Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Windsor Productions 1961.

Before watching the movie:

I’m entirely unfamiliar with this movie, but it involves shooting nuclear missiles at the Van Allen Belt to put out a fire, so the science is patently ridiculous. Apparently somehow this leads into a monster, but I’m not sure if the missiles create the monster, or if they encounter the monster on the way to where they need to shoot the missiles.

I know I’ve seen Walter Pidgeon in something, but I think the only thing is Forbidden Planet, which is completely overshadowed in my memory by showing Leslie Nielson in a serious role.

After watching the movie:

Admiral Nelson takes an experimental nuclear-powered super-sub of his own design to the North Pole for testing and to show the fruits of the Defense Department’s investment in his project to government luminaries, but as they approach their initial destination, the Seaview is pelted by ice chunks, and on surfacing in the arctic, they find the Ice Cap crumbling into the sea, melted by the extreme heat from the red sky. On making contact with land, they find out that some days earlier the Van Allen Belt caught on fire due to meteors or something, surrounding the Earth in flame. Adm. Nelson, as one of the world’s top scientific minds, is needed at the UN council on what to do about the crisis. En route to New York, Nelson determines that the most sensible course of action is to launch a nuclear missile from exactly the right coordinates at exactly the right time to dissipate the Belt, but on arriving, he finds that the world’s scientists side with another professor who believes that the Belt will burn itself out before the atmosphere reaches temperatures which would definitively destroy humanity, and so everyone insists that no action be taken. Convinced he’s right and everyone else is wrong and there’s no time for debate, Nelson runs the Seaview around the world to make the missile strike anyway, dogged by technical setbacks, mutinous crew, and sabotage.

That summary is already really long, but it casts Nelson as the protagonist when it’s really Captain Crane. Crane is more an observer than one who directly affects the plot though. He does a lot of hand-wringing about whether he should follow the Admiral or not when there are so many reasons not to. The tension erodes not only his close relationship with the Admiral, but also his relationship with his secretary and fiancee, who takes the Admiral’s side. Unfortunately, those character arcs don’t affect the big picture until the end, and there’s so much big picture the small things get lost.

“Because meteors probably” is almost exactly the explanation given for the global skyfire. They say “we don’t know why it happened, but we did observe high meteor activity just before”. It doesn’t matter what happened, it just matters that the sky is on fire. As a plot device, not even that really matters. A bad thing happened and they’re going on a journey to do a thing that may or may not stop the bad thing, because nuclear weapons will either finish humanity off or save civilization if used correctly.

As they progress, they have a fairly episodic series of adventures that bring them face to face with sea monsters twice. They’re a bit random and mainly there to make things like tapping into a phone cable more exciting. I preferred the shipboard thriller drama though, and throwing in a monster fight dragged the story down for me. But at least when they put a giant squid on the poster, they actually have a giant squid in the movie to back it up.

In yet another example of the “anyone ethnic can play any ethnicity” attitude of the era, Michael Ansara, a man of Syrian descent, plays a Latino man I think may be supposed to actually be from a Latin country, but speaks with a perfect American accent. On the one hand, I like that a movie from the early 60s acknowledges the existence of Latinos outside the “Mexican villager” stereotype, and that he’s a scientist, but it’s not great that he’s the one who’s there to say to anyone who’ll listen that this catastrophe is God’s will to bring the end of the world. His one function in the movie is to be the fatalist voice of defeat.

This is altogether a bit of a cross between a pulp adventure and a soft sci-fi thriller. There’s a lot of ways it hasn’t aged well, but it’s still fun and engaging, and an interesting, character-driven look at historic pop science.

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