Flashback Review: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

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They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover. The same is true with a movie. You can’t judge it by its poster, the DVD packaging, or even the title. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a great example of this phenomenon. The title alone conjures up images of a deep sea adventure, exploring uncharted territory, meeting fascinating and exotic creatures. While nearly the entire film does take place at sea, it really isn’t any of those things that the title or artwork otherwise suggest. Instead, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a disaster movie. A more fitting title might be The Day the Sky Caught Fire, because that’s exactly what happens. Actually, to be more precise, it’s the Van Allen Belt that ignites.

Those of you who know a thing or two about the planet that we live on may point out that the bottom of the sea and the Van Allen Belt are two very different things, and are also very far apart. Therefore, how can one movie cover such extremes? Let’s just say that it covers a lot of ground. For Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea this actually works well. The terror of the sky being on fire leads to a lot of tense moments and gives the film an urgent, edgy tone. On top of that, the film makers felt obligated to explore other film genres while also dealing with the disaster. At times the film feels like a war movie, a psychological thriller, a mystery, and even a horror film.  

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Still, this is a sci-fi adventure movie through and through. Even if it is a little clumsy or scientifically backward, it is still entertaining, even today. There’s a reason that a television show of the same name was later produced, based on the characters and events in this film. Plus, the entire premise of the film (at least at its base level) feels more fitting today than ever. With such preoccupation in today’s society concerning global warming, the apocalypse, and environmental change, this film is an interesting examination of those phenomena taken to the extreme. There’s nothing philosophical or prophetic here, just an interesting study of how society would react to impending doom. Yes, the special effects are dated, the acting is wooden at best, and the script feels forced, but this is classic Hollywood doing what it does best; mining hysteria for entertainment.  

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Story: Admiral Nelson is a world-renown scientist who has just completed his latest project, a highly advanced research and military submarine. While on an exploratory mission, the sky suddenly catches fire. The earth is roasting alive as the temperature increases each day. Nelson puts his scientific mind to use and comes up with a solution to save the Earth. The submarine races to New York to address the UN and explain Nelson’s plan, but not everyone on the planet agrees that Nelson’s plan is the right way to move forward. Nelson, confident in his work, sets off to put his plan into motion anyway. Those that oppose him are trying to track him down and stop him. Will he succeed against the odds or are the doubters correct?….Good (8.0/10)

Acting: Walter Pidgeon brings some classic acting style to the role of Nelson. Although he doesn’t seem very emotional and doesn’t really have any chemistry with the other actors, Pidgeon does well enough. Peter Lorre plays Nelson’s scientist friend, and to be honest doesn’t really have much to do the whole movie. Robert Sterling plays a fiery young Captain serving Nelson, and brings some emotion and common sense to the movie, yet his character feels like it is made of cardboard. Joan Fontain plays a doctor on board, and is the annoying counter to Nelson who never really seems to do anything important. Finally, there is Michael Ansara, who plays a mysterious man that the crew picks up. Ansara is good at the mystery, but again the character isn’t written very well. The rest of the cast really hams it up. Okay (6.5/10)

Direction: Director Irwin Allen is best known for making cheesy sci-fi and adventure movies, which is exactly what Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is. It isn’t artistic, the execution leaves a little to be desired, and the plot seems to surge forward and get bogged down on a whim. Irwin seems to get caught up in small details that he thinks will “flush out” the story but only make it drag. He doesn’t seem to understand the type of drama required for a feature film format, and maybe this is why he went on to do a lot of work in television where it would fit better.  What Irwin does best is create hysteria and tension. He also makes the B-movie special effects at least watchable. In those moments, the film is fun to watch. It is too bad then that Irwin doesn’t really know how to make characters and keep his actors giving consistent performances in order to engage the audience.  Okay (5.0/10)

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Special Effects/X-Factor: This movie is a step up from a 50’s era sci-fi B-movie in terms of realism and special effects. However, that doesn’t mean it is anything great. The action sequences are obvious models, but the sets do look nice and believable. When the submarine is under attack, the interior shots are really pretty good and feel realistic. There’s not one but two laughable giant octopus sequences, and the way that Irwin likes to use the same footage over and over again is pretty painful. Overall, this film seems to have gotten lost in the annuls of history and after viewing it, there’s a good reason why. It just isn’t special enough and doesn’t transcend from being a low form of movie entertainment. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch. Okay (5.0/10)

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·         What’s Good: Old-fashioned Hollywood B-movie fun, an adventure movie where it counts, lots of thrilling moments, and a tense tone gives the movie some bite.

·         What’s Bad: The director and the story are trying to do too many things, none of the characters are very well written or likable, the acting is wooden, the special effects are dated, and the movie is downright silly at times.

 

Verdict: A standard old-school Hollywood B-movie with a few surprises up its sleeve.