The Atomic Submarine (1960)
We'll begin today's review with a reading from the Holy Scripture...
II Movielonians 3:7-12
"...and in the final year of the reign of Pharaoh Ike, it came to pass that Sink the Bismarck! and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers laid with each other and begat The Atomic Submarine. And God was pleased. And then, in the first year of the reign of John the Great, The Atomic Submarine laid with the foreign temptress Atragon and they begat Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. And God was pleased enough to bless them with four yearly children with numerous guest stars. And then, in the second year of the reign of King William, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea laid with Airwolf and they begat SeaQuest DSV. And God was pleased because that show kicked ass. But then mortal man in his sinful ways turned against God and cancelled SeaQuest DSV and replaced it in the Wednesday night lineup with Sabrina the Teenage Witch and reruns of Chicago Hope. And God was most displeased at this, as he thought SeaQuest DSV was fucking awesome, so to punish the sinners he brought unto the land holy fire and plague and pestilence and Celine Dion and Mall-Rat fashion and the Rachel haircut. And there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth..."
And all the congregation says, "Amen".
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am a staunch advocate in general for the unique force projection capabilities of seapower in international relations, and for the submarine service in particular. I firmly believe that future peer-to-peer conflicts will be won under the waves and it is in our national interest to maintain the best and deadliest submarine force around. Since the first, rattly, dangerous-to-the-crew submarines arrived in the early 1910s, it has proven itself a game-changing weapon system in warfare on par with the aircraft of the mid 1930s and the nuclear bomb of the mid 1940s. In my own opinion, shared by many of those Smarter Than I, the submarine was what really won WWII, especially in the Pacific theater. While the submarine was indeed the perfect weapon system for stalking opposing warships and choking off a nation's economic lifeline, it was severely handicapped by the need to surface frequently to recharge batteries, which totally negated the submarine's inherent advantages of stealth and speed. The introduction of nuclear power to submarine design following WWII was perhaps the single most important leap forward since the steam-fired engine revolution of the 1860s untethered warships from the winds. When the US Navy first installed an atomic reactor on the USS Nautilus in 1954, just one short decade since that first chain reaction in the New Mexico desert, it completely changed everything about the nature of both submarine combat, and the general conduct of any future naval conflicts, even if it took another 20 years for the Old Line Battleship crowd in power to realize it. And just in case you were curious (and I know you weren't) around this same time a second Great Leap Forward in naval weapons design came about with the general introduction of the guided missile, which allowed a stand-off attack capability only dreamed of by WWII submariners and their creaky, short-ranged torpedoes. To bore you further, it's my opinion that the next great innovations in naval design will be directed energy weapons (laser ray guns) and unmanned autonomous vehicles (flying robots with laser ray guns), both of which, by the 2030s at least, will make any full-out peer-to-peer World War III look like the stuff of 1950's pulp science fiction.
Anyway, back to the nuclear reactor as a power source. This movie, in a way, is a story of that emergent technology and it's impact on the submarine service. As the title of our film, as well as the date of production, suggests, The Atomic Submarine showcases that awe-inspiring newfangled contraption, the nuclear-powered submarine, and gives it a suitably swashbuckling adventure beneath the seas. This could have been a great movie in principle, you just have to toss in the godless Rooskies and you could have an excellent early Cold War techno-thriller on par with Ice Station Zebra or The Bedford Incident. But, sadly, the producers had to pander to the all-important drive-in theater crowd of the late 1950s, which was all worked up about UFOs and bug-eyed moon monsters. When the aliens show up later (spoiler alert!), for me, that's when this movie goes from being mildly interesting to tedious and campy.
Pam, you have a scientific background in nuclear engineering, any thoughts on the advantages of nuclear propulsion in warship design vis-a-vis extended operational range and enhanced strategic sea-denial capability?
Hallelujah, brothers! To be honest, Nate, I know a lot more about how nuclear reactors work than I do about how they affect the role of a submarine. I do know that submarines powered by nuclear reactors can stay submerged longer and travel at high speeds longer than diesel-powered subs. A nuclear sub usually isn't ever refueled, because by the time it needs to be, it's at the end of its useful lifetime. One of the disadvantages is that the reactor produces a lot of heat, which can be detected. They are also quite expensive. And that pretty much sums up my knowledge of nuclear submarines.
But I know a lot about nuclear-powered toothbrushes!
