We live today in a world (…in a world…) where if a filmmaker wants to show something enormous or impossible, they use CGI. We’ve trained our brains to suspend disbelief (unless it’s particularly awful) and go along for the ride. CGI keeps getting better and better, luckily, but I still always have the sense that it isn’t actually a thing.
For a long time in movies, CGI’s same tricks were performed using miniatures and scale models. We know the models aren’t really the size they’re meant to be, and sometimes they just look like toys, but if they’re done well, they can be super effective, maybe even more so than the best digital representation. One of the kings of making big movies with little things was Irwin Allen, and one of his undisputed masterworks has to be 1961’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Irwin Allen was a producer, director, writer, and all around big idea man who produced a few films in the 1950s but began really making a name for himself in the 1960s. He began the first year of that decade with his adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which employed liberal use of monitor lizards and crocodiles dressed up to look like dinosaurs (not well, either), composited to look like they were massive. It did okay at the time, but certainly wasn’t anything more than mindless spectacle. However, for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Allen set up a convention very much like what would eventually make up Star Trek, only on Earth and in the water: a crew aboard an experimental, futuristic submarine has to save the world amid United Nations censures, the threat of mutiny and sabotage, and the occasional giant squid.
It ends up being surprisingly effective.
We begin with a tour of the new experimental sub Seaview, designed and built by engineering genius Naval Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon from Forbidden Planet) who has brought along his retired scientist friend Commodore Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre) for deep sea science missions. It also has a butt-load of nuclear weapons, but that’s only if the damned Ruskies try anything. Emery’s job on board is to study sharks and things. One of the people being shown around is famed psychologist Dr. Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine), who is working on a study about stress among submarine crews. The commanding officer is young and idealistic Capt. Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) whose fiance, Lt. Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden), is the Admiral’s secretary. Also, just for good measure, is a young Lt. JG played by heartthrob Frankie Avalon, who also sings the film’s theme.
While showing off the ship in the Arctic Circle, the polar ice caps suddenly melt. Seaview surfaces to see the sky on fire. They rescue a scientist (Michael Ansara) and his dog, the last survivors of a wrecked research vessel. Upon returning to New York City, the sky is red with flame because the Van Allen radiation belt has caught fire from a meteorite striking in just the right way. Calculations prove that the fire will eat up the oxygen and will kill all life on Earth within a month if they don’t do something. Admiral Nelson, along with Comm. Emery, give a speech to the United Nations in New York that they can speed the Seaview halfway around the Earth to a specific spot near the Equator where the ozone layer is thinnest, and fire a specific nuclear missile into the Van Allen Belt, they can put out the fire and save everyone. The problem is, the UN’s top scientist doesn’t believe it will work and the President concurs with him, leaving Nelson no choice but to go off and do the mission anyway, regardless of if they have government support.
That’s already a pretty tense situation, but it continually builds throughout the course of the film. Seaview is going as fast as it can to reach the spot by the day and time it needs to fire the rocket, which means the crew is working extra hard. Things becomes tenser still when the Admiral wants to keep them from watching the news while on the mission to keep the crew focused, causing unrest among the men. As if THAT weren’t enough, someone, or someones, on board are attempting to sabotage the mission and discredit Admiral Nelson leading toward a mutiny. And if THAT STILL weren’t enough, the U.S. Navy decides to send its own subs to shoot the Seaview down to keep it from accomplishing its mission, which fewer and fewer people now believe will succeed. All of these issues fall on the shoulders of Capt. Crane, who must determine whether the Admiral really is correct, or if he’s lost his mind entirely.
So, so much going on in this movie. It never gets boring, because, hell, there isn’t time to. The movie’s 105 minutes are packed with action and struggle and suspense and it’s amazing how much plot and character development gets crammed into it. Even though there are these huge, literally Earth-changing ideas going on, the film still maintains itself as an action spectacle. The shots of the Seaview itself, both underwater and when it surfaces, are gorgeous and shot in a way to make the ship look huge and not like the scale model it is are (scale is all-important). There is a sequence part of the way through the film where the submarine comes across a giant squid and men with harpoon guns have to go and shoot it. That’s about as schlocky and like The Lost World as the movie gets, though. (The squid is a model, too, not another animal in disguise.)
Another, very tense sequence sees the ship come upon a field of sea mines floating right in its path. The crew navigates too close and snags the chain of one, so a mini-sub has to go out and try to free it, leading to a devastating series of explosions. These are all such a joy to watch.
The movie only has a 6.0 rating on IMDb, which I find criminally low. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a very fun, exciting, and yes, slightly dated sci-fi adventure movie that feels like a space flick but isn’t. Irwin Allen went on to produce television shows, like the much-beloved Lost In Space, but also produced a television version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea which lasted for 110 episodes between 1964 and 1968. It upped the extraterrestrial/underwater alien angle in order to compete with Star Trek, but it was very popular. He then produced two of the biggest disaster movies of the ’70s, in The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and the name Irwin Allen is still synonymous with huge miniature effects.
I highly recommend watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It was a revelation.