Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Atomic Submarine (1959) - #366

Point of view is everything. To us, your form of life is ugly, as we appear to you.

Fond recollections from childhood viewings and admiration for the moxie that went into making movies like The Atomic Submarine are probably enough justification for the inclusion of a few prime examples of that genre in the Criterion Collection. But once you get past the wooden acting, creaky scripts, stilted narration, corny humor, low-budget props and sheer implausibility of The Atomic Submarine's story line, you'll find themes and ideas worth pondering a bit longer than it takes to laugh away at the non-stop unraveling of sci-fi B-movie conventions. The plot synopsis is uncomplicated: a state-of-the-art nuclear sub, christened the Tiger Shark, is sent on a mission to discover and eliminate a strange underwater menace that's destroyed several other vessels trying to work their way across the Arctic Circle. Upon arrival, with the requisite senior scientific advisers and expendable, doomed crewmen along for the ride, they encounter a repulsive monster with sinister intentions to take over the world and must resort to desperate improvisations to defeat the enemy and keep humanity free to mess up the planet on our own terms.

But as for those extra nuances of enjoyment I alluded to:

  • There's a headier-than-expected socio-political debate between a young principled pacifist and the career military man and WWII veteran sub captain over the merits of war and peace;
  • A ludicrous and awkward cheesecake seduction scene featuring Joi Lansing, Frank Sinatra's platinum-blonde girlfriend at the time, and de facto leading man Arthur Franz, the epitome of "middle-aged-schlub in denial" who still thinks he's hot enough stuff to pull in young tarts like Ms. Lansing (and who's sold to the audience as such, generating bigger chuckles now for the absurdity of it than were intended at the time;  
  • an irreplicable pop-culture snapshot of the American public's first encounter with the technology of nuclear powered warships and the eerie fascination of floating across the top of the globe (complete with maps!) under iceberg-infested waters that harbor other unknown perils; 
  • interpolated vintage documentary footage of real submarines and ship explosions, the purchase of which actually functioned as a catalyst for making not only The Atomic Submarine but also a few other underwater-themed films, using some of the same clips; 
  • a weird futuristic "Electro-Sonic" musical score by Alexander Laszlo worth focusing on and listening to on its own merits; 
  • an archetypal tentacled cyclopic submersible slime-beast that either directly or subconsciously inspired the Simpsons' variation on that theme

  • and most significantly, a primal example of the basic technological science fiction thriller standards that eventually went on to establish the template for so many later big budget blockbusters that have fueled the summer movie industry for the last three decades or so:

A group of (actual or quasi)military men, beset by temperamental or ideological tensions, sent on an all-but-impossible quest to thwart a dreadful but mysterious non-human adversary, using the latest and most extreme technological assets at their disposal which in themselves are no match for the alien invasion, but when combined with crafty human ingenuity, make all the difference in averting our total destruction and perhaps opening us up to the possibility of a happier future for our species... if we will only learn... 
Movies like Independence Day, Armageddon, or most notably, The Abyss, which seems to draw directly from The Atomic Submarine's plot, readily come to mind, but there are many more that could be named. In essence, the main difference between crude antecedents like The Atomic Submarine and its much better funded progeny is in the level of prioritization such escapist techno-fantasies received from studio chiefs over the decades. In the late 1950s, such a film was a tolerable little diversion, a tidy money maker if cranked out quickly and cheaply enough. On the commentary track, we learn that this productions was only allotted eights days of shooting time and a miniscule budget, resulting in bathtub-toy quality replicas for the underwater effects and the usual hodgepodge of buttons, levers, switches and dials piled up on a generic soundstage that could have functioned just as effectively as parts of a mock-up space ship. Originally destined for little more than opening a twin-bill that catered to the kiddies on a Saturday morning matinee, and after that, syndication for late night TV, little did anyone ever suspect that such a humble little scrapheap of a movie would ever stand proudly alongside such distinguished company as other "important classic and contemporary films" released that same year: The 400 Blows, Hiroshima mon amour, Black Orpheus, The Human Condition... the list could go on.

Producer Alex Gordon is the special guest interviewed on that commentary and the common thread that links together The Atomic Submarine and the other films (Corridors of Blood, The Haunted Strangler, First Man Into Space) found in this Monsters and Madmen box set. He, along with other similarly scrappy cinematic entrepreneurs like him, took the leftovers that the studio heads offered and did the best they could under the circumstances. Little did they or anyone else at the time ever fathom that some day, such incredulous but eyeball grabbing world-shaking scenarios, if fueled with the kind of lavish budgets, extended production schedules and top-shelf creative talent that became the standard after the financial and cultural breakthrough of Star Wars, would become the bread-and-butter blockbuster product that helped keep the entire Hollywood movie industry afloat.

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