It’s unlikely that anyone would immediately think of Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire when asked to come up with an archaeology-related media piece. This science fiction, fantasy, and steampunk epic from 2001 centers on an expedition to discover the lost city of Atlantis. Through underwater exploration and spelunking through caverns and ruins, those on the expedition discover that the city exists deep beneath the Earth, and is kept alive by the magical Atlantean Crystal—although the monarchy has since purged the inhabitants of any memories of their heritage.
The historical inspiration for the expedition to Atlantis hearkens back to the early twentieth century “heroic” age of larger-than-life explorers as well as to the callous and patronizing attitudes they held towards local cultures (Francis Younghusband, Roy Chapman Andrews, and Sven Hedin are just a few examples). The overall design of Atlantis strongly recalls actual civilizations that lived, or still live, in the ruins of their fallen ancestors (Dark Age Rome, anyone?). These opposing settings—of an industrial world on the rise and a magical world on the decline—lay the groundwork for the very premise of modern archaeology: that we can use the scientific method to rescue a relatively idyllic past that is at risk of being swept away by modernity forever.
While most of the expedition consists of mercenaries, not archaeologists (though Milo Thatch, a linguist and cartographer, is descended from an old school, pith helmet-wearing explorer), this film does revolve around archaeological themes. This includes the plundering of the past and the effects on the site’s present inhabitants, cultural imperialism, how the past can be forgotten, and what this historical heritage means for the civilization’s inheritors. Indeed, much of the film’s second act explores how divorced the Atlanteans have become from their history and culture, and the efforts of Princess Kida to relearn and revive their history (by interpreting historic murals, Lovecraft-style).
In methodology, the film’s expedition is probably among the worst offenders of violating real-world archaeological professionalism, next to Indiana Jones and his Nazi foes. With glory and gold as the expedition’s primary objectives, the members of the expedition showed little to no interest in, if not wanton disregard for, the historical significance of their surroundings. They preferred a survival-oriented pragmatic approach to whatever they found. Case in point, in one scene, with the expedition blocked by a stories-high column towering over a crevasse, Milo could only marvel at the engineering, saying: “It must have taken hundreds—no, thousands of years to carve this thing.” Then, to his utter dismay, the demolitions expert dynamites the column, converting it into a bridge over the crevasse—all with a shrug and retort: “Hey, look, I made a bridge. It only took me like, what? Ten seconds? Eleven, tops.” It’s a hilarious gag for sure, but nowhere else during the exploration half of the movie does anyone bring up the ramifications of what they’re doing to the past, and that silence is deafening.
Halfway through the movie, it’s revealed that the expedition’s true purpose was to steal the Crystal and potentially sell it to one of the belligerent powers on the surface. Given that this Crystal sustains the Atlanteans’ lives, this is quite literally a metaphor for how the plundering of historical artifacts leads to cultural (and other forms of) death of local civilizations. Looking at real world issues, we can ask: does the removal of the Elgin Marbles critically damage Greek heritage? Even more recently, in light of ISIS’s destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, some argue that what the militants are doing amounts to cultural genocide, depriving their targets of a tangible historical memory and leaving them on the verge of extinction as a distinct people. That the Crystal is being stolen and a nation is faced with annihilation relates to ISIS exploiting the black market of blood antiquities (in fact, blowing up ruins helps spike prices), investing that profit into slaughter. In hindsight, the parallels between these issues and Atlantis are frightening.
The expedition’s plan to auction the Crystal—likely as a superweapon given the WWI context of the story—also echoes ethical issues of archaeology: what is revealed from the past could be harnessed for personal, ahistorical, and possibly destructive means. Of course, we have yet to unearth a doomsday device in any ancient ruins, but Atlantis suggests that current interpretations of the past, as well as future-oriented use of it, are not value-neutral. The past can sustain a nation, figuratively and literally, but it can also be used to destroy it. One needs to look no further than the Nazi Ahnenerbe’s efforts to associate archaeological discoveries with justifications for German expansion into Eastern Europe, with cataclysmic results.
However, the expedition plunders not out of malice, but out of greed and indifference towards others. As Vinny, the demolitions expert, revealingly puts it, the expedition team “[did] a lot of things we’re not proud of. Robbing graves, eh, plundering tombs, double parking. But, nobody got hurt. Well, maybe somebody got hurt, but nobody we knew.” Perhaps this quote puts their actions in a new light: they were unaware that their plans were unleashing genocide on the Atlanteans.
Of course, none of this was running through my mind when I watched it, and ISIS didn’t exist back then. When Atlantis first came out, it shaped my interest in pulpy adventure and steampunk for years. Artistically, I think the movie is quite decent, with lavish animation (designed by Mike Mignola, no less!) and a brilliant visual and thematic juxtaposition of steampunk and fantasy. And yet, the plot’s basically a rehash of the Pocahontas legend, and there are enough plot holes to keep any adventurer-archaeologist curious (for instance, just how did Atlanteans learn to speak modern English?). Whatever. The world building and design were enough to fire up my imagination.
But for all of Atlantis’s faults, I believe it is at least an interesting introduction for younger audiences to the appeal of the past and ethical issues arising from that. Disney didn’t make this movie to appeal to archaeologists, or to seriously explore archaeological issues. Nevertheless, I recommend it to anyone who would like to experience the excitement of adventure and of finding the past, and as a case study for ethical issues in adventurism. After watching you should read up on real early twentieth century explorers and some of the kookier, obsolete historical theories of the time, to further enhance your experience of the movie. Then you can connect the themes with current events. Perhaps this will give Atlantis: The Lost Empire a second life.
-Contributed by Benson Cheung