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Saturday, October 6, 2007

Unknown World

This obscure little B-movie opened the same month as the equally obscure "Five" (October 1951). "Unknown World" is a Cold War era remake of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. By modern reckoning, it's only the submarine-like drilling tractor -- the Cyclotram -- which makes Unknown World a sci-fi film. The bulk of the movie typical adventure/danger movie. As movies go, even B-movies, Unknown World (UW) is a weak effort.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Amid worries that mankind would be wiped out by a nuclear war, a Dr. Morley advocates looking for shelter beneath the earth in giant caves. His plan is scoffed at and fails to find funding, until a rich publisher's son steps up. He'll fund it if he can come along -- for the adventure. The burrowing submarine-like Cyclotram travels hundreds of miles down, mostly through existing tunnels. Between falls and toxic gas, a few crew members die along the way. Eventually, the four survivors find a huge cave with a glowing sky-like ceiling and lake.

At first, they're jubilant that they've found a haven for mankind to survive. The mood turns gloomy when rabbits they've brought along give birth to dead baby bunnies. The cave supposedly causes sterility. The "Promised Land" haven has a doom of its own. Despondent, they mope around in the Cyclotram, but are meanwhile carried to the surface by upwelling water.

Why is this movie fun?
Maybe "fun" isn't quite the word. Interesting, perhaps. The movie's premise assumed that war was immanent, total and unavoidable, such that mankind's only hope was a big enough bunker to save enough of us. This is a similar mindset to premise underlaying When Worlds Collide. In UW, the haven is sought below instead of above. The sense of fear and foreboding, yet grasping for hope helps UW speak for the 50s. That's an interesting mental exercise.
The Cyclotram itself is only moderately interesting, but due to the low budget, got little attention. I thought it was cool that it had tail fins. (!) Later sci-fi movies will get into gizmo-mania and make co-stars of their ships or machines, but in UW, the machine is a supporting actor at best. The interior's sparseness is amusing. The set designers tried for something submarine-like with some gauges, pipes and valves on the walls, but the overall effect is more boiler-room than high-tech machine. "Technology" was simpler back then. It took less "stuff" to look the techy.

Cold War Angle
This movie is the bunker mentality on steroids. UW opens with several minutes of stock footage of nuclear bomb tests and fake newsreel footage of Dr. Morley predicting the end of mankind. Dr. Morley's solution amounts to a giant-sized case of duck and cover. The end, when the dream of a safe bunker is crushed, we're back in the dangerous surface world. Message? It's weakly delivered, but amounts to: We can't hide after all, so we'd better be very careful with nukes.

Much of UW is shot in Carlsbad Caverns. The unusual landscape of the caves provides some visual interest when things would otherwise get rather dull. For the most part, the "action" is typical of exploring/adventure films.

There's an odd bit near the end. The crew brought down a pregnant rabbit to test any habitable caverns they might find. (What kind of test is that?) When they reach the big glowing-roof cavern, momma rabbit gives birth, but the bunnies are dead. Dr. Joan announces that the cavern makes life sterile (Huh? Ms. Rabbit was already pregnant) -- mankind cannot hide there and really survive. Nevermind that this element is poorly explained or integrated. The dead bunnies are just there to burst the bubble. The point is that man can't hide.

The characters are pretty much the usual stereotypes. Their "growth" is likewise predictable. The smug and worthless rich boy becomes a brave responsible man in the end. The cold-but-beautiful woman scientist is thawed into romance by the reformed playboy, etc. etc. Dr. Morley is the typical visionary scientist type, but his "growth" is somewhat more interesting. Throughout most of the adventure, he is the pillar of strength and optimism. When the bunnies are declared sterile, he loses his will to live. There's no hope for mankind. He had so completely accepted that life on the surface was doomed, that the failure of "the promised land" was loss of the last hope. When a volcano erupts and causes a tsunami, he doesn't get into the Cyclotram to escape it. Instead, he lets the flood take him. His surrender to doom represents the malaise which which circled over the Cold War culture like a vulture.

While much of UW is fairly routine B-film fare, it's a good look at bunker mentality. The 50s had a lot of that sort of thinking.


Brian Bartlett said...

not a very good movie. acting is kinda bad, effects are kinda bad.

Darci said...

We actually see Joan Lindsey write in her log that the bunnies are sterile, so it's not like we mis-heard her say "stillborn". That has to be what they meant.

In approximating Jules Verne's story, for some reason they relocated the volcano entrance from Iceland to the Aleutian Islands. Mt. Neleh is fictional (unlike Mt. Snæfells). I wonder what the writer was thinking?