Monday, June 01, 2015

White Elephant Blogathon: Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea

When I opened the email containing this year's White Elephant, I was convinced that I had seen my film before. It turns out that I was confusing Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea with The Neptune Factor. I saw The Neptune Factor at a kid's matinee when I was seven or eight. That film had dodgy special effects that pit its all-star cast against giant goldfish. In comparison, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea looks pretty good. In truth, it's faint praise.

Two of the most arresting scenes in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961, directed by Irwin Allen) come in the first act. In the first, during the tour of the Seaview, the film's super submarine, we come across a trumpeter playing for his mess buddies and for the Admiral's secretary. In the film's only unconventional shot, the camera focuses on Barbara Eden's gyrating bottom. The second finds the submarine being pummeled by boulders of ice sinking from the polar icecap. Ice. Sinking. Or how about that shark pool that doesn't spill over its banks when the ship dives at steep angles. Given that the motivating disaster for this movie finds the earth's Van Allen belts catching fire and roasting the world, it's fair to say that this is not a film for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with science. Indeed, it's a film that probably plays best to nine year-olds. If anyone older than that makes the mistake of thinking about what's on screen, then, well, the whole thing falls apart early. And that's before it even gets to its big special effects scenes.

The plot finds the crew of the Seaview on its maiden voyage, hosting a cadre of dignitaries while they embark on a shakedown cruise under the arctic ice cap. The commander of the vessel is Admiral Harriman Nelson, the cracked genius who designed it. Among the dignitaries is Dr. Susan Hiller, a psychiatrist who is studying how submarine crews react under stress. Soon, they get all the stress they can handle as the Earth's Van Allen Belt catches fire and begins to roast the planet. The Seaview makes a bee-line to New York and the United Nations as Nelson and his right hand scientist, Dr. Emery, formulate a solution to the crisis. Their solution involves launching a nuclear missile into the belts from a specific point at a specific moment. When his plan is rejected, he vows to go ahead with it anyway. As the ship sails to the far side of the world, all manner of crises intervene: a mutiny, hostile navies, even a sea monster. Will they be in time? Will it work?

Anyway, this is an early example of what I like to think of as a "box" movie. The posters for these have a line of little boxes with the all-star cast enumerated for the viewing public. This film has Walter Pigeon (perhaps trading on his turn in Forbidden Planet, but saddled with a variant of Captain Queeg), Joan Fontaine, Frankie Avalon, Barbara Eden, Peter Lorre, and so on. Irwin Allen is THE "box" movie auteur, and he would go on to perfect the form in his big budget disaster movies of the 1970s. He still didn't know what to do with them all here. Hell, he completely wastes Peter Lorre, which I didn't even know was possible.

The moral nuance of this film is dubious. A significant subplot here finds Nelson's second in command, Captain Crane, questioning Nelson's various decisions regarding the disposition of the ship's crew, but the film itself never once questions the moral authority of Nelson charging ahead with his plan because he knows he's right and the rest of the world is wrong. There's an element of the Randian superman here, with Nelson cast as a version of Howard Roark from The Fountainhead. He's right and everyone else be damned and it doesn't matter if he blows up everything to prove it. In the film's defense on this point, Nelson begins to crack from the procession of one damned thing after another, and it's only a matter of time before he launches a search for the missing strawberries (if you know what I mean).

The practice of assembling an all-star cast usually results in nothing left for the production values, but Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea isn't bad to look at. Oh, the interiors of the sub are functional at best--a glaring weakness in the era of the early Bond movies, but we can't all have Ken Adam for a production designer, I guess. Still and all, the interior scenes both in the sub and at the UN are over-lit in the way only early 1960s middlebrow films were over-lit. Allen isn't creative with his shot choices, either. It's enough that the actors are in the frame. More than that? Well, this is a film for children after all.

And yet, I have to admit that I enjoyed looking at the special effects. I mean, they're obviously models, but they're lovingly-made and elegantly-designed models that fill the film's widescreen vistas. This film's giant squid won't make an audience forget the one in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, from which it is shamelessly stolen, but it's not a bad effect by any means. The scene with the submersible in the mine field is even better, especially given that there isn't an equivalent scene in a better film against which to be measured. And if you didn't like the squid? Here, have a giant octopus for good measure. This film is generous to a fault. The way this film arranges its set-pieces reminds me of the contemporary practice of having a climax ever ten minutes at the reel changes, or even of the episodic nature of a television series. Allen turned this film into a fairly successful tv series, as it so happens. Certainly, the exploding control consoles in the film's final action sequence are totally 60s genre TV. So too are the series of prominent movie stars appearing as villains. One even gets eaten by a shark, Batman-style. That seems appropriate, somehow.

This post is part of the White Elephant Blogathon. For a full account of the foolhardy masochists who took part this year, check out the master post at Diary of a Country Pickpocket.

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