Atlantis is a fabled lost land. The question of its existence has exuded a particular fascination in the public mind. That said, all that we actually know of Atlantis originated in two works by Plato, Critias and Timias (written circa 360 B.C.). Plato tells the story as an account given by the Greek lawmaker Solon, who lived over a century before he did who in turn had supposedly heard the account from Egyptian priests. In these works, Plato/Solon describes a vast and powerful empire originally formed by Poseidon that was drowned by a cataclysmic wave sent by Zeus because the Atlanteans had become slothful and greedy.
Plato’s accounts were treated as real by historians throughout antiquity to the extent that Atlantis appears on some maps. Some modern scholars have made the assumption that Plato was talking about a real place and have attempted to pinpoint an actual geographic location for Atlantis. The only indication of any location that Plato gives is that it was “beyond the Pillars of Hercules” – a term used back in his time to refer to the Straits of Gibraltar, the narrow point where Spain almost meets the African continent and divides The Mediterranean from The Atlantic. Plato also gives a date placing the sinking circa 9000 B.C.. Over the centuries, speculated sources for Atlantis’s location have ranged from The Azores, Bimini Island in the Bahamas, the sunken town of Vilarinho da Furna that was found near Portugal, Scandinavia, the mid-Atlantic shelf and Antarctica.
The most interesting and probable theory of Atlantis’s location is the Greek island of Santorini or Thera, a centre of early Minoan culture, which was destroyed in a vast volcanic eruption (the largest recorded in antiquity) around 1600-1500 B.C. The shock waves from the detonation would have caused tsunamis to rebound around the Mediterranean basin and flood the island. The main problem with Thera as a location for Atlantis is that the landmass is a mere tenth of the size that Plato describes it as being and it does not lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules.
Of course, Atlantis is always a place that has existed more in popular imagination than it ever has in reality. The first fictional treatment of Atlantis was Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626). The beginning of the Atlantis of adventure fiction emerged out of the popular non-fiction book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) by US politician Ignatius Donnelly in which he argued that Atlantis was the cradle of civilisation and traced its supposed influence on many ancient cultures. Donnelly’s work has been influential and his ideas adopted by pseudo-scientists – although today the book’s notoriety is that it put forward the argument that Atlanteans were the original Aryans, which became the basis of ideas of Nazism and white supremacy.
As a result of Donnelly’s book, Atlantis gained a life in late 19th/early 20th Century fiction. This period produced was a reasonable output of adventure stories that visit or take place in Atlantis – Jules Verne even visits the ruins in his most famous novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). It also became a source of ancient wisdom for spiritualists like Madame Blavatsky, Edgar Cayce and various New Age types. In the public imagination, it has become seen as an idealised Grecian society, one that held now lost secrets of advanced science, magic or occult knowledge.
What is interesting about all of this is that none of this is ever implied in Plato – yet outside of Plato, there is no proof that Atlantis ever existed. What many of the believers in the existence of Atlantis fail to understand is that Plato only wrote his works as political allegories – there is no indication that he expected his readers to ever gain the impression that he was describing a real place, any more so than say J.R.R. Tolkien intended people to believe there was a real place known as Middle-Earth when he wrote The Lord of the Rings (1954-6).
Atlantis on Screen
In cinematic mythology, Atlantis is no more than a variant on a lost world fantasy. (See Lost Worlds and Lost Cities). It is usually seen that its’ people were Grecian in culture and had knowledge of an advanced science. Stories that depict Atlantis before its collapse tend to the story arc that the Atlanteans were destroyed by their own hubris, or that their science became too advanced and triggered the collapse.
Stories that visit Atlantis in the modern day have the frequent view that its survivors have adapted to the submerged environment by becoming Merpeople and/or building a bubble dome over the city to live underwater. There have been occasional variants that locate Atlantis underground or on land.
Adventures in Atlantis
The first screen work to depict Atlantis came with the adaptations of French author Pierre Benoit’s classic lost world novel L’Atlantide (1919), one of the numerous early 20th Century adventure stories about Atlantis. This has explorers finding Atlantis in the North African desert ruled over by the immortal Queen Antinea who keeps a trophy room of her preserved lovers. This has been filmed several times as L’Atlantide (1921) from Jacques Feyder; a sound remake with L’Atlantide (1932) starring Brigitte Helm as Antinea; the Hollywood version Siren of Atlantis (1948) starring Maria Montez; The Lost Kingdom/Journey Beneath the Desert (1961) starring Jean-Louis Trintignant; L’Atlantide (1972), a French tv movie version; and L’Atlantide (1992) starring Tcheky Karyo.
The first English-language depiction of Atlantis turned up in the serial The Undersea Kingdom (1936) where a group of adventurers travel underwater in a rocket submarine and end up in a battle between various factions in Atlantis. Atlantis was briefly seen by the explorers of the underground realm in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and visited by Hercules in the Italian peplum Hercules and the Captive Women (1961).
The most full-blown depiction of the legend of Atlantis on screen for many years was the George Pal spectacular Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961) where a Greek fisherman is drawn to the land by a mystery girl he encounters and is made a slave but leads a revolt for his freedom. This set down many of the clichés of the genre – Atlantis as a civilisation modelled on Ancient Greece and a world that is highly advanced scientifically. We get the introduction of the idea that the hubris of its people led to its downfall and/or that advanced Atlantean technology (in this case a ray device) caused it to sink/be flooded. (Both tropes are used in the film).
Another fine effort was Warlords of Atlantis (1978), an adventure film set in the Victorian period where explorers in a bathysphere learn that Atlantis actually consists of seven cities and that the Atlanteans originally come from Mars and are trying to manipulate history in order to enslave humanity.
