Atlantis displays a scattershot sense of narrative abandon that suggests a child playing in the backyard after a day of learning about Greek mythology, though that description runs the risk of making this BBC production sound a lot more interesting than it actually is. The series opens on Jason (Jack Donnelly), a contemporary man looking out toward the ocean with a sense of rootless longing. His father disappeared into the deep somewhere, and Jason is determined to sort out the mystery. An older sailor warns Jason of the perils of going down that deep below the surface, but the young explorer isn’t to be discouraged. Plunging below the water in a submersible, Jason comes upon wreckage that bears the words “The Oracle,” then wakes up naked on the shores of the fabled lost city of Atlantis.
Atlantis bulldozes through that narrative exposition in a matter of three or four minutes. First, Jason is a vaguely defined explorer, then he’s potentially the Jason of Greek yore, which is to say that he might, in this weird alternative dimension, somehow one day be of the Argonauts. Tough to say, though, as the series is clearly playing fast and loose with established myth. Atlantis is to Greek mythology what Bates Motel is to Psycho: a weird fusion of antiquated genre tropes and desperate contemporizing.
Soon, Jason is on the run from Atlantian guards for having provoked a two-headed lizard creature, stumbling into Pythagoras (Robert Emms), the revolutionary mathematician, predictably envisioned as a gawky nerdlinger, as well as, for some reason, Hercules (Mark Addy), who’s less predictably imagined here as a shiftless drunk so as to afford Addy the opportunity to do his predictable bumbling-fat-man shtick. Not long after falling in with this theoretically endearing duo, Jason is already exchanging suggestive glances with Ariadne (Aiysha Hart), a princess who chafes under her father Minos’s (Alexander Siddig) oppressive rule (is there any other kind or princess, or father, for that matter?).
About halfway through the first episode, Atlantis settles into a formula that combines a monster-of-the-week horror story with a tale of political gamesmanship that not only steals from Gladiator, but renders that overpraised film subtle by comparison. In each of the first few episodes, Jason pisses someone off, with little variation, sending him and his buddies on a quest to slay a beastie, with their literally preordained victory proving increasingly threatening to Atlantis’s corrupt leadership. Along the way are Easter eggs to keep us awake, such as the appearance of one comely woman, who’s soon revealed to be the doomed Medusa (Jemima Rooper).
Atlantis is as incoherent and stupid as it sounds, but it might have been enjoyable if any of the characters’ experiences had been invested with the faintest hint of awe. Jason regards his first encounter with what’s basically a dragon like he’s examining a hamster at a pet shop. He’s never bowled over by the confirmation that Atlantis exists (Donnelly, who’s been clearly cast for his physical resemblance to the almost equally bland Eric Bana, doesn’t help matters), adjusting immediately and proceeding to take the tour, stopping every few minutes so that we may be given another tired, boring lecture about destinies and cloaked conspiracies. Jason, of course, is the One, which means that he’ll eventually save Atlantis from some dire fate that will almost certainly have something to do with his vanished dad.
The only divertissement that Atlantis may provide some folks on this shore is to stoke their nostalgia for the formula spectacle they may have enjoyed in the 1990s and early 2000s before every pop American film seemingly became a Marvel movie. The series is insanely derivative even for a contemporary work of pop culture, but it’s reflective of trends that have just slipped out of vogue. The jocular nature of the heroes’ general banter is clearly swiped from the underrated A Knight’s Tale (which featured Addy in basically the same role). The show’s aesthetic is Hollywood millennial epic 101: all dusty browns, so as to render the ancient sword-and-sandal clichés “realistic.” The score is essentially composed of the same pious choral female moaning that’s been turning up on epic soundtracks since, at least, Gladiator. Ultimately, Atlantis feels less like a series than a tax write-off doubling as footage to play over a large television overlooking a Las Vegas slot machine.