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Friday, January 22, 2010

The Underwater City

For a somewhat refreshing change, Columbia's Underwater City (UC) is set in inner space instead of the ubiquitous outer space. It is the tale of a self-sustaining colony on the sea floor -- a blend of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Project Moon Base. It combines several traditional B-sci-fi elements, but in a less-common aquatic twist. A visionary scientist sees his dream of an undersea city come true.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Junius Halstead and other scientists are surveying the sea floor for a site to build Amphibia City. Their geologist, Dr Wentz, is killed by a giant moray eel. Undaunted, Halstead gets funding. Bob Gage is retained as engineer. Gage does his job, but is regularly dismissive of the project's goals. The rest of the team includes Halstead's niece Dr. Monica Parker, a navy buddy of Bob's named Chuck and a dietician named Phyllis. With much industriousness, the city is built. The crew, including a newlywed couple, live in Amphibia City to prove its viability. Bob continues to be a chauvinist jerk to Monica. Chuck is obsessed with getting drunk, Phyllis cooks up seaweed, and fish are rounded up like cattle, etc, etc. Chuck finds whiskey in a sunken ship. He and Bob rescue Monica from a sudden hole in the sea floor, which is beginning to collapse. The city had been built on a fault line because Wenz died before discovering it. The leaders ignore advice to evacuate the city. Naturally, disaster strikes. The sea floor quakes and the city begins to fall into sink holes. Halstead dies when his office window breaks . Most are evacuated via the special mini-sub before near-total ruin. The final six shelter in the last surviving dome until a navy sub rescues them. Romances blossom. Those involved vow to continue Halstead's dream for the future. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Many of the usual B movie sci-fi tropes and scenes are given a fresher look by being done "under water" than in space. There is a palpable "Popular Science" gee-whiz attitude throughout the film.

Cold War Angle
This is plainly stated. Underwater cities were to be the new bomb shelter. If there was a nuclear war, mankind could live beneath the sea until the surface was habitable again. Then man would emerge and repopulate the earth. UC provides a glimpse of the bunker mentality so common during the Cold War.

Late Bloomers -- To modern eyes, the budding romances between the pair of middle-aged professionals seems odd. Julie Adams (of Creature From The Black Lagoon ('54) ) was visibly in her mid-30s, though still had great legs. William Lundigan (as her eventual romantic interest) was in his mid-40s at filming. Over the decades since UC was made, on-screen "love" has become the almost-exclusive purview of teens or twenty-somethings. Love isn't for the middle-aged (or old) anymore. This makes the eventual pairings of Bob and Monica (and Chuck and Phyllis) seem a bit peculiar. How did they all get to middle age with no "significant others"?

Happy Drunk -- Another odd thing to modern eyes, is how lightly the rest of the crew take Chuck's obsession with getting sloppy drunk. In the movie, it's all cute and funny. After decades of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other awareness programs, UC's glib acceptance of drunkenness looks peculiar.

Naive Colonialism -- UC gives an interesting glimpse of the pre-environmentalist view of the world. The ocean is seen as a virgin country to colonize, farm, and extract its mineral wealth -- just as the colonists viewed the vast prairies and forests of The West. Nature is seen as inexhaustible. This is just the sort of attitude that led to the overpopulation and lack of food that Phyllis lectures Bob about, yet she's part of the problem too.

Tiny Bubbles -- A fun little visual effect are the scuba bubbles. Filmed on a dry sound stage, the actors moved in slow motion (no swimming). Bubbles (soap bubbles in air) were added in post-production. The effect isn't entirely convincing, but is clever.

Aqua Remakes -- Several familar sci-fi scenes are repeated in UC, but with the novelty of being "under water." One, is the shot of characters descending a ladder from the rocket ship, beside a large rocket fin. In UC, they descend a ladder beside big curved leg of the dome. A second common scene is the actors cowering in the foreground while "giant" monsters fight in the background. In UC, instead of fake dinosaurs or giant insects, it is an octopus and moray eel.

Bottom line? UC is a somewhat predictable remake of space colony stories, but with a Jaques Cousteau twist. The effect is pleasant enough, though not all that remarkable. For fans of the 50s sci-fi, UC will be mildly entertaining. For friends who are tired of watching 50s saucer and alien fare, it could be a welcome change.

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