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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Irwin Allen did not let disappointment over Lost World get him down. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (VBS) was a hit. It spawned a TV series that brought sci-fi adventure in "inner space" into millions of mid-60s living rooms. Allen provided a mix of classic Jules Verne style travel adventures with techno-gadget appeal. The story turns out to be more of a human drama than sci-fi, but the sci-fi element at least still fairly visible. There is a visual slickness to the production which heralds the coming flavor of second-generation sci-fi. VBS was also the American edition of a world cast into sudden global warming. The first was the British film The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The new atomic submarine USOS Seaview has completed it's trial voyages. A congressman and Dr. Hiller, a psychiatrist, come aboard for a demonstration voyage under the polar ice cap. The ensuing tour of the ship is as much for their benefit as for the viewers to marvel at Seaview's coolness. After a couple of days, Seaview is being gently bombarded by falling chunks of sea ice. Seaview surfaces. The crew see that the sky is on fire. Meteorites have somehow ignited the Van Allen Belts. The earth is being scorched. Top scientists are convening at the UN to find a solution. Admiral Nelson is ordered to attend. Before they leave, they find a lone man on the ice. They take Alvarez aboard. At the UN, Nelson proposes firing a nuclear missile at the belts to "pop" them. A rival scientist says the belts will burn themselves out. The UN body likes the do-nothing plan, so Nelson storms out. They rush aboard the Seaview and speed off. Nelson plans to fire the missile anyway. The trip around South America is long enough to build some sub plots. The men are growing restive with worry about loved ones. Alvarez talks of accepting doom if that's God's will. Captain Crane is often at odds with Nelson over the men. Nelson gets death threats. Dr.Hiller suggests that Nelson is delusional and faked the threats. Crane is conflicted. A UN sub tries to sink them, but blows up trying to match Seaview's diving ability. It turns out that Dr. Hiller is actually the saboteur, but she is eaten by a shark and her damage repaired. Just as the savior missile is about to be launched, Alvarez holds everyone hostage with a bomb. Crane dons scuba gear and triggers the missile manually. In the jolt of launch, Alvarez is overpowered. All are safe. The missile does the job. The fires are poofed out. Everyone reconciles their differences and sail happily for home. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is ample action and no shortage of subplots. Walter Pigeon (Morbius of Forbidden Planet ('56) ) gives a good show as the misunderstood champion. Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeanie) does surprisingly well as more than just eye candy.

Cold War Angle
While commies aren't present, there is the metaphor of the burning radiation belts which will soon destroy the earth. The solution is a well-placed atomic warhead. Add in some spy story sabotage, and the Cold War is well represented.

The Neo-Nemo -- Allen positions VBS as the modern replacement for the 19th century's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Like Nemo, Admiral Nelson is lauded as the brilliant (one man) inventor/scientist and builder of the amazing submarine. Like Nemo, Nelson pursues his own inner vision of what must be done to save the world. Like Nemo, the world is out to stop him. Having Peter Lorrie among the cast makes for an unmistakable tie to Disney's 1954 film version of the Nemo story. In VBS, his role is peripheral, but the connection works. In the TV series, Nelson's adventures in Seaview become a modern Nemo & Nautilus for the 20th century.

Super Sub II -- Just two years after Atomic Submarine, the notion of a high-tech nuclear submarine, on adventures to save the earth, still had legs. What a difference two years made too. Where 50s films were rife with war surplus equipment, Allen's Seaview represented more of a forward looking design.

Early Global Warming -- A few movies before have suggested climate upheavals due to space phenomena. When Worlds Collide had this in 1951. The Lost Missile ('58) had a rogue missile burning up swaths of earth as it orbited. This was more of moving a local problem than global, but still... Also from 1958 was an Italo-French production, "La Morte viente dallo spazio" (Death comes from space) which had a mass of asteroids raising global temperatures. In an interesting coincidence, the english dubbed version, entitled The Day the Sky Exploded will be released only a few months after VBS. Then, there is The Day the Earth Caught Fire (' ) which also features a scorched earth. A cooked earth was becoming, (dare I say it?) a hot topic. (sorry) These early looks at extreme global warming have an intriguing relevance again.

TV Trump -- The television series based upon VBS would buck the trend. Often enough, TV series based on a movie would not live up the film's magic. Not so with VBS-TV. The series was, in many ways, better. For gadet-crazed young boys, the Flying Sub was too cool for words. The crew of Seaview, much like Roddenberry's Enterprise crew a few years later, would take their wonderful ship on many amazing adventures. After all that, the original movie seems tame.

Prop Watch -- Note the wall of blinking square "computer" lights in the control room of Seaview. It was not new, but recycled. In the age before personal computers, someone had gone to a lot of trouble make the light-bank blink its lights in such an artful, almost thoughtful, way. It was too cool of a prop to leave in storage. It was part of the evil super computer set in Invisible Boy ('57). The light-bank appeared again in Return of the Fly ('59).

Bottom line? VBS is well worth the time. It may be a bit light on the science (or just plain wrong, such as sinking ice), but it is briskly told story that avoids predictable traps.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

I really detested the sinking icebergs and even more the premise that the Van Allen Radiation Belts had caught fire, so much so that I really can't stand watching this movie. YMMV of course.