Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

When it’s on: Thursday, 31 August (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Race from outer space to seven miles below the sea … with amazing aquanauts of the deep!

Anyone who thinks that movies about freak weather conditions are a recent phenomenon has clearly forgotten the work of Irwin Allen, the disaster flick connoisseur who at the turn of the 1960s was busy serving up Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a science fantasy that revolves around an environmental disaster. Sure, you could pick up any number of elements contained in the film and hold them up for ridicule. Things take place that simply couldn’t (sinking chunks of ice!) happen, but cinema’s sense of licence back then occurs still, as Dara O Briain’s expert deconstruction of the ‘science’ behind 2012 demonstrates. These were just more innocent times, with the movies to match, and personally I have a lot of affection for this sort of caper. It’s gloriously silly. Allen, in conjunction with veteran screen writer Charles Bennett, throws just about every cliche he can dream of at the screen. This means that alongside the tense submarine drama there are collisions with giant octopuses and our heroes drifting into minefields, which presumably had been carelessly left in the middle of the ocean at some point, and yet it’s a lot of fun. I don’t see much wrong with that.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea opens with a title song from Frankie Avalon, the Billboard sensation who also takes a supporting role in the film. Admiral Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) has built a state of the art nuclear submarine, the Seaview, which he is testing in the Arctic Ocean. His captain, Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) is showing a team of visiting delegates around the vessel, including Joan Fontaine as Susan Hiller, a psychologist who wants to review the mental effects of working on a submarine among the crew. Disaster strikes with the revelation that the Van Allen radiation belt circling the earth has been hit by meteors, setting it on fire and heating up the planet. The United Nations boffins, led by Henry Daniell’s German (obviously) physicist, believe the skies will return to normal once it’s burned itself out, but Nelson thinks this is folly and only a hit from one of the Seaview’s atomic bombs, delivered at a precise time and location, can save the world from destruction. Discredited and hounded out of the UN, Nelson guides his submarine towards its date with destiny, pursued by the authorities, which now consider him to be a dangerous renegade, as the crew similarly begins to doubt him.

There’s the germ of a very suspenseful thriller here. Steadily, those working on the Seaview turn against their leader, partly out of a desire to get back to their families – if these are to be their last moments, then they want to spend them with the people they love. Even Captain Crane’s loyalty comes into question as the odds start mounting, and this puts him into conflict with his wife (Barbara Eden) who also happens to be the Admiral’s PA. Only Peter Lorre’s retired scientist remains as a staunch ally, amid concerns that the old man’s propensity for playing with sharks in the sub’s tanks aren’t ovewhelming proof of his sanity. Rumours circulate about a saboteur on board, and then there’s the presence of a new age Christian (Michael Ansara) who reaches for his bag of Bible quotes with every fresh peril, each new portent of doom.

But there wasn’t the sustained interest in turning this into a serious drama. Instead, the film opts for spectacle and matinee thrills, attempting a broad entertainment that by and large works. You know what you’re getting when the Seaview stops on the seabed to attempt a communication with the American president by tapping the Rio-London cable, and falls foul of a squid that is understandably annoyed by having its slumber interrupted and attacks the captain. Later, the crew agree that the solution to being fired upon by an enemy submarine is to dive down into the Mariana Trench, the logic being that only the Seaview can go so deep and not implode due to the pressure. While all this is going on the Admiral and Lorre hole up in his quarters, poring through scientific data and chain-smoking, resolute that their theory is correct. Barbara Eden flits between them and the Captain, tottering around on high heels when not jiving to the trumpeting serenades from Mr Avalon’s firebrand junior officer.

By the end, the sense of astonishment that such a lot has been packed into the film’s 100 minute running time is palpable. A great deal happens, told in an episodic ‘the next damn thing’ way, and maybe the speed of events and the movie’s casual, almost random way of killing its cast members are enough to prevent viewers from thinking too much about the dodgy science behind it all. Certainly, the latter became the subject of many scathing reviews, though this wasn’t enough to put the paying public off. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea made a healthy profit and helped to spawn the successful TV series, which recycled both the plot and many of the film’s sets. In its favour it looks great, L. B. Abbott’s visual effects put to good use in showing us those angry red skies that seem to imprison the Earth and everybody on it. There’s a pleasing mix of contemporary storytelling and grab-bagging from the nautical yarns of Jules Verne, and besides it’s a bit of a treat to watch a film of this kind that doesn’t try to beat us over the head by yelling all this is happening because of mankind’s folly. Instead it’s a romp, a yarn, very much a tall tale, one that wastes half its cast (no really good reason for the presence of Fontaine or Lorre) but aims innocently to please, and for the most part manages it.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: ***