However, this movie will tell us more about them. I was nearly put off at the start, because the movie begins with a voice-over. When you think about it, why does a good movie need a voice-over, anyway? It's just laziness, telling us something the movie should be showing us. After watching so many bad movies, a voice-over is virtually a kiss of death for a movie, but I decided to be generous and give this movie a chance. The movie's not that bad, but I'll give everybody fair warning, if you've ever watched even one episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, you don't really need to watch this movie, because if somebody wanted to write a generic Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episode, this would be it. Another strike against it is that it doesn't have the incomparable Richard Basehart. The actors it does have are all competent undistinguished veterans of many a B-movie. They do a decent job, but you probably won't remember any of them five minutes after you stop watching the movie. It's filmed in glorious black and white.
Of course, VttBofS did have Blackbeard the Pirate...
We begin at the North Pole, looking at an expanse of snow. Like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, it takes place just a little in the "future." The movie was made in 1960, and the action is taking place sometime in the 1960s, or maybe early 1970s. The voiceover tells us that giant atomic-powered cargo and passenger submarines travel under the Pole, and it's implied that this is a heavily-traveled shipping route. Since I know even less about economics than I do submarines, I can't say for sure that this scenario is not economically feasible, but I suspect it isn't. Submarines really can't carry all that much, as even the biggest are quite cramped, and they need highly-trained personnel to operate them. (The Navy doesn't pay them all that much, but commercial vessels would probably have to pay them a lot.) I know the Germans experimented with cargo-carrying submarines, but this was during wartime when the Allies were targeting German surface shipping, and the submarines were being used to carry small but very important cargo. I think that if money could be made using submarines to carry cargo under normal conditions, somebody would have continued to do it. As for carrying passengers, most people would prefer any method of travel over travel by submarine. For an idea of what submarines are like inside, forget Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and watch Das Boot. Admittedly that was a small diesel-powered submarine, and the nuclear subs are much bigger, but they're crammed with much more stuff, too. The Tiger Shark, aboard which most of the movie's action will take place, is roomier than any real sub. If there is anything going on in the world that would make submarine travel a necessity, such as a major war or an invasion from outer space that has wiped out most of the world's oil supply, this movie doesn't mention it.
Who knew icebergs looked Styrofoamy?
But for now, let's just go with the fact that in this universe, travel beneath the sea's surface is as common as travel on it. Therefore it's a problem of considerable magnitude when the trans-polar submarines begin disappearing without a trace. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider this "the gravest emergency in all history," which seems to be a gross exaggeration, but the report does say that surface vessels are also being lost, radioactivity levels are increasing in the Arctic, and peculiar television images preceded each distress call. This last statement is not explained further, and I assume it means that the submarines had cameras that picked up and transmitted videos, not that nearby Eskimos were seeing strange interference on their TV sets. Although maybe it does? Anyway, the solution to this problem is to send a super submarine, the Tiger Shark, to the area to find out what's going on.
But, clearly, they didn't "close Arctic sea lane after disaster".
We now go through some rather tedious material to introduce the crewmembers of the Tiger Shark. It doesn't tell us much except that the Executive Officer is Lieutenant Commander "Reef" Holloway, who has a gorgeous blonde girlfriend; the navigation and firing officer is Lieutenant David Milburn, who is a drunk; and the Captain is Commander Dan Wendover, who is the standard stalwart captain type (but not nearly as good-looking as Lee Crane from the Seaview).
Some officers, wear that hat properly, sailor!
You just never see platinum blondes anymore, why is that?
There are two civilian scientists who will be accompanying the Tiger Shark, Dr. Clifford Kent and Sir Ian Hunt. And, to introduce a note of conflict, we meet a Dr. Carl Nielson Jr., who along with his father developed the Lungfish, a sort of diving bell the Tiger Shark will carry to permit exploration of the underwater region. The conflict comes from the fact that Carl Jr. is -- gasp -- an ardent pacifist, and Holloway just can't forgive this! Captain Wendover may have a peculiar sense of humor, because he has chosen to have Reef and Carl share living quarters during the voyage. However, their quarrel is postponed for the moment, and the Tiger Shark embarks on what the voiceover promises us will be the "strangest, most fearful voyage ever made by a submarine, atomic or otherwise." We'll see...
Of course they're scientists, they're wearing suits on a submarine.
The Tiger Shark proceeds on its way, and as it crosses the Arctic Circle tensions and voices start to rise. Reef discusses his dislike for Carl at great length. Carl isn't too crazy about Reef, either, and he also voices his opinion with some heat. Matters are looking grim when an alarm summons Reef to the bridge -- And since I'm in a good mood, I'll let Nate take over now just when the movie's getting good.
American men like to yell a lot.
Thanks, Pam. Well, like you said before, so far this one's pretty dull. I hope that at some point we get some explosions and stuff, because this seems like a waste of a perfectly good atomic submarine and all (I've given up on seeing boobs). So, like damn near every episode of Star Trek, an existential threat to international commerce is afoot and Those In Power see fit to send out just one single ship to investigate and fix the problem. If this was really such a big deal, and to be fair, a dozen sunken nuclear subs in a few months is a HUGE deal by any metric, then you'd think they'd have every single submarine and surface ship in operation out there hunting for the problem. As it is, though, the Enterprise...I mean, the Tiger Shark is the only boat on the job.
