Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) **˝
In the 1970’s, Irwin Allen was the king of the disaster movie. In fact, just about all the genre-defining disaster flicks of the 70’s— Earthquake, Flood, The Towering Inferno— were of Allen’s making. But despite the common perception of the disaster film as a distinct product of the 70’s, Allen was already making prototypes of the things as early as 1961, when he wrote, produced, and directed Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
With a title like that, you wouldn’t expect a disaster movie (and you certainly wouldn’t expect the ludicrously romantic main title theme, sung by Frankie Avalon— really!), but that’s exactly what’s in the offing, at least after about 20 minutes of “hey, look at this cool submarine” scenes. The sub in question is the USOS Seaview, brainchild of the famous and respected— but somewhat eccentric and dictatorial— naval architect and engineer Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon, from Forbidden Planet and the dreaded Sextette). Admiral Nelson (no relation, I expect) has been pushing the Seaview on a reluctant navy for years, and frankly, it’s entirely understandable why the brass have been fighting him so hard. Not only is there no imaginable military use for a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine with a snazzy glassed-in observation lounge in the nose where the low-frequency sonar ought to be, but the Seaview is also about four times as big as it has any reason to be, and hydrodynamically speaking, it’s a good three design generations behind the Skipjack-class attack submarine we’ll see in the scene just before this movie’s climax. Be that as it may, “Nelson’s Folly” (as the press rightly calls the Seaview) is running its trials in the Arctic Ocean as the movie begins, and a team of observers from shore is onboard to join in the fun. Congressman Parker (Howard McNear) is one of the politicians whom Nelson has had to struggle with for years to get his ship built. Vice Admiral B. J. Crawford (John Litel, from The Return of Doctor X and Flight to Mars) is an old friend and supporter of Nelson’s. And Dr. Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine, of The Witches) is a psychiatrist who has come aboard to do research on the behavior of men in stressful situations— and if you thought dorm living was stressful, you don’t even want to think about life on a submarine! Nelson and the sub’s commander, Captain Lee Crane (Robert Sterling), take their guests on a tour of the ship, introducing us to a few extra characters while pointing out all the nifty little gadgets that are sure to turn into plot devices whenever the plot itself gets around to starting. The gadgets include nuclear missiles, experimental manual arming devices that will allow missiles or torpedoes to be used effectively even when a ship’s main fire-control gear isn’t working, the Seaview’s main reactor, and a big tank full of captive sharks. Foremost among the characters we meet on this tour are science officer Commodore Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre, from The Raven and The Beast With Five Fingers— and by the way, what nitwit would staff a submarine with a science officer who outranked the ship’s commander?!), captain’s secretary and ship’s go-go dancer Lieutenant Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden, best known for her role on “I Dream of Jeannie”), and utterly useless Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Danny Romano (Frankie Avalon, who somehow found time to squeeze this in, along with Panic in the Year Zero! and Horror House, despite his busy schedule of beach party movies).
Something very strange happens while the Seaview is underway beneath the surface: huge blocks of ice begin raining down from above, as though something were melting the Arctic icepack, and nobody bothered to tell Irwin Allen that ice floats. Nelson orders the ship to the surface for a look around, and the source of the problem becomes immediately apparent. The Van Allen belt, the radioactive layer of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, has inexplicably (and need I add impossibly?) caught fire, turning the very sky into an inferno, and raising the temperature at the North Pole to levels more commonly associated with the Gobi Desert. And of more immediate concern, there is a man stranded on a rapidly melting ice floe just off the starboard bow. The mission to rescue this man— Alvarez (Michael Ansara, from The Manitou and It’s Alive!) is his name— is just the beginning of what will prove to be a very busy couple of weeks for the crew of the Seaview.
The first stop on their itinerary of adventure is New York City— the U.N. building, specifically. Apparently Admiral Nelson and Commodore Emery are even more talented than they have let on, because both men are on the short list of scientists the leaders of the world want working on the problem of the flaming Van Allen belt. At the conference, Nelson crosses swords with an Austrian scientist named Zucco (Henry Daniell, from the 1937 remake of The Thirteenth Chair and From the Earth to the Moon), who argues that the fires in the upper atmosphere will burn themselves out in about sixteen days, when the average temperature down on the surface reaches 173 degrees Fahrenheit. The admiral doesn’t buy it, and he proposes a more pro-active approach. He wants to take the Seaview to a precisely calculated point in the South Pacific, from which he will launch a nuclear missile into the Van Allen belt, literally blasting the offending layer of the atmosphere out into space. Naturally, this provokes some heated arguments, as well it should— even if it could work, one does not lightly okay a plan to strip away part of the Earth’s atmosphere, after all. In fact, the arguments become so heated that Nelson, Emery, and Lt. Connors are forced to flee the building, and return to their ship. And when the tide of the argument turns against him, Nelson makes the first of a long series of moves that will eventually have the other characters questioning his sanity— he sets sail for his calculated launching point on his own dubious authority.
This is about the point at which anything that might honestly be described as a plot comes to an end. From here on out, it’s just one long series of set-pieces in which the crew of the Seaview confront ever more dangerous obstacles to their mission. There will be minefields, sabotage, a giant squid, mutiny, an attack by another submarine, a giant octopus, and more. Finally, as the countdown to launching time reaches its final minutes, Alvarez goes all Christian Science on us, and tries to hijack the ship on the grounds that Nelson’s mission is contrary to the will of God. Whatever else one might say about Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, it sure as shit isn’t dull.
While I watched this movie, I repeatedly found myself thinking about another 60’s sci-fi adventure film involving a high-tech submarine, 1966’s Fantastic Voyage. In particular, I found myself wondering why Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was working so much better— on its own terms, even— despite the fact that its story is completely idiotic, most of the acting is terrible, and the special effects are nowhere near the equal of those in the later movie. I think the answer lies in Irwin Allen’s far more astute handling of his material. As with Fantastic Voyage, this film’s script is extremely episodic, and leaves little room for linear plot. In Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Allen has taken this episodic structure and run with it, raising it to the level of a full-scale “one damn thing after another” flick. The effect is heightened even further by the fact that most of the Seaview’s perils come completely without warning. This is most obvious in the case of the minefield and octopus episodes. Not only does nobody ever mention ahead of time the existence of minefields in the waters through which the sub will be traveling (a point well worth raising before embarking, if you ask me), there isn’t even any logical reason for them to be there— only a fool would attempt to mine a swath of water in the middle of the open ocean! As for the octopus, it’s the last thing in the world we expect when the Seaview’s sonar officer reports a large object on an intercept course shortly after the dogfight with the other sub concludes. I mean, we’ve already had one huge cephalopod in the movie about 40 minutes back! It’s as though Allen is saying to his audience, “Logic? What do you want with logic when I’m giving you a squid and an octopus?” And you know what? I’m having a really hard time thinking of a counter-argument to that.