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Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Neptune Factor

More of a disaster film than sci-fi, The Neptune Factor (TNF) is a Canadian production, released by 20th Century Fox in August of 1973. TNF features better-known actors among the cast. Ben Gazzara, Walter Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, Yvette Mimieux. It was shot in wide screen and given an opulent score. Writer Jack DeWitt was more experienced in westerns and TV productions. The sub-genre of undersea sci-fi was more popular in the 50s and early 60s. Disaster befalling a seabed station was not particularly fresh as a premise. Other seabed movies were more sci-fi, which may be why TNF is classified as sci-fi when it really isn't.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Work proceeds for the crew of the sea floor station: Ocean Lab II. Dr. Andrews (Pidgeon) and Dr. Jansen (Mimieux) supervise from the support ship. Suddenly, an earthquake strikes. Ocean Lab is jostled over the sea cliff. Communications are lost. Everyone searches for the lost lab but find nothing. The Royal Canadian Navy sends one of the subs to search, but after three days, it finds nothing. The last hope is the Neptune 2, a new research sub. It and it's cranky commander, Blake (Gazzara) arrive. Calculations are than the Ocean Lab has only two more days of oxygen, if anyone survived. On the first dive in Neptune 2, they find nothing except some seaweed that should not be there. Samples from the lost lab, says Jansen. They go down again, this time with Jansen as onboard seaweed expert. When Blake wants to call it quits, she releases the tether so they can search on. So they do. Through various trials and tribulations (falling sand 'storm', giant goldfish, loss of power, giant crab pushing them over a cliff, etc.) they are near the last of their battery power. Jansen picks up a locater beacon from the OceanLab. They find it, but it is empty. The survivors are huddled in a cave, trapped by a swarm of giant eels. They are almost out of air. Mack (Borgnine) and Blake take spare tanks to them. One of the survivors sacrifices himself to the hungry eels so the other two can escape. They do. The Neptune 2 returns to the surface. Everyone shouts hooray and smiles. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
TNF wants to be an epic story of disaster and survival. It tries hard, in some ways. The score is powerful and majestic. Sweeping seascapes in widescreen try to be grand. Wildlife footage tries to be impressive. "Look at the cool fish!" None of it quite works, but one has to admire the effort.

Cultural Connection
A disaster film amid disasters. Conquest of the Deeps Productions could not have anticipated it, but TNF was released at probably the best time. In June, 1973, two months before TNF was released, a real deep sea disaster was making headlines. The story was similar to TNF's. A research submersible, the Johnson Sea Link, got trapped in some wreckage deep off the coast of Key West. A Navy sub was dispatched, but had trouble freeing them. The survivors ran out of air. Two of the crew died of carbon dioxide poisoning before being rescued. Two others survived. A made-for-TV movie would retell the Johnson Sea Link story in 1974. Then, in August 1973, the research sub Pisces III sank to the bottom off the coast of Ireland while inspecting. There too, was a headlines-grabbing rescue mission. Another submersible was sent to rescue the trapped divers, who made it to the surface with just minutes of air remaining.

Go Canada! -- There is evident national pride at work in TNF. Canadian flags are painted on the vessels, the Canadian Navy sends one of its majestic (if not-overworked) submarines. Second unit work includes footage of the actual HMCS Onondaga, on its fruitless rescue mission. Even the mini-sub that ultimately succeeds, the Pisces IV was built in Canada. Since the story iand acting are a bit flat, perhaps the real mission of TNF is to wave the Canadian flag. This, it does.

Star Gazing -- Walter Pidgeon, whose role as Dr. Andrews aboard the support ship Triton, is fairly disposable. He does little beyond trying to look worried. Sci-fi fans will recall him (emoting more) as Mobius in Forbidden Planet ('56). Yvette Mimieux also turns in a very flat performance as Dr. Jansen. She is better known in sci-fi as Weena in 1960's The Time Machine. Ben Gazzara, apparently more at home as a mobster, does little more than smirk askance. Ernest Borgnine, more at home in sea stories (McHale's Navy, Poseidon Adventure, etc.) seems to have been the only actor trying to put any feeling into his/her character. Director Daniel Petrie was no novice, so had gotten actors to emote before. Why not in TNF? Perhaps he did not really care much about the TNF project either, even though he was born in Canada.

Sub Star -- The mini-sub that is almost a co-star, the Neptune 2, looks to be the Pisces IV. It was built in Canada to be sold to the Russians, but this sale was blocked in the interests of national security. Such vessels tend to get modified from mission to mission, so photos of the real Pisces IV never quite look the same, nor quite exactly like the model created for TNF.

Uncrushable -- For all of the talk of the OceanLab being crushed (the word "imploded" gets said rather often), and supposed risk of Neptune 2 getting imploded too, scuba divers seem to be able to get along just fine at those dangerous depths. It is also interesting how shallow-depth corals, such as elkhorn coral manage to thrive as such great depths too.

A Nod To Malthus -- in keeping with the zeitgeist of the early 70s, the mission of Ocean Lab 2, was to study ocean living for food sources and living space for earth's perilously expanding population. This was only stated once in passing dialogue, not a drum loudly beaten. Still, this was the early 70s. mankind was doomed to overpopulation and starvation. Everyone knew it, so it had to be said.

Bottom line? TNF is a ponderously slow-paced film with predictable plot twists and fairly two-dimensional characters. There is very little sci-fi to it, as all of the visible technology is state-of-the-art for 1973. Nothing futuristic. The special effects (little fish in a tank filmed close-up so as to appear "large") was old hat in the 60s. Much of it looks like it was filmed with little models in a 100 gallon fish tank. The acting (or the directing) are noticeably flat. For a disaster film, everyone remains unfazed. Perhaps the message is that the Canadians are a stoic lot. Fans of more action-packed sci-fi will probably be better advised to skip TNF. Fans of scuba films may find enough to like.


Randall Landers said...

Definitely more of a tour of a rather small aquarium than an adventure movie. The model of the sub looks to be 3 inches long, and is not very believable when employed in the shots with the "giant" tropical reef fish.

Unknown said...

A fairly cool congregation of actors with absolutely nothing to say. Mouth agape, I watched this to the end on FXM. Money back please.