Friday, December 4, 2009

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

With the release of 2012 a couple weeks ago, comparisons between Roland Emmerich and Irwin Allen came running fast and furious. Appropriately enough, today we feature a film directed by Irwin Allen, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. There are plenty of similarities between the two. A gigantic threat to the world, an ensemble cast, science charitably described as shaky, and a certain obsession with the latest in special effects. Allen might not have had CGI, but he does have the best scale models 1960s dollars could buy.

Here, we've got an exciting new submarine, helpfully completely explained with an elaborate tour immediately at the beginning of the picture. Walter Pidgeon is Admeral Nelson, the man behind the submarine, which is big and exciting. Peter Lorre is his science partner guy. Robert Sterling is Captain Lee Crane, one of the many ruggedly handsome men on the crew. There's also Frankie Avalon, pop singer, doing stuff. Also doing stuff is Barbara Eden as a woman, Crane's girlfriend, who is there with Joan Fontaine to break up the sausage party. Miguel Alvarez is a survivor found on the ice played by Michael Ansara, who is a preacher who believes the end is nigh. Together, they live on the exciting submarine, when they discover that the sky is on fire because the Van Allen Radiation Belts weren't fully understood by the man writing the script. There's also Jimmy Smith, played by Mark Slade, whose fate can be determined immediately after he is introduced.

Voyage leans heavily on spectacle and novelty. The hope is clearly that people will be so amazed by things underwater that they can gloss over the things that aren't very interesting. It's clear that the sheer novelty of a heavily underwater movie was hoped to enthrall everyone, even if it wasn't an entirely great movie. There are lots of look at that moments, including a giant squid which gets on the cover of the DVD.

However, there's a problem, and that's pacing. In short, the pacing is no good. The first 20 minutes are entirely exposition. The next 20 minutes are also exposition, with a couple things happening. The vast majority of the picture entails explaining what is going on, what was going on, and what will be going on. Since the science involved doesn't actually have anything to do with real science, one gets tired of constant sequences of people sitting around talking in submarine sets.

That sitting in sets has the unfortunate effect of getting rid of the tension. While there's a world crisis going on. Cities are burning, humanity is on the brink of destruction, and there's a highly risky plan to save it. However, we are safely seated in a stable, sterile submarine with all of the fire and destruction being kept safely at an arms distance. No matter what's going on in the rest of the world, we aren't ever in danger, because the submarine of hopes and dreams never feels like it's in genuine trouble. Plus, the world loses contact quite early on, making it easy to forget the stakes. While the tension eventually spills over into the submarine - and the film gets much better as a result - it takes so long to happen one is forgiven if they bail before that happens.

It is a pretty interesting premise, and the idea of a small group of people in close quarters forced to execute a plan they don't completely trust under extreme duress is a smart one. The recent Battlestar Galactica series mined a lot of genuine tension and excitement out of this same situation. The moments very late in the film that mine this conflict show plenty of promise. It just takes too long to get there. While the last forty minutes might be exciting, and finally achieve the tension the film had, until that point, failed to, it's still after an hour of awkward exposition and flawed explanations.

There's also something really odd that doesn't help - there's too much space, both in the sets and between the actors on them. This ties in to my earlier complaint about the tension taking far too long to build, but I can't help that the tension would be increased if it was filmed in a way that was a bit more claustrophobic. Huge sets and huge distances between characters - combined with a camera that wants to take in the entire set and isn't especially dynamic - ruins the illusion of close quarters. If you set a movie in a sub and mine tension out of it, you want the characters to be getting in each others' way, or at least feel that they are. They don't really do that here, and it's a subtle but unfortunate issue.

Curiously, while I didn't particularly like the film, there's a lot of promise in the general idea. It takes a long time to get there, but that same last hour has a lot of interesting ideas I'd like to see someone explore more. In spite of the poor science, staid direction and the dreadful pacing, there's a good movie hidden in here.

I've never been able to say that about Roland Emmerich.

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