Here we have another staple of the weekend "Science Fiction Theater" programmer; which had one scene which was breathlessly related to me over and over in that Stephen King "it was sooooooooooo gross!" way. Yet I somehow missed it in my childhood; my only encounter with it was a boss picture of the alien published in Famous Monsters magazine. These two caused me seek out the movie as an adult.
Waitaminnit. Did he say alien? Yep. Once again we are Getting Ahead Of Ourselves. So settle back, dig into that bowl of popcorn Mom made, and follow along.
First, the Narrator (with whom we shall become very familiar) tells that by the late 60's, atomic-powered submarines transport cargo under the Arctic ice cap with great regularity... at least until they start blowing up with equal regularity. The authorities are predictably stumped, even if we aren't... we already know that it's an underwater flying saucer doing the dirty work.
The Powers That Be decide to send in their finest killer sub, the Tiger Shark, under the command of Capt. Wendover (Dick Franz), to find out what's making ships go boom. Tiger Shark has been in drydock, undergoing speedy modifications for this mission, not the least of which is the installation of atomic torpedoes and missiles - these guys are serious. The crew of Tiger Shark is immediately called back to duty under a veil of secrecy, including our apparent hero "Reef" Holloway (Arthur Franz), the second in command on board the Tiger Shark (and I bet we don't want to know how he got that nickname). Reef is interrupted in an evening of sin with a hot 50's vixen (Joi Lansing, grrrrrwl!) by the arrival of his orders.
Reef arrives at the Tiger Shark to find that they're also hosting some visitors, not the least of which is Sir Ian Hunt (Tom Conway), whom Wendover recognizes as "the winner of the Nobel Prize for Oceanography". This impresses me not only as an odd bit of information to be carrying around in one's head - I'm a writer, and I would be hard pressed to tell you this year's Nobel Laureate for literature - but I'm also pretty sure there is no Nobel Prize for Oceanography.
Also joining the party are two underwater demolitionists (Richard Tyler & Kenneth Becker), who are referred to constantly as "the Frogmen". And Reef finds himself sharing his cabin with the pilot of the deep sea craft the Lungfish - it's docking module is another modification. At first Reef is overjoyed because he thinks it's the Lungfish's developer, his old CO, "Skipper" Neilson. No such luck. It's the other guy who designed the Lungfish, the Skipper's peacenik son, Carl, whom Reef despises for his thoroughly yellow political philosophy, providing us with a preview of the country's upcoming divisiveness over Vietnam. When Wendover advises Reef to look at things from Neilson's side, Reef replies, "What side? He's all front and no back!"
Tiger Shark soon finds out what we've known all along, and Sir Ian christens the underwater UFO the Cyclops, 'cause it looks like it has one big ol' eye on top of the saucer. They then proceed to chase the sinister spheroid, but always arrive at the stock footage of nautical destruction too late. This goes on for a month, or so the narrator tells us, as cartoon maps delineate the meandering course of the submarine.
One of the eggheads on board finally manages to figure out that the Cyclops always returns to the North Pole after one of its attacks, probably using the magnetism to recharge its batteries. After this, it's a simple tactic to wait until the next attack, then position the Tiger Shark between the Cyclops and the Pole, hopefully catching the powerful craft in a weakened state.
We all knew it was only a matter of time before they wheeled out those atomic torpedoes. Wendover fires both tubes at the Cyclops; the first one misses (and no one seems terribly concerned about a loose nuke zooming through the ocean depths), and the second is enmired in a gel-like substance extruded through the rim of the saucer. Wendover, feeling enough is enough, orders the Tiger Shark to ram the Cyclops. The sub buries itself deep in the side of the saucer. All its lights blink out. But that same gel has flooded from the ruptured hull, and the Tiger Shark, locked in place, is carried with its adversary to the bottom of the ocean.
In a case like this, the only course of action is an EVA, and Neilson pilots the Lungfish over the eye of the Cyclops, which everybody agrees is the airlock. The Lungfish, incidentally, is some sort of self-propelled bathysphere with some really ungainly control mechanisms. Leaving Neilson to guard their escape, Reef, the Frogmen and some guy who might as well be wearing a red shirt explore the saucer.
Finding the nose of the Tiger Shark, our away team sets about to cutting it loose with some really small cutting torches. Reef eventually hears a Voice In His Head, and discounting Rapture of the Deep, follows the Voice. Red Shirt tags along. Left to their own devices, the first Frogman wanders off, only to be cooked by some sort of radiation. The other Frogman panics, and seeing a door irising shut, tries to get through it - and only makes it halfway. Chances are he was crushed to death, but the implication is he was cut in half (they're pretty thin doors). This is the scene that fueled the nightmares of my friends in their younger days.
Reef, meantime, has found the source of the Voice, and its that alien I saw in FM, the whole reason I sought out this movie. As 50's sci-fi monsters go, this one is pretty goddam cool: unlike most of its filmic ilk, it is determinedly unhumanoid - we're talking about tentacles, a long hairy stalk of a neck, and a single hairy eyeball atop that stalk. Seems Sir Ian knew what he was doing when he named the enemy the Cyclops (him being a science professor and all).
