Should I Watch..? 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea'
What's the big deal?
Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea is a sci-fi action film released in 1961 that was directed and co-written by Irwin Allen, the Master Of Disaster. The film follows the crew of a technologically advanced nuclear submarine as they attempt to avert a catastrophe that has dire consequences for mankind. The film's ensemble cast is led by Walter Pidgeon, Robert Sterling, Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre, Barbara Eden and Frankie Avalon. Despite a mixed reception from critics, the film was a hit with audiences with US takings of around $7 million - far more than the film's budget. Furthermore, the film inspired the Sixties TV series as well as other shows developed by Allen like Land Of The Giants, Lost In Space and The Time Tunnel.
What's it about?
A state-of-the-art nuclear submarine, the Seaview, is undergoing trials in the Arctic Ocean including diving beneath the ice sheet and operating out of radio contact for 96 hours. The crew, led by the designer of the sub Admiral Harriman Nelson and the sub's commanding officer Captain Lee Crane, are alarmed when the sub is hit by huge chunks of ice falling from the ice shelf above. Surfacing, they are shocked to see the sky apparently on fire. Rescuing nearby scientist Miguel Alvarez, Nelson and Crane are contacted by their Mission Control who informs them that the Van Allen radiation belt surrounding the Earth has caught fire.
Consulting his friend and fellow scientist Commodore Lucius Emery, Nelson develops a possible plan to save the Earth from premature global warming. Calculating that a nuclear missile launch from the depths of the Marianas trench could extinguish the flames surrounding the planet, he presents his plan to the United Nations who dismiss it as too risky, preferring to let the Van Allen belt burn itself out. Determined to save the world, Nelson clashes with Crane as the Seaview sets off to the designated point - with rival submarines and a possible saboteur threatening the mission.
Admiral Harriman Nelson
Dr Susan Hiller
Lt. Cathy Connors
Commodore Lucius Emery
Capt. Lee Crane
Lt. Danny Romano
Irwin Allen & Charles Bennett*
Release Date (US)
12th July, 1961
Action, Disaster, Sci-Fi
What's to like?
It should be apparent that the story is a load of old cobblers but Voyage... has a number of tricks up its moth-eaten sleeve. The submarine itself is an extraordinary design, shown off to its full effect during a tour of the Seaview which not only highlights the brilliant design work by Herman Blumenthal but also makes it feel like an actual submarine. Compared to later works like The Land That Time Forgot, this film seems lightyears ahead in terms of its effects. Well, those out of the water anyway. All the hard work done by the set designs is undone by the exterior shots which feel all the world like someone playing with their toys in the bath.
Having dismissed the narrative (it is impossible for the Van Allen belt to ignite in the way shown in the film), there are a number of themes that shine through. It's a very patriotic film featuring Pidgeon at his blustering best as Admiral Nelson fighting the will of the United Nations by launching his precious nukes, flying in the face of the Lenin-lookalike scientist representing lily-livered socialism. It is very much a product of its time, released at the height of Cold War paranoia and with the slightly chilling subliminal message about the good side of having loads of nuclear weapons. These days, considering the sort of people elected in the US, this is even more worrying.
- If you wondering what a Van Allen radiation belt is, it's a collection of charged particles mostly originating from solar winds which are captured and held by a planet's magnetic field. They were discovered in 1958 and they cannot catch fire. Never say you don't learn anything from these reviews!
- The model and interior sets of the Seaview cost Allen some $400'000 so he can keen to maximise their return. Using the sets for the subsequent TV series saved a considerable amount and meant a quicker production time.
- Barbara Eden, more popularly associated with the lead role in TV comedy I Dream Of Jeannie, was married to Michael Ansara at the time of filming. They would later divorce in 1974.
- In addition to playing fast and loose with science regarding the Van Allen belt, the movie also depicts ice sinking which is also impossible. It also suggests that a glass-nosed submarine could withstand the pressure of the Marianas Trench when in reality, even modern submarines cannot dive that deep.
What's not to like?
I've always believed that few things age as badly as sci-fi, a genre which frequently lives or dies on the quality of its special effects. Voyage... is obviously hampered by the level of its effects which sadly fails to match the quality of the film's sets. The Seaview is clearly a model of a submarine drifting through a tank of water, plagued by crude-crafted seaweed and puppets of giant squid. It's easy to laugh at the film these days when audiences are treated by a bewildering array of creatures and characters composed entirely in CG. But even at the time, audiences must have seen straight through it.
The other aspect of the production which contributes to the film sinking is the overly dramatic performances of the cast. Pidgeon's practically perfect Admiral Nelson seems to have no limit to his talents which makes the supporting cast largely redundant. I was especially disappointed with Lorre who makes little impact on the film in general and clearly looks unwell. The film's overall narrative, implying the inherent greatness of the USA compared to the rest of the world, feels distinctly off-kilter these days - I can imagine it being the sort of film that influenced a teenage Donald Trump.
Should I watch it?
It might not be as ground-breaking as it was once but Voyage... has a wonderful old-school charm to it that helps it swim into your affection. It's clearly ridiculous and excessively dramatic but the film's brilliant set design and look offsets the screenplay. It's not a film to be taken seriously - this is a fun but otherwise forgettable foray into underwater excursions. This is one leaky vessel but it'll just about hold long enough.
Great For: children of the 1950s, Americans, marine biologists
Not So Great For: the CND, scientists, creating TV spin-offs
What else should I watch?
Producer Irwin Allen would be distracted by various TV projects in the years after the release of this film until he returned in 1972 with arguably one of the best disaster movies of the Seventies. The Poseidon Adventure was a gripping and thrilling escapade aboard an up-turned ocean liner with an A-list cast and brilliant set design. Allen followed this up with another iconic disaster picture - The Towering Inferno more or less repeats the formula with another A-list cast trapped high up in a skyscraper that is ablaze. Both of these films remain leading examples of the genre and crucially, lack the comical effects of Allen's earlier efforts.
Disaster films continue to attract audiences to cinemas all over the world, often in the face of a critical mauling. Films like Geostorm, 2012 and Left Behind tanked with critics while more respected efforts like San Andreas or Deepwater Horizon also managed to bring in big bucks. But if I had to pick one, I'd go for The Road which is a grim, post-apocalyptic drama with Viggo Mortensen struggling to keep himself and his young son alive in the dying days of society and the demise of humanity.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox