Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Atomic Submarine

(1959) Directed by Spencer G. Bennet; Written by Orville H. Hampton; Starring: Arthur Franz, Dick Foran, Brett Halsey and Tom Conway; Available on DVD

Rating: ***

Confession time again!  I’m a sucker for virtually any movie that deals with undersea adventure and/or submarines (see my Atragon review).  Why am I so fascinated with what lies beneath the waves?  Maybe it’s because I once dreamed about becoming a marine biologist, or my knowledge of the fact that we understand more about the surface of the moon than the bottom of the ocean.  Whatever the reason, the sea is a vast mystery reluctant to reveal all of its secrets to land dwellers.

While The Atomic Submarine falls short of uncovering the elusive mysteries of the deep, it presents an interesting spin on the alien invasion sub-genre.  The film wears its B-movie badge with honor, meeting expectations and even modestly exceeding them.  It was a quickie designated for the Saturday matinee circuit, made on a shoestring budget of $135,000 and shot in just six days by prolific veteran director Spencer G. Bennet. Bennett was mostly associated with westerns and action serials, starting with silents in the early 20s, and approached this project with the same workmanlike efficiency he applied to his previous efforts.

The story takes place in the very near future (sometime in the 1960s), when the advent of nuclear powered vessels has led to the production of large cargo submarines and the opening of shipping routes under the North Pole.  After a series of unexplained disappearances of several submarines and surface ships, it’s up to the crew of the U.S. Navy sub Tiger Shark to investigate and make undersea commerce safe again.

In addition to the aforementioned conflict, an internal war is being waged between two of the primary characters.  Commander Richard “Reef” Holloway (Arthur Franz) is a Navy man through and through.  He’s less than enthusiastic about his new assignment on the Tiger Shark, thanks to a shore leave/romantic tryst cut short.  To complicate matters even further, he’s forced to share quarters with Dr. Carl Neilsen, Jr. (Brett Halsey), not one of his biggest fans.  Both men are idealists on opposite ends of the spectrum.  Holloway can’t see a world without the need for a military presence, while Neilsen considers the whole notion of a fighting force to be obsolete.  This dichotomy of philosophies seems surprising, given the Cold War context in which this film was produced.  The exchange between the two differing ideologies is presented in a fairly evenhanded manner that does more than provide lip service to Dr. Neilsen’s concerns, and provides plausible motivation for his character.   

The Atomic Submarine doesn’t break any new ground with its theme about a hostile alien force attempting to take over the Earth.  It’s the combination of submarine drama mixed with extraterrestrials that’s original for the time.  It’s not too difficult to imagine a young, impressionable James Cameron, inspired by the underwater alien story.  I don’t think Cameron’s ever gone on record citing this as an influence for The Abyss, but it could have had a subconscious effect.  If The Atomic Submarine wasn’t a direct influence, it’s at least a spiritual predecessor.

The Atomic Submarine never quite sheds its low budget origins.  The crude special effects, using obvious models, probably looked less than impressive back when the film originally screened.  We’re also treated to several duplicate shots of the Tiger Shark negotiating an underwater crevasse (I’ll leave you to do your own Freudian interpretation here), interspersed with stock footage that doesn’t quite match up with the action.  At times, the scale seems completely off.  The sub seems like a child’s toy compared to a saucer that’s supposedly only 300 feet across.  When a couple of the Navy men are standing around the submarine’s bow, it seems much tinier than we’ve been led to believe, judging by the interior sets.  The Tiger Shark interior sets seem a bit too spacious for a real submarine, where space would be at a premium.

Most of these elements are completely excusable, considering the speed of the production and the minimal budget.  The filmmakers did the best they could, given the limited resources that they had.  It’s harder to ignore Pat Michaels’goofy narration, however, punctuating the action like a jackhammer.  The narrator’s proclamation that “It was foolish.  It was insane. It was fantastic...” wouldn’t have been more laughable if it had been uttered by Criswell, himself.

The Atomic Submarine is often simplistic to a fault, but you can’t deny the earnest storytelling and lo-fi approach to this aquatic sci-fi tale.  It’s a trip back in time to an era when B-movies dominated the scene, and audiences were willing to suspend their disbelief as cheap plastic models fought for humanity on the big screen.

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