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Schlock & Awe: THE NEPTUNE FACTOR

Schlock & Awe: THE NEPTUNE FACTOR

I love any movie with miniature models used to represent massive ships or locations. If skilled craftspeople make a whole cityscape to be destroyed by Godzilla or a runway for a model airplane to land, I’m filled with childlike glee. That’s why I loved Thomas the Tank Engine as a kid, and why I love Gerry Anderson Supermarionation shows even today. Before CGI, model shots were the only way to properly convey some of the amazing worlds sci-fi movies wanted to depict. But sometimes those effects look super silly, and that’s why it’s worth watching (and loving) 1973’s The Neptune Factor.

NOTE: I couldn’t find a trailer for this movie, so here’s just a bunch of scenes that illustrate the same point.

The Neptune Factor, directed by Daniel Petrie, comes from a long line of movies about people going underwater in a cool-ass submarine. The effects in movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea were pinnacles of their respective decades and were pretty damn enjoyable movies otherwise. But until Kino Lorber released The Neptune Factor on Blu-ray recently, I’d never even heard of it. Lost to time, or just not worth remembering?

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Well, the real answer is the latter, but I think it’s worth talking about because of how weird it all is. I love a good swing-for-the-fences-and-whiff movie, and The Neptune Factor is one of those. One of the very first major productions in Canada, the movie wanted to be a major blockbuster (before that term existed) and be thought of right up there with the aforementioned movies, and the huge Irwin Allen effects movies like The Poseidon Adventure and City Beneath the Sea. It had a very serious, grown-up script by Jack DeWitt, underwater cinematography by Paul Herbermann, and a score by absolute genius Lalo Schifrin. And with a cast with people like Ben Gazzara, Yvette Mimieux, Walter Pidgeon, and Ernest Borgnine, how could it fail? Well…

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The story begins with the crew of an undersea research facility called Oceanlab. They’re about to leave after an extended stay underwater; we get the plight of some of the crew members, including a guy who nearly got another man killed and a guy who can’t bring himself to go on another tour when the time’s up. Dr. Hamilton (Michael J. Reynolds) is ready to go be with his fiance, Dr. Leah Janesen (Mimieux) who’s working on the project on the surface. Unfortunately, a massive underwater earthquake disrupts things and the lab is lost. Dr. Andrews (Pidgeon) flees in experimental submarine captain Adrien Blake (Gazzara) to try to find them, exploring parts of the ocean that nobody had been to, and along with him he brings Jansen, Chief Diver MacKay (Borgnine), and Diver Bob Cousins (Donnelly Rhodes, Doc Cotton from Battlestar Galactica!)

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So, those are the building blocks for a pretty good movie, and the beginning even has some nice underwater photography of dives. It’s a bit slow, but it really worked pretty well. And then the submarine voyages start and, boy howdy. The sub never doesn’t look like a little tiny toy. Usually, the “miniatures” used for movie special effects were actually pretty big, they just weren’t AS big as full sized. This largeness made them look more realistic and weighty. Here, it’s like the submarine is one of those ones you’d put baking soda in to make it zip around your bathtub. And why was this? Well, for one very special reason…

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The submarine encounters giant fish and squids and things in the deepest depths of the ocean, but instead of creating puppets or mechanical versions, they just shot real fish that looked weird. However, the fish are pretty small to begin with, so even when shooting them with a very wide lens, they look absolutely minuscule. At one point, Dr. Jansen even looks out a porthole and says “My gosh, I’ve seen something like this before, but it was two inches long!” and then we see a fish that’s clearly only two inches long. Seeing a lionfish swim passed a little toy submarine does not make for a particularly epic action sequence.

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That aside–and maybe because of it a bit–The Neptune Factor is a fun little oddity of Canuxploitation (the term for Canadian genre movies) with really great music and some excellent acting. It’s astounding to me how many movies have been totally off my radar, and it’s great when companies like Kino release them to the world. Also, little fish look little. Let it be known.

Images: 20th Century Fox


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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