A modern version was Disney’s animated Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), a Victorian period adventure that tried to break away from many of the clichés and jumped into New Age mysticism with spectacular but conceptually uneven results. The direct-to-video sequel Atlantis: Milo’s Return (2003) featured further adventures of the characters but little that was set in Atlantis.
Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011) was a BBC tv docudrama (part-documentary, part drama) that identifies Atlantis as Thera/Santorini and depicts the eruption of the volcano that destroyed it. This is the only of the films listed here that is not a genre work and plays out as an historical drama.
The British tv series Atlantis (2013-5) has a modern-day submarine pilot (Jack Donnelly) thrown back to ancient Atlantis where he engages in adventures with various characters from Greek Myth. Hercules (Kevin Sorbo) visits the shores of a scientifically-advanced Atlantis in the Atlantis (1997) episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. The children’s animated tv series The Prince of Atlantis (1997) concerns the adventures of a young ruler of Atlantis.
The tv series Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005- ) offered up three quite contrary explanations of the sinking of Atlantis during its run in the episodes The Underwater Menace (1967) with the discovery of a lost city of Atlantean fish people survivors in the present; The Time Monster (1972) where The Master unleashes a creature that feeds on time in Atlantis, causing it to be destroyed; and The Daemons (1973) where Atlantis is briefly mentioned as being destroyed by a powerful race of aliens.
In present-day set accounts, the tv movie MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis (1994) has the improvisational genius hero discovering artefacts and then engaged in a hunt to find the buried location of Atlantis. Devil’s Triangle (2021) is a low-budget adventure where plane crash survivors engage in an effort to stop the Atlanteans as they prepare to declare war on the surface.
The children’s tv movie Race for Atlantis (1998) features the discovery of Atlantis off the coast of Florida, while Escape from Atlantis (1997) has a modern family transported to Atlantis via the Bermuda Triangle. The animated children’s film In Search of the Titanic (2004) has explorers in search of the famous shipwreck ending up in a series of adventures in Atlantis.
Assorted Other Atlantean Encounters
In modern accounts, Atlantis is often found buried underwater. In The Amazing Captain Nemo/The Return of Captain Nemo (1978) and 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea (2007), Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo sets forth on a modern day quest to find Atlantis.
Sunken Atlantis is also visited in the Greek myth adventure Hercules (1983) and briefly in Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (2018). The Erotic Adventures of Maciste in Atlantis (1973) does not actually visit Atlantis but features the Italian muscleman finding an island inhabited by women survivors.
Survivors from Atlantis turned up in a mad scientist’s lab in Humanoids from Atlantis (1982), while the creatures in Isle of the Fishmen (1981) are created by a scientist to plunder Atlantis. In the Italian action film The Atlantis Interceptors/Raiders of Atlantis (1982), the crew of an oil rig cause Atlantis to rise again and a furious war with the Atlanteans ensues. Atlanteans invade the surface world in Avengers Grimm: Time Wars (2018) as part of a war between fairytale characters.
In the bizarre animated Kong, King of Atlantis (2005), Atlantis is inhabited by a race of lizard people who regard King Kong as their ruler. Powerful leftover Atlantean energy crystals are posited as explanation for the disappearance of ships in the pseudo-science documentary The Bermuda Triangle (1979). The seaQuest DSV episode Lostland (1995) has the submarine’s crew finding an Atlantean helmet that enacts a curse when placed on.
In Cocoon (1985), we learn that Atlantis is buried off the Florida coast and that a group of aliens from Antares have returned to pick up their kinfolk who have been buried there. In Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956), Atlanteans have colonised one of Jupiter’s moons, while in Trump vs The Illuminati (2020), the Atlanteans are spacegoing aliens. The tv series Stargate Atlantis (2004-9) takes place in a city-ship located on another planet, whose people colonised many other worlds and from which the myth of Atlantis originates.
Atlantis is the home of the DC Comics superhero Aquaman and is visited in the animated film Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015) and in live-action first in Justice League (2017) and more substantially in Aquaman (2018), as well as episodes of the animated Justice League (2001-4). Here we see Aquaman and the Atlantean people have evolved to become merpeople living in a sub-oceanic city. The animated film Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013) doesn’t depict Atlantis but featured an alternate timeline where the Atlanteans were at war with the Amazons of Themyscira. Marvel Comics’ equivalent of Aquaman is Prince Namor, a similar merperson who is a prince of Atlantis. Namor made his first screen appearance in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), along with assorted episodes of Marvel animated tv series.
The tv series Man from Atlantis (1976-7) never actually visited Atlantis but features a merman superhero with amnesia about his origins where it is speculated he originated from there. In the Flipper episode Waterworld (2000), the characters encounter a man with merman capabilities who comes from Atlantis.
There have been a number of variants to the idea of a submerged Atlantis. Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) visits its ruins underground. In the wacky Alien from L.A. (1988), it is discovered as a thriving underground world, while the sequel Journey to the Center of the Earth (1988) has a revolution take place there. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) has it still on the surface and filled with giant animals.
In strange and comical treatments, Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) has the island sunken in prehistoric times after a squirrel pulls out the plug. Good Omens (2019) features Atlantis rising to the surface again as part of a series of prophecies heralding the Biblical apocalypse. The most bizarre of all is Savage (1995) where we learn that the Atlanteans moved themselves into cyberspace.
- Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961)
- Warlords of Atlantis (1978)
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
- Aquaman (2018)
A full list of titles can be found here Atlantis