Tonight's Netflix film was Irwin Allen's VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961), and I was enchanted with it pretty much from the moment Alfred Newman's CinemaScope Extension theme played after the 20th Century-Fox fanfare. The music, closely associated in later years with STAR WARS (1977), seemed to herald the start of a fun new adventure, and indeed it was.
The movie has a terrific cast, including Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, Robert Sterling, Peter Lorre, Barbara Eden, and Frankie Avalon, who also sings the title song. Any movie that's got the names Regis Toomey and John Litel side by side in the opening credits makes me happy! The cast even has Mark Slade, best known as Billy Blue Cannon on HIGH CHAPARRAL, and Barbara Eden's then-husband, Michael Ansara.
The movie is colorful, fanciful fun, along the lines of a '50s sci-fi movie, but with a submarine thrown in as an added bonus. (I love submarine movies, so the order "Dive! Dive!" is music to my ears.) The movie it's closest to might be THE MAGNETIC MONSTER (1953), as they both feature fancy technology battling a scientific "monster." It's not meant to be taken very seriously, but should simply be enjoyed as the ultimate popcorn movie. Just sit back and relax while Walter Pidgeon saves the world!
Pidgeon plays Admiral Harriman Nelson, a scientific genius who's the creator of the dazzling new atomic submarine the Seaview, so named as it has a nose with giant glass windows. The sub has some observers on board during a shakedown cruise, including a congressman (Howard McNear) and a doctor (Fontaine), when things suddenly turn grim. The sky turns red due to the Van Allen Radiation Belt, which is causing the 1961 version of "global warming," raising the earth's temperature to 135 degrees. If a solution isn't found and the temperatures keep going up, well, it's all over for Planet Earth. (It's a little hard to take the Radiation Belt seriously when producer-writer-director Allen obviously named it after himself!) (Update: The Van Allen Radiation Belt catching fire may have been silly, but check out the comments -- turns out it's real and "Allen" being part of the name was just a coincidence!)
Admiral Nelson and his trusted advisor Commander Emery (Lorre) have a plan: The sub must travel to a specific location by a specific date and fire an atomic missile at the radiation belt at a specific time. This will somehow thrust the radiation belt back into space and stop the earth from overheating. Since the warming has wreaked havoc with communications, the Admiral can't get Presidential approval and must make critical decisions on his own, sometimes going against the advice of the sub's captain (Sterling). Will the Seaview reach its destination in time? And who's trying to sabotage the Admiral's plans?
It may be somewhat mindless fun, but it's really well-done, good-looking mindless fun. The submarine is gorgeous, with its sleek lines and state-of-the-art communications systems; I'd love to know how they get TV reception underwater! I'm also wondering how the water stays in the onboard acquarium when the sub surfaces at the nearly straight-up angle seen at the start of the movie.
Everyone's very gung-ho and seems to be having a good time. Barbara Eden, as the Admiral's aide, is stuck sighing "Oh, Lee," to Robert Sterling way too often, but she does get the chance to do a brief dance while Frankie Avalon plays the trumpet. Fontaine's character motivations were a bit vague, but she's interesting; Ansara's character turns out to apparently be just nuts, and he's not so interesting.
Pidgeon, Sterling, and Lorre are wonderfully cast; Pidgeon's sci-fi history in FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) and Lorre being a veteran of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) helps make them a perfect fit for this film.
My major criticism of the movie is that, at an hour and 45 minutes, it's just a tad long. I think they could have trimmed some of the calamities faced by the crew and shaved off five or six minutes for a brisker pace; maybe they could have skipped the sea monster battle which somewhat emulates REAP THE WILD WIND (1942).
A Special Edition DVD has been released in the Fox Cinema Classics Collection. Extras include a commentary track.
The movie has also been released in a two-film DVD set, paired with FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), and in a four-movie set. The movie has also had multiple releases on VHS.
In addition to Netflix, the DVD can be rented from ClassicFlix.
The trailer is available at IMDb.