On the surface, the Tiger Shark looks like this...
But once submerged, the Tiger Shark turns into this... (must be a Transformer!)
I need to mention a few things about the surprisingly impressive interior sets for the sub. Since it will become apparent that they spent the bare minimum on costumes and model props, there's virtually no chance that they built a half a dozen fairly elaborate interior sets loaded with computers and stand-up electrical boxes and oval hatches and stuff just for The Atomic Submarine. As there's nothing in here even remotely "submariney", no periscopes or helmsman stations or the like, surely all this was originally built for a much better spaceship-themed movie and just redressed a bit (it's so good that I'm sure it was rented out to a bunch of low-budget movies over the years). As is typical in rocketship sets like these, there's one single circular combination TV/radar screen that all the action centers around, not unlike the Star Trek main viewscreen. The crew spends a surprising amount of time huddled around this screen, either gasping or clenching their teeth depending on what the scene calls for, which gets old after a while.
"Hey, cool, Jersey Shore's on."
What, you could smoke onboard nuclear submarines in 1960?!?
So they go to sea and wander around for a while. Then they see some sort of sparky electrical discharge on their monitors and race away to avoid being caught in it. How you outrun electricity is never explained, but I'm sure it's fairly easy if you try hard enough. One of the scientists (the one with the Buddy Holly glasses) suggests that it's an "underwater electrical storm", which makes no damned sense because you can't have electricity underwater. But who am I to doubt this guy, after all he won the Nobel Prize in Oceanography so he must know what he's talking about.
Your grad students did all the research you took the credit for, didn't they?
In the wardroom, the Captain shows them how he's found a pattern to the attacks, that they all happen on an arc roughly 1,000 miles from the North Pole (which is so obvious that you wonder why no one else figured it out before now). This suggests to him that the attacks must be "motivated by some sort of intelligence". Of course he means aliens from outer space, what else could it be? It's not like any of us humans would have an interest in killing each other for economic or geopolitical gain, right? As it's hard not to notice that several of the attacks happened in Russian territorial waters, and that no one at all even suggests that maybe the Rooskies are involved, so maybe in this movie's universe the Cold War is over and the godless commies lost (yay!).
I had an Etch-a-Sketch when I was a kid, too.
Drama! An iceberg is calving off and is heading right for them! Was it caused by some sort of electrical storm? Maybe, that's not really explained well. They are slow on the throttle and one chunk of ice ten times larger than them smacks into the hull, but it just bounces off, because, you know, ice and steel are elastic and all. Not at all sure why these icebergs are sinking to the bottom of the sea, as ice tends to float, but maybe that's why I didn't win the Nobel Prize in Oceanography. It also bothers me that half the crew call their boat the "Tigershark" and the other half call it the "Tiger (pause) Shark", you'd think someone would pass around a memo on the correct pronunciation.
Didn't anyone here see Titanic? Don't mess with icebergs.
While all this is happening, they chance to see a saucer-shaped, glowing UFO puttering by on their view screen. Proof of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? Proof of said intelligent life visiting Earth? So what? We're goddamn Americans, we beat Hitler, we beat Tojo, we built the Hoover Dam, bug-eyed moon monsters don't concern us one bit. If movies from the '50s and '60s are anything to judge by, and, as cinema is a reflection of the society and culture, they are, then we'd react to an alien invasion about the same way as we did to Pearl Harbor, by rolling up our sleeves, cocking our hats to one side, and kicking some alien butt. Makes me wonder why our Gubbmint has been suppressing evidence of alien contact for all these years, are they really afraid that humanity "can't handle it" and there'd be mass panic and disorder? I don't think so, as long as we have Bruce Willis around, we'll be just fine.
"Meh, whatever, turn it back to the baseball game, will'ya?"
Since every movie needs some (unnecessary) comic relief guys to break (ruin) any dramatic tension, we have two aw-shucks lunkhead frogmen stroll in through our movie's back door now. After some "witty" banter about how life is so much better in the surface navy than in the submarine service because surface ships have enough lockers for their underwear (?), they go out and check the outside of the sub for damage. Of course, with their basic wetsuits and off-the-shelf scuba gear, the Artic water should by all rights freeze them solid in seconds, but their blood is warmed with patriotic fire and Navy pride.
"Come on, Lennie, let's go."
