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Friday, June 15, 2012

City Beneath The Sea

1971 started off with a pilot for yet another Irwin Allen sci-fi adventure TV series. City Beneath the Sea (CBtS) was, on the one hand, an ambitious effort. Yet, on the other hand, a curious collection of recycled parts. More on that below in the notes section. The pilot, which had a very Star Trek TOS look and feel, failed to get any studio backing, so the series never happened. But, Allen salvaged what he could, shot new material with an all new cast of well-known television names, such as Richard Basehart, Stuart Whitman, Robert Wagner, Robert Colbert and more. CBtS then went on to a minor theatrical release.

Quick Plot Synopsis
In the year 2053, a modernistic oil platform explodes and sinks into the sea. The president (Basehart) orders Admiral Matthews (Whitman) to return to Pacifica, the city under the sea. (the ponderous back story is that Matthews resigned command after the accidental death of his friend Bill Holmes, was deemed recklessness.) The staff and population of Pacifica are prickly about Matthews' return. Bills widow, Lia, is especially petulant. Nonetheless, Matthews must accelerate the loading of shipments of gold from Fort Knox to Pacifica. Earthquakes in the USA threaten even tranquil Fort Knox. But, the fort also houses the nation's supply of highly dangerous radioactive H128. Only being surrounded with walls of gold keep the isotope from going critical. Viewers learn that Matthews' brother Brett (Wagner) has been secretly planning to steal some of the gold and H128. To make this possible, he has been rigging weakened "Titanium" plates during the vault's construction. An accident just like the one that killed Bill, traps Woody in an aquafoil (flying sub). Aguilla (the man with gills) and Matthews manage to save Woody. Lia is now even more petulant. The president then orders Matthews to Washington where we all earn that the earthquakes have been caused by a rogue planetoid made of dense neutronium. The gravitational forces wreak havoc. The planetoid will hit the earth right on top of Pacifica. The vault will survive, but everyone must evacuate. They do, with some typical chaos. Brett still plans to cut a hole in the vault and steal some gold and H128 in the few minutes he has. Power and communications are lost. Matthews gets the idea to launch all of Pacifica's nuclear missiles at the planetoid, in hopes of deflecting its orbit. He fires them. We also learn that it was Brett's sabotage that killed Bill, not Matthews. Lia apologizes for being a petulant jerk. While they wait for the impact, Matthews goes to the vault and discovers Brett and the theft plan. They fight. Brett falls into some H128 and turns into a puff of smoke. The missiles hit and deflect the planetoid just enough. Earth is safe. Everyone smiles. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Allen is usually good for a fast paced action film. His characters might be a little two-dimensional, but they're seldom standing still. Fights, explosions, models of techy-stuff with LOADS of blinking lights. All this appeals to one's inner eight-year-old. The inner adolescent boy can smile at how deep-sea is, like outer space, populated with pretty young women with great legs in short skirts and high heels.

Cultural Connection
Irwin Allen had always been fond of disasters. Most of this television efforts featured them. After the failure of CBtS to find traction, Allen left television for awhile and produced such iconic disaster films as The Poseidon Adventure ('72) and Towering Inferno ('74). Yet, Allen would try another undersea TV show pilot in '78 with The Amazing Captain Nemo, which would also fail to find backing and wind up a movie.

Notes: Allen, Recycle Master
Reused Title -- There was already a movie titled City Beneath The Sea. Universal released it in 1953. It starred Robert Ryan and Anthony Quinn, but was not a sci-fi flick. It did, however, feature a large cache of gold under the sea and duplicitous attempts to steal it. The "city" in this case, was not inhabited, but submerged ruins, in which the ship full of gold just happened to sink. It is interesting coincidence that Ryan starred in two movies with the same title.

ANOTHER Rogue Planet? -- Seriously? The trope of a rogue planet on a collision course with earth was hardly new or fresh by 1971. Bellus and Zyra did that in 1951 in When Worlds Collide. This was presaged by storms and earthquakes. In Crash of Moons ('54), a rogue moon is on a collision course with the planet Posita. Earthquakes for them too. In The Day the Sky Exploded ('58), an errant asteroid threatens earth, but is exploded with a nuclear missile volley. Battle of the Worlds ('63) had a rogue planet being nuked by missiles. Gorath ('62 Japan, '64 USA) had another planetoid of doom (earthquakes and storms), but earth scoots out of the way!. The trope was far from fresh in '71, but still had "legs." It would show up in many later films too. Without Warning ('94), Armageddon ('98) and Deep Impact (also '98, a good year for rogue planets).

Prop Watch -- Allen, somewhat shamelessly, recycled props and sets from his prior television sci-fi shows. The most flagrant is the "flying sub" from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea ('64-68). The interior is reused as-is. Footage of the craft diving into the water is reused. Sharp-eyed viewers will see the model of the Jupiter II from Lost In Space ('65-68) as the top of one of Pacifica's buildings. Also for the quick-eyed, there is a glimpse of the super sub, SeaView from Voyage cruising in the background as Matthews gets a tour of the city. Also note the reuse of computer equipment and consoles from Time Tunnel ('66-67).

Star Recycling -- Stars from previous Irwin Allen productions add to the impression that CtBS was a mash-up of existing material. Richard Basehart (Admiral Nelson in Voyage) plays a secondary role as the president. Robert Colbert gets a more prominent role in CBtS as Woody Patterson. He co-starred in Allen's Time Tunnel as Doug Phillips. Colbert's Time Tunnel co-star, James Darren got a small part in CBtS as Dr. Talty who broke the news about the planetoid. Whit Bissell (also from Time Tunnel) plays Bill's father.

For No Good Reason -- Allen padded his cast with famous names, though they had no real part in the plot. Sugar Ray Robinson (the boxer) got a small walk-on part where he got to wear a hard hat and carry a clipboard. Joseph Cotton gets a minor role as chief cranky scientist who stops being cranky. Edward G. Robinson Jr. (son of the famous actor) played his last bit part as miscellaneous scientist. Casting for the marquee, apparently.

Bottom line? CBtS is moderately entertaining, even if it does amount to a leftovers stew of prior elements. It's not great (or even "good") sci-fi, but for folks who grew up on 60s sci-fi shows like Voyage and the like, (in syndication during the 70s too) there is a modest nostalgia factor.


Randall Landers said...

I thought the character Aguilla was interesting in its concept, but like most of the characters in this production, rather two dimensional.

I always figured this was part of the VttBotS universe since the Seaview and the Flying Sub appeared. Pity the President's last name wasn't Nelson. :)

Joe Boss said...

This an outstanding movie, I saw it when I was a teenager. I was taken. Now,decades later the undersea world that looked so real is now rather tawdry by today's standards. But, the screenplay is still quite interesting.
I admire this movie's attempt at depicting a futuristic undersea city and in a society so magnificent and advanced. But, lurking in it's interior men driven by greed and capitalizing on an disaster to gain wealth.
I was heart broken when this movie didn't become a television series.
Irwin Allen's work was remarkable.