starring Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Eden, Peter Lorre
screenplay by Irwin Allen and Charles Bennett
directed by Irwin Allen
by Alex Jackson Take a gander at the sleeve for Fox's "Global Warming Edition" of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. The title is contained in a downward arrow in drippy, bright-red lettering. It's guiding us towards the main action, a gleaming submarine and lime-green scuba divers fighting off a one-eyed, giant red squid. Dig the curvy brushstrokes, the action lines around the charging submarine, and the flecks of paint signifying bubbles. The cast, meanwhile, is in the top-left corner: there's Walter Pidgeon with a Vincent Price moustache, Joan Fontaine with a face of granite, a gasping Barbara Eden, and behind them all, Peter Lorre pointing up at God knows what. Doesn't it just get your juices flowin'? If I were browsing the video store and happened upon this, I'd be tempted to purchase it sight-unseen, and I'd like to think it's rare that a DVD's mere packaging could encourage me to do that.
What's more, none of this really represents false advertising. Granted, the giant squid doesn't appear until the end of the movie--and to be sure, the encounter fails to live up to the hype. Yet the cover art, derived from the original one-sheet, does capture the film's aesthetic. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a carefully and lovingly constructed piece of kitsch. It's essentially a cheesy B-movie shot in glorious CinemaScope. The retro-futuristic submarine featured on the front is the star of the film. Somehow unnaturally stiff as it dives closer to the "bottom of the sea" at an awkward 45° angle, it seems tailored to invite "long, hard, and full of seamen" jokes. The dolphin-grey sub looks more like it was constructed out of plastic than out of any kind of metal alloy, while the underwater scenes are never convincing. We're always aware that we're seeing a model, but we appreciate it simply as a model. That might be the best that I'm able to explain the movie's appeal. It's awful in a way that makes it innocent and sweet and good, keeping it from being smugly condescending to The Movies themselves.
The thing that's weird about all of this is that I myself am having trouble reconciling the juxtaposition of that DVD cover with my two-star rating. It strikes me as a contradiction in terms, particularly since, as I said, the promotional artwork isn't exactly misleading. Alas, dear reader, the longer I watched this film, the less I liked it. It starts off well enough with Frankie Avalon singing the inane theme song, wherein he invites us on a voyage to the bottom the sea (huh?). I liked the film's DayGlo colours, the aforementioned awesomely cheesy special effects, and Peter Lorre. But by the end of it, I was simply worn out. The film never moves on to the next level. There's nothing challenging or provocative about it. Eventually it becomes a bit of a one-joke movie, the pop art version of a coffee-table book.
Everything good and bad about the film is arguably encompassed in writer/producer Irwin Allen's direction. Allen shoots virtually all the submarine scenes in master, so that four or five people occupy the frame at any given time, even when they're not essential for the scene. A crumb-bum director but a clever producer, Allen hired the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Winston C. Hoch (The Quiet Man, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) to shoot the thing, significantly improving the film's production values. As a result, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is simultaneously technically brilliant and incompetent. It wasn't long before I realized that I was watching marvellous, candy-coloured photographs of people talking.
The future of man's existence hangs in the balance after a meteor shower sets the Van Allen belt on fire. Excess heat is rapidly causing Earth's temperature to rise and soon the planet will be uninhabitable. Our only hope is the team of the state-of-the-art atomic submarine Seaview, led by the brilliant Admiral Harriman Nelson (Pidgeon). Nelson and fellow scientist Commodore Lucius Emery (Lorre) predict that within three weeks, the surface temperature will be high enough to fry us all. They propose firing a nuclear missile at the Van Allen belt from the Marianas Trench. By launching the missile from the right place at the right time, they believe the resulting explosion should extinguish the fire.
Top scientists at the United Nations consider the plan too risky. If we wait it out, the fire will extinguish itself. Not only that, but the crew of the Seaview think they're doomed no matter what and would rather spend their last days with their families than follow through on a futile attempt to save the planet. It's a position egged-on by rescued research scientist Miguel Alvarez (Michael Ansara)--who believes that Earth's destruction is imminent and God's will--and defended by the ship's captain, Lee Crane (Robert Sterling), whose loyalties are with his men and not to the higher-ups. Nelson gets it from all sides.
The "global warming" pretext under which the film has been repackaged is more or less bullshit. Technically, yes, the planet is heating up in the film as it is in An Inconvenient Truth. Us humans had nothing to do with setting the Van Allen belt ablaze, however--that was caused by a meteor shower. And the only thing we can do to stop the Van Allen belt from burning is to blow it up, whereas to stop global warming, everybody needs to use less toilet paper.
You know, while the global warming craze is certainly ripe for satire, it puzzled me that it was being made into a political issue. I suppose there are anti-consumerist undertones and an inference that corporations will be needlessly regulated. Still, as mentioned in the Al Gore documentary, tightened emissions standards would make our auto industry more viable overseas. Besides, wouldn't going green increase efficiency and decrease overhead costs? Not to mention the fact that caring about the environment is good for public relations. In short, environmentalism isn't inherently bad for capitalism; I certainly don't see anybody saying we should buy less, just that we should ask for paper instead of plastic, or better yet bag our own groceries.