Back now to the wardroom, which is apparently a lot like Ten Forward, a place where all the officers just sorta hang out in, drinking beer and talking about philosophy when they really should be worrying about killer alien thingies. One of the scientists is quite the smartyhead, and just by his Mark 1 eyeball he declares that the UFO is 300 feet in diameter and runs on nuclear power. He also gives it the name "Cyclops" due to the distinctive circular window on the top. This reference is, of course, totally lost on all the rugged, manly military guys, who've did never done nun o' that there sissy reeeedin' stuff 'afore. The other scientist shows up now, and he just so happens to have on him a glossy 11x14 photo of a UFO in the New Mexico skies (possible, I'm never far from my autographed photo of Ann Curry...). So they make the connection that Cyclops is a waterborne alien life form hiding out under the waves, which lets one of the officers smirk, "that would make our little green men, actually little green fish".
Oh yeah, that looks exactly the same...
So for a solid month the Tiger Shark bumbles around under the polar ice, always a day late and a dollar short as Cyclops continues to sink ships with impunity. To pad out the running time, we are treated to a long run of cobbled together stock footage clips of exploding WWII freighters and scientific expeditions to Antarctica. Say, why the hell are there still unarmed civilian ships in this area? By their own count, in the last two months alone a dozen nuclear subs and sixteen other ships have been sunk in the Arctic Ocean, making it a war zone essentially. Can you imagine the insurance rates for those shipping companies?
This is why they built the Panama Canal, you know.
Finally, it occurs to them that Cyclops always goes back to the North Pole between each attack. Putting two and two together, they figure out (blind guess) that Cyclops' power source is magnetic and he has to "recharge his batteries" at regular intervals. So their new plan, versus the old plan which was pretty much just wandering around a dark room with a flashlight, is to lie in wait and bushwhack Cyclops on his way back to the Pole after his next attack. The narrator is driving me crazy, by the way, it's the same Voice of Fatherly Authority you hear in all those kitschy Civil Defense public service films and it's grating in it's square-jawed chipperness.
They sit around a lot.
So they call in the entire US Navy and in a few days every ship in the fleet has at...wait, what? Just the Tiger Shark again, eh? So now they are lying in wait and have rigged for silent running. The "underwater" shots of the submarine model in the fish tank are simply horrible, you can almost see the guy's hand reaching down there to scoot it along. It's so much easier to hang a model spaceship on fishing line against a dark background and whoosh it by the camera, but with a sub model placed against a over-lit background, it's almost impossible to make it look anything other than laughably fake. And then you have to have that underwater wavy light thing for it to show up on film, even if you are supposedly miles beneath the surface in the inky blackness of the polar sea.
I could do better in my bathtub.
Time passes, people loose interest, facial hair starts growing, I start flipping channels, and then finally (finally!) Cyclops reappears on their view screen. They have a television camera on the Tiger Shark that has a range of 15 miles...underwater, in the dark, which is just awesome. The Captain then gets on the intercom and blares out to everyone that they are about to fire torpedoes (so much for running silent...). We see the outer doors slide open (the close-ups of the beam-mounted torpedo doors don't in any way match the larger exterior shots of the sub model, but that's not a surprise) and the tension is running high. I can't help but notice here that the Tiger Shark seems to have an all-officer crew, as in, all you ever see any of the crew other than the half-dozen or so named cast members of the bridge crew. Even the Enterprise had cooks and janitors.
This guy is the only Regular Joe so far.
The UFO closes to seven miles and they shoot off two nuclear-armed torpedoes. The launches go as planned and the torps are said to be running "hot, straight, and normal", which, coincidentally, is how I like my women. But just when the manly, sausage-shaped torpedoes of infinite power are about to thrust deep into the tender soft spots of the alien craft, they are stopped cold by some extruded jelly-like substance, which, again coincidentally, is how most of my romantic encounters back in college ended.
It just wants to be friends.
At this failure, everyone just throws up their hands and whines and complains about not having any other options now (sure). Words cannot describe how unprofessional and unmilitary this bunch is, the officers fight with the Captain, the Captain squabbles with his crew, even the civilian scientists get lippy with the Navy guys. It's like the original script called for this to be some sort of purely scientific mission and at the last minute they changed it to a US Navy sub but left in all the dialogue and actor marking. It's no wonder it took them two months to catch Cyclops, all they ever do is bicker and backstab each other (and hang out in the lounge and smoke a lot).
Oh, yeah, and here's a command-grade officer asleep on duty. Nice.
Apparently the Captain recently watched that one episode of Voyager where Janeway stopped giving a crap and rammed the Voyager into that Krenim time-ship, because he now decides the best option is to kamikaze his sub into Cyclops, willing to sacrifice his entire crew on the off-chance that the UFO is made of something weaker than aluminum foil. Of course, why he thinks that the alien won't stop his suicide charge with the jelly stuff just like it did the torpedoes, or that they won't just bounce off the UFO, is never explained. Maybe he knows the Tiger Shark is made of Adamantium. How'd that ramming plan work out for him? I'll let Pam tell you.