The alien apparently hails from the Cliché Galaxy, as his mission is to find suitable worlds for conquest, and Earth is predictably the coolest planet he's found. Red Shirt takes a few shots at Popeye, and gets microwaved for his troubles. This Evil Eyeball tells Reef that he, and a few other Earthlings, will accompany it back to its home planet as Test Subjects. Proving itself to be no whiz kid, the Cyclops answers Reef's question of "Won't you have to see to navigate?" with a resounding, "Yes! Of course!" BLAM! After shooting out Señor Ojo's most prominent feature, Reef beats it back to the Lungfish.
Meantime, on the Tiger Shark, it has been discovered that the saucer is functioning again, and is starting to move towards the pole, submarine and all. On board the Lungfish, Neilson notices the airlock door irising shut, and throws himself into it, proving that a pacifist scientist is stronger than a highly-trained Navy SEAL. "Where are the others?" asks the scientist. "Fortunes of war!" snaps Reef, a perfect blend of the cryptic and the callous.
Good enough, as the Tiger Shark pulls itself free, but that allows the Cyclops to speed away to the Pole (The Ominous Orb has grown its eye back). The Eggheads have to (for some reason) race the clock, installing a torpedo's guidance system in a water-to-air missile. Of course, they finish just in time, blowing up the escaping Monsieur Monocle. Invasion over.
Back at the docks, Reef notices Neilson staring up at the stars, wondering which is the one they need to worry about. Reef discovers that he lost his Little Black Book on the Cyclops, and shakes his fist at the sky. The end.
That's a potent final image: a military man shaking his fist in anger at the stars. An image befitting a movie telling the tale of the eternal clash between man's ancient militant side and his newer, more spiritual side, and how this dichotomy must blend into a unified whole against the fabled Other, the Not Us, the Eternal Enemy. Yes, it is a fine closing image for such a movie. Too bad that movie isn't The Atomic Submarine.
A major problem with the flick is its over-reliance on the Narrator, who is used to advance the story over the first hour. Until Reef and the Doomed-ettes board the Cyclops, the Narrator breaks in every few minutes with his helpful animated graphics to tell us what is happening, instead of employing the actors and dialog to advance the plot. This is just lazy storytelling.
The constant verbal donnybrooking betwixt Neilson and Reef is, on the other hand, quite well-written, if weighted toward Reef's militarism in a late 1950's sort of way. Perched from the lofty heights of the current day (and as a recovering hippy myself), I of course side with Neilson. Reef's points are quite valid, but his constant chivvying and harassment of the son because "he broke his father's heart" are quite off-putting. And God forbid Reef should admit that the peacenik was actually brave, or thank him for throwing his body in that closing door....
As far as the visual elements go, predictably, much use is made of stock footage, which never quite matches the film's footage - the stuff filmed on board an actual submarine looks cramped and utilitarian, whereas the movie elements tend towards the roomy and high-tech sterile. My favorite slice of stock footage occurs during Reef's arrival at the Tiger Shark; the editor needed to transition from one scene to another somehow, and for some reason inserted a shot of the cook pulling a pot roast from the oven. It is a sublimely non-apropos image, startling in it's mundanity.
The miniatures are fine, but all too noticeably miniatures - the propellers on the subs are moving a bit too fast without any discernible wake to fool the eye. And then there is the other problem with any movie that takes place underwater - the very environment causes everything to move at a slow, balletic pace. Thank goodness there are no scuba scenes, usually the signal for a trip to refrigeratorland while characters take five minutes to go from point A to Point B. A good director can make the ponderousness of underwater vehicles generate genuine suspense or claustrophobic tension -witness The Hunt for Red October and The Abyss - but unfortunately, what we have here is Spencer Gordon Bennet.
This is not to take away Mr. Bennet's achievements - a glance at his filmography at the IMDb will net you a total of 107 films he directed, including some serials beloved by many - the 1949 Batman and Robin and The Purple Monster Strikes, to name two. Bennet wants to get to the meaty scenes on board the saucer, and gets us there with efficiency. With, say, a Robert Wise at the helm, this movie would have been an entirely different experience - the time spent hunting the Cyclops, would have made a nice midsection, slowly building audience expectation, rather than passed off with a voiceover and a slideshow.
Blame for this must also be parceled out to writer Orville H. Hampton, who has a similar body of work - the year Atomic Submarine was released, Hampton had four other scripts produced. More telling, perhaps, is his later work, most notably for the Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour. But with over 40 produced scripts to his credit, we can't say that Hampton was a bad writer - he probably worked very cheaply, yes, but he's not bad. As I've said, the polemics of Neilson and Reef are good, even if they never reach the depths (or heights) of similar philosophical set-tos in films like It Conquered The Earth.
But few characters are well-developed - in fact, only Reef truly has a personality (even it is an onerous one). The narration eventually grates, and only serves to make the brave men of the Tiger Shark look like nitwits. It took them a month to figure out they kept crossing the North Pole? Besides the Narrator, Hampton employs the Alien to explain everything else that is going on. The Alien talks entirely too much, going on and on and on until we've seen way too much of him. And let's face it - I've used the word "predictably" three times in this review - that should tell you something.
The Atomic Submarine is a sturdy, workmanlike film. It entertains, in its own fashion. Oddly, the thing this movie most reminds me of is a couple of episodes from the unfortunate second series of the original Outer Limits: "The Probe" and "Nightmare" - the interior scenes in the saucer evidenced the same spare, structure-free aesthetic and moody slashes of light - very budget-minded of the ET's. And just like some of those episodes, sadly, the story and characters just weren't up to the quality of the Bear.
- August 22, 1999