It occurs to me that the political right's principal objection is rooted in how secularists have appropriated the apocalyptic iconology of Christianity. Instead of the world ending by the hand of a vengeful God upset at us for permitting abortion and homosexuality, it's ending because our overuse of fossil fuels is emitting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Now that they have an end-of-days scenario, secularism has become a viable religion that can effectively replace Christianity. Secularism is the only major way the doomsday scenario in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea resembles that of global warming. Allen would appear to be saying that we should put our faith in science and technology rather than in God. God (or nature) is weaker than man and can be conquered and humbled through means of atomic submarines. Indeed, Allen doesn't reduce Alvarez to a caricature and doesn't take his faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful God lightly. He sees religion as disbelief in science and thus a very real threat to the progression of the human race incarnate.
This position breaks away from the conventional anti-technology/pro-God sentiments of the monster movies of the 1950s, which were of course by-products of Romanticist Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Not only are there no mad scientists in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the scientists in the film are also the only sane individuals. Trying to figure out whether 1961's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is "brave" because of this countercultural attitude is the sort of thing that gives me nosebleeds. Suffice it to say, the film's pro-technology/anti-God position is relatively anaesthetic. There's neither mystery nor a sense of curiosity about it. I would like to believe that most real scientists are motivated by a desire to uncover the great black unknown and perhaps even a little titillated by the idea of going too far. They would probably be more interested in a good giant-bug movie.
According to an interview with Barbara Eden included on said disc, Lorre and Pidgeon got along famously offscreen. Both men were products of Old Hollywood and shared a similar sense of propriety. Eden says that they fought, almost to the floor, over who would pick up the check for lunch. When she offered to pay one time, she could see them go white. There was no way they would allow a girl to pay for their meal. That chemistry is palpable onscreen. Lorre and Pidgeon play the two brilliant scientists and we get the feeling they may be a homosexual couple. The moustachioed Pidgeon is something of an old-school sophisticate, lacking the sweaty masculinity of Robert Sterling, Michael Ansara, or, hell, Frankie Avalon (whose role in the film, like Eden's, is negligible at best). Lorre himself is often effortlessly queer, bringing in a lot of baggage from his role in The Maltese Falcon. We never see the men with any women, nor is it ever implied that they have women in their lives. The fact that they're piloting what amounts to a giant phallic symbol is the icing on the cake.
Furthermore, they hang out in the Admiral's office a lot and behind those closed doors you can sense them working out their plan for extinguishing the Van Allen belt and getting into some heated debates in the process. In public, though, Emery defends the Admiral and his plan vigorously. That's where the gay-couple reading crystallized for me--this is a parental dyad! This is what Mom and Dad are supposed to do: hash out a plan of action in private and then present a united front once the kids are in the room. Ironically, it is precisely this aspect of their relationship that neutralizes the mildly subversive "Celluloid Closet" heat that was beginning to make the film interesting. All that we're seeing is solid commercial filmmaking. Given that this submarine movie needed a human element (and perhaps to be a bit more kid-friendly), Allen turns the ship's crew into a makeshift nuclear family, with Pidgeon as the father, Lorre as the mother, and Sterling as the eldest son. The fact that it's a marriage between two men is all but irrelevant, rendering the film dull regardless of which angle you approach it from.
Fox reissues Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea on DVD in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sporting vivid colours but frequently heavy grain, a possible side-effect of the opticals employed for various shots throughout. The Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround audio, on the other hand, is pretty sweet: Dialogue in the submarine sounds appropriately hollow, underwater passages have a nice gurgle, and Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter's score--isolated on a separate track in Dolby 2.0 stereo--boasts a strong, full body. Film historian Tim Colliver records an exhaustive if unenlightening full-length commentary. Sounding a bit like a game-show host in the Pat Sajak/Marc Summers mold (which is tonally appropriate, given the film's mild kitsch appeal), Colliver tells you everything you might want to know about the production of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and how it differs from the subsequent novelization and TV series. I'd be lying if I said this wasn't an endurance test for me, but it's a nice addition if you liked the film, I guess.
I enjoyed the featurette "Science Fiction: Fantasy to Reality" (16 mins.) despite the lack of variety among the films excerpted. (They all seem to be from the Fox library.) Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are credited as the fathers of the genre. Star Trek II director Nicholas Meyer says the two men were rivals and that Verne held Wells in contempt as he did not do the science and used science-fiction solely as a means for critiquing contemporary society. Segments taken from Just Imagine make me feel embarrassed for never checking out this real curiosity, while clips from The Day After Tomorrow gave me newfound appreciation for that nutty film. Not only is it more entertaining than Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, it might be better science as well.
The aforementioned interview with Barbara Eden (6 mins.) is needlessly indexed by subject into seven categories. Aside from the observation as to Lorre and Pidgeon's chemistry, there's not much to chew on here. She does offer a bizarre anecdote about a group of psychiatrists who bumped into her on their way to a meeting and thanked her for having a show on the air ("I Dream of Jeanie") that wasn't about anything. It's so nice to turn on the TV and not have to think. Eden concludes with the Jeanie-esque observation that "every once in a while someone needs to do the laundry with their brain and clean it out and it's a good thing to have those kinds of entertainments." A promotional insert, a stills-and-props gallery, a poster and lobby card gallery, the original exhibitors campaign manual, and the film's theatrical trailer round out the platter. Originally published: October 1, 2007.