Remember when they said Cyclops was 300 feet wide? If so, then the Tiger Shark is barely the size of a Chevy Blazer.
Not too bad, Nate. For some reason the sub was able to get through to the alien when the torpedoes couldn't. Jelly squirted all over the place, but I deduce the jelly must have a limitation on how much mass it can stop. The Captain reports proudly that they "speared it like a fish!" Unfortunately they speared it a little too hard and can't get out. When they try to back out, the action of their screw pulls both vessels down, and they're sinking rapidly toward the bottom. Oh, this is not good. They are already at the maximum safe depth, but luckily for them, the bottom is close.
Having your propellers blocked off like that is going to severely impact your speed and make for a very noisy boat.
Hours later, they're both still there. Apparently the alien has made no effort to get away, and it looks as though the officers and the scientists aboard the Tiger Shark have spent the time hanging around the wardroom looking glum. To be fair, this situation was probably never covered at Annapolis, so it's understandable it would take them a while to figure out what to do about it. Finally Reef suggests taking the Lungfish (their minisub) to the alien, cutting into the alien ship, then cutting the Tiger Shark free from the inside. There is no way of knowing if their cutting torches will even work in the atmosphere inside the alien ship, but nobody brings that up. Nobody brings up the possibility that the occupants of the alien ship might prove hostile, either. Also, even if they can use their cutting torches, and the aliens don't try to stop them, wouldn't it take a very long time for five men to cut an entire submarine free? Nobody brings up these points, and it's universally agreed that this is the way to go.
Seriously, if all the officers are here, who's minding the bridge? And are those two guys playing checkers?
Carl insists on being the one to pilot the Lungfish, since he helped design it and knows how to operate it better than anybody else. Reef proves himself to be a man of principle, because at this perilous juncture he refuses to let a coward like Carl take him anywhere. It seems to me that this is no time to argue, and the lives of the submarine crew are more important than Reef's notions of ostracizing anyone who thinks differently from him, but clearly Reef doesn't agree. The Captain breaks it up, as he ought to, and Reef, Carl, David, and the two comic-relief divers take off in the Lungfish. The divers have mercifully stopped trying to be funny, and in fact say almost nothing from now on.
"Where are you going, Dave..."
We spend a little too much time looking at the Lungfish approaching the alien while the guys inside look worried, but the Lungfish eventually gets there. I note that Carl has to crouch down to operate the controls, which look like a cardboard arrow pinned to a cardboard background, and I'm not even going to try to figure out how this works. It's an incredibly poor design, and Carl's knees are going to give out if he operates it much, but I guess Carl has nobody to blame but himself. It locks on (method not explained) to a large hemisphere sticking out of the alien's surface. They somehow just knew that opening the hatch of the Lungfish would cause the hemisphere to open, and believe it or not, the alien ship happens to contain pure air! Reef somehow just knew that from looking into the ship, as far as I can tell. They were all breathing from their scuba tanks, except for Carl who isn't wearing scuba gear, so Reef couldn't even have taken a deep breath, but somehow he knows it's Earth-normal air with no odorless but hazardous components. By rights, Reef ought to admire how Carl didn't utter a peep of protest when Reef opened the hatch to allow a possibly poisonous atmosphere to enter the Lungfish, but seemingly nobody including Carl was worried.
"When the big hand is on the five and the little hand is on the eight it's snack time..."
The filmmakers really cheaped out on the interior of the alien ship, but at the same time it manages to be oddly cool. Most of the interior is in pitch darkness, with the exception of a walkway that's lit in an unseen manner. More than likely it's just a dark soundstage, but there's an eerie appeal to it. We can imagine all sorts of alien artifacts lurking just out of the light, even though we know what's probably lurking are very human mops and brooms. The guys are able to spot the place where the sub rammed the alien craft, because it's the only illuminated object in the darkness, most convenient. Also conveniently, the ram somehow didn't let any water in when it penetrated the ship. In contrast to what we saw a few minutes ago, and will see again shortly, namely about half the sub inside the alien ship, here there's only a couple of feet of the sub's ram stuck in the ship.
"That guy over there, he's my agent, he booked this rotten gig."
The men start cutting around the ram, and meanwhile, back on the Tiger Shark, the chief petty officer notices that the sub's inertial navigation system shows that the Tiger Shark is moving. It takes them a lot longer than it should to realize that maybe they really are moving, since they naturally assumed that ramming the alien ship would surely "kill" it. There seems to be some confusion here, with the sub's crew, which as Nate pointed out earlier seems to be a few officers only, acting as though the alien object they rammed was a living being, even though earlier it certainly looked like the standard flying saucer. The men on the alien ship also get the feeling they might be moving, but they ignore it and keep on cutting.
