling drama.
Island at the Top of the World is not a bad film. Parts of it -' including the research the studio did to confirm that a group of Erik the Red's ships could have been separated from an expedition and ended up at a volcanic island, like Iceland, at the top of the world -' are impressive. Some footage is "ahh"-worthy, and on par with the best shots from the family adventure genre. The costumes, portrayals of the buildings, ships, landscape on the island, have a compelling, realistic quality. But the whole is no better than the sum of its parts. At age 9, I loved Island at the Top of the World -' enough to hunt it down on NetFlix more than 30 years later. Perhaps that is its best role: a film to awe children, and which parents can watch with them knowing that but for a few scary encounters, it will leave behind nothing but a hunger for more and sometimes better adventure stories.
Review by cashelbyron-1 from United States from the Internet Movie Database.