Nice blowtorch, glad that alien air's not flammable.
I guess the alien commander was getting tired of being ignored, because he finally speaks up and addresses Reef. If you're wondering how he and Reef can understand each other, it's because the filmmakers pulled out the hoary old plot device of "speaking" telepathically, so there's no need for words, and nobody else can hear what they communicate to each other. Reef goes to meet the alien, followed by David, and after they've gone, for no apparent reason one of the divers runs away from the ram back to the Lungfish but is caught by a mixture of swirly air and mysterious music which burns him to a cinder. The other diver sees this, panics, and tries to escape through a round hole in a wall that closes as he tries to get through, crushing him. I think we can assume that the alien creature who runs the ship isn't friendly.
"The goggles! They do nothing!"
By now Reef and David are in what is probably the control room, and for a low-budget movie, it's been done most effectively. You can't really tell what anything's for, but it looks way cool. There's a multi-sided ball sandwiched between two pieces of metal, some glowing, flashing tubes on the floor, and a huge sphere, and all of this stands out to great effect against the solid blackness of the rest of the room. I've got to give them credit here, they probably spent only a few hundred dollars total, but this is one of the most awesome alien sets I've ever seen.
The alien commander, it seems, is holed up inside of the big sphere, and he arrogantly summons Reef to a window. This alien's attitude is similar to that of Eros from Plan 9 from Outer Space, i.e., nothing but contempt for us feeble stupid humans. Actually, the alien's pretty cool, too: he's a giant octopus-like thing with a large head (which happens to look something like a pickle), and with one giant eye. There's a little humor here as both Reef and the alien make it clear that each finds the other ugly.
Must have lousy depth perception.
The alien breaks the news to Reef that it has selected Earth as the home for a new alien colony. Reef doesn't appear happy, but soon he's distracted: David, who has been standing a few feet away and who can't hear anything of the exchange between Reef and the alien, steps up to the opening, draws his pistol, and commences firing at the alien. Remember, he has no idea what they've been saying, and he didn't see what happened to the two divers because he was with Reef, so he has no idea if the alien is friendly or hostile! However, David quickly gets his comeuppance, as the swirly air and funny music appear again, and poor David screams and collapses.
The alien has Hentai-rape tentacles with suckers, very classy.
Another fate is in store for Reef, though. He's to be taken for study, and will be used as a template to make bodies the aliens will use when they colonize Earth. In the longstanding B-movie traditional villain behavior, the alien goes on the tell Reef much more than he really needs to know. The alien confides that his ship is actually living tissue (although it sure looks like metal from the outside, and the walls and floor seem completely solid), and when damaged, it heals itself just as the Tiger Shark crew thought, although there was no way they could have known when they said that. I mean, really, why is it even talking to Reef at all? Why didn't it just grab him and take him back to wherever the aliens study specimens?
Reef practices for an evening of Portal 2.
It occurs to Reef that if the alien can't see, it won't be able to find its way back to the alien planet, so without further ado he draws his pistol and fires straight into the alien's eye. Reef seems to be picturing the alien peering out of a window and steering by landmarks, which I seriously doubt is the case, but maybe he figures the alien won't be able to read its instruments if it's blind. The closeup of the oozing blown-apart alien eye is actually kind of disgusting, but the alien falls down out of sight quickly. Reef starts running back to the Lungfish without bothering to check on the two divers, although as far as he knows they're still cutting away at the ram. He barely makes it, since the alien still is able to close wall openings at will despite its blindness, maybe because it's connected to the ship and can feel where Reef's going. So why, I ask, didn't it know the Lungfish was attached and dislodge it?
"Ow!!! Sumabitch! That hurt!"
However, it didn't, and Reef makes it inside by the skin of his teeth. He tells Carl to take the Lungfish back to the sub, and when Carl asks about the other three men, Reef responds airily, "Fortunes of war." (What happened to "Never leave your buddy behind?" Or was that a product of the effete times post-Vietnam?) Reef radios the Captain to pull the sub loose, although when the two divers ran away, it looked as though all of the ram was still in place, and since Reef didn't run past it on his way back to the Lungfish, he can't know how far they got in cutting it loose. Oh, wait, if the ship is living tissue, how did the sub get stuck in it in the first place? Forget that for now, because as the Lungfish returns to the sub, another problem is arising. The ship is not the only living tissue that can repair itself, and the alien is regenerating its eye. Back to you, Nate.
The pasta grinder flees the scene.
Thanks, Pam. Well, indeed, the alien has smeared on some Neosporin and taken a couple of Aspirin and is now feeling much better. Since it's mission was to take a human captive back to it's home planet, it continues to pursue and attack the retreating Tiger Shark wit...wait, no? Ok, well, it at least uses that super awesome electrical gizmo gun to fry the Tiger Shark into a...wait, no? It just runs away? Really? Ok. Well, I guess that it has two or three dead bodies already onboard that maybe they could use to make host bodies, but that's a stretch. My guess is that the alien is a pansy communist.
The Captain doesn't understand how aliens think either.
Back on the submarine, they see that the UFO is preparing to bolt the scene (they know that how?) but first has to recharge up the ol' Andromedan power panels by camping out by the magnetic pole for a while (they know that how?). They are sure that if the alien gets back to its homeworld they are in trouble as it will bring back an armada. Ok sure, but hasn't the alien, all by its lonesome, already managed to sink dozens of warships with impunity and even now is more than a match for the Tiger Shark? Why does the alien need to run back to his home planet again? What do the puny humans have that can defeat him? Well they do have an ICBM on board! If only they could quickly take the targeting computer out of a torpedo, superglue it on to the missile and use it to shoot down the UFO as it tries to take off! As the narrator says, this is a "foolish, insane, fantastic plan", and I believe him.
Apparently you can repurpose a torpedo guidance system and remount it in a missile bus all with a single flathead screwdriver.
Having helpfully waited until the crew was done modifying the missile, the UFO now takes off, breaking through the ice pack and whirring up into the air. The tension is high as the missile races to catch up to the UFO, and for a second there it looks like the alien will win the race. But the missile cuts the corner off and boom! End of alien threat (for now). And, no, I don't know why the alien didn't use that jelly stuff to stop the missile, maybe it only works underwater. B-movies are famous for having intergalactic UFOs be as fragile as glass when the humans are up against the wall, so this is not really a surprise.
The UFO runs away like a little girl.
Stock footage drone hit, but still impressive.
And...that's about it. Backs are slapped, hands are shaken, and flags are waved, a job well done. The stinger is Reef and Carl chatting back at port, bestest buddies now that they've shared several near-death experiences and come face-to-eye with an extraterrestrial intelligence. Reef guesses that the aliens will come back one day, but he's not worried, he's a red-blooded American man and fears no alien scum. Oddly, Carl's pacifist mindset has not changed, even though he grudgingly accedes that the military is pretty good at stopping alien invasions. I was sorta anticipating that Carl would be more gung-ho now, but kudos to him for holding on to his principles.
Real men smoke Camels.
Anyway, so there it was, a pretty fair outing with a unique setting, an inventive alien design, a passable crew roster, and some interesting ideas about the nature of magnetism and contraceptive jelly. If they would have only spent some more money on decent models and cleaned up the special effects shots a bit, this might not have drifted so far into obscurity. Pam, any final thoughts on this one?
The only thing I'd like to add is the question, if the alien ship was a living creature, then how could it have batteries that needed recharging? I think somebody decided to wrap up the movie in a hurry and didn't bother to tie up all the loose ends. The two comic divers, for instance, got a rather large buildup, only for them to die for no real reason. And the quarrel between Reed and Carl just died out, it was never really resolved. I like the alien control room and the alien itself, though. They did a good job with them.
Project Moon Base (1953)
Hi all, Nate here. Wait, before I even start with this review, let me settle something that has been bothering me about this movie’s title. Do a Google search and half the time it’s listed as “Moonbase” and the other half the time “Moon Base”, so which is it really? Well, I always default to the movie itself and what it says in the title card at the beginning, which is clearly “Moon Base”, despite the myriad lobby posters and DVD box arts and nearly every b-movie review site squeezing it together into one word. There, now you may go on with your life secure in the knowledge that you’re not a boob. And yes, the above image is wrong, but it’s pretty cool anyway.
Two words, end of story.
Our movie is set in 1970, far ahead in “the future” enough that GodBlessAmerica has put their first space station in orbit and are taking the initial tentative steps to visit/colonize the moon. As well, th…oh, here, just read it yourself…
Much to my surprise, the opening scene is not in space or in spacy environs, but a rather noirish spy-vs.-spy/cloak‘n‘dagger vignette where they set up that the “enemies of freedom” are working to sabotage America’s plans in space. A group of vaguely European-looking men with bad hair and Komsomolet-quality suits have determined that the space station must be destroyed to keep the Capitalist Americans from spying on their Motherland. It’s 1953 (real time), so one would normally think these unnamed baddies are stand-ins for the Godless Communist Rooskies, but I know better. This men are in fact NAZIS (ah-ha!!!), quaking in their jackboots that the American’s will one day discover the Secret Nazi Moon Base.
The Nazi’s nefarious plan is to replace one of the astronauts on the next flight to the station with a double of their own and have that man do the dirty deed in space. To that end, they’ve “replaced” a certain Doctor Werher (coughcoughVonBrauncough) with a guy who looks so exactly like him you’d be forgiven in thinking that it’s just the same actor with his hair combed differently between takes. It doesn’t really seem to be an issue that the “new” Doctor Werher is not an expert in space sciences and he clearly hasn’t been through any of NASA’s astronaut training programs. But that’s ok, because, as you will see later, this movie treats spaceflight as little more difficult that taking the 3:15 Tuesday afternoon Pan-Am DC-9 from JFK to Omaha.
Off now to the “Earthport” at Dry Sands, New Mexico, which is surely a stand-in for the real world rocket base at White Sands, NM. Early b-movies often placed their sci-fi missile pads in various non-Canaveral locales, from Australia to the Yucatan to suntanned Pacific islands, but this might be the only one I’ve seen that’s set in Walter White’s old stomping ground in the Southwest. Not that any of that matters because 99.9% of this movies scenes are interiors and any exteriors are stock footage, so that fact that the Dry Sands Base is really a rented warehouse studio in Pasadena doesn’t matter at all. The Nazis, of course, used the repurposed V-2 facilities at Peenemunde for their lunar flights until early 1945 and then switched to the temporary rocket base in Antarctica until the end of the war.
A jovial, very informal Four-Star General now takes over our movie for the next fifteen minute, fountaining exposition like a cue card-reading volcano of technobabble and jingoistic American pride. He’s here to tell us, the audience, how awesome it is that ‘Murica has been all comers to the Final Frontier and how it was all due to Joe RedState’s can-do attitude and Rosie the Riveter’s mastery of high-tensile strength metals. At times it seems like he’s talking to children, but you have to realize this is 1953 and grownass men and women had zero idea what the stuff-of-fantasy space race was about other than what they saw in b-movies. The film does an admirable job explaining some of the technical stuff, so good in fact that you wonder if NASA/NACA had anything to do with the movie.
The mission that is the subject of our movie is a survey trip to the distant moon, a one-shot loop-around to take photos of the dark side and be a proof-of-concept that it can be done in the future with bigger and fuller rockets. Or so they say… I’m still inclined to believe it’s a reconnaissance mission to check on the Nazi Moon Base and probe its defenses. When it’s mentioned to the Four-Star General that the entire endeavor is considered by many to be an epic boondoggle and a waste of taxpayer money, he looks one degree off camera and says that “The most important thing in the world to me is the military security of the United States”. What I take that to mean is, “We have to find out what the Nazis are up to on the moon.” Don’t mock the truth.
But they can’t go directly from New Mexico to the moon in one shot, because that’s “still beyond the capacity of our best ships”, so they are using the space station as a jumping-off point for the moon mission. That actually makes scientific sense as you’d have to carry far less fuel onboard if you could skip the atmosphere part of the trip. About that space station, let‘s flesh it out a bit using the General‘s dialogue. It’s a circular “titanium hull with steel bracing”, “350 feet in diameter”, that’s a “transpolar orbit” that rotates around the Earth about 10 times a day. If that stated size seems unreasonably big for the world’s first space station, it is. Skylab was just 90 feet long, the International Space Station is about 350 feet wide overall and around 240 feet long, but the great majority of those measurements are the solar panels, the actual habitable space is much smaller. A better equivalent for our movie’s 350-foot wide station would be the original USS Enterprise-A‘s saucer section, which was about 420 feet in diameter according to my Federation Technical Manual (yeah, I bought the hardcover edition, what’s it to you?). As far as the orbital speeds, the ISS races around the planet about 16 times each day, so that was a pretty nice guess.
The General also rambles on about how it costs $300 a pound to send anything into Low Earth Orbit to the station (in “1970” dollars), an oddly specific budgetary aspect of an industry in its infancy in 1953. It’s also way, way, way off. Just a couple of years ago, in the waning days of the “economical” Space Shuttle, it was still $8,000 a pound in the cargo bay, though the Rooskies could (and still do) toss a pound up for under 2 bills on one of their Proton rockets. Commercial non-governmental space rockets should bring that down through competition, Space-X and Virgin in the front row, but it‘s still probably never going to cost in the hundreds to get a pound of anything into LEO. Furthermore, he says that the cost/weight ratio is why all of America’s astronauts have to tip in at a scrawny 160 pounds or less, forcing NASA to only pick wee little men with bulimia for its space program. Of course, even as I type that I recall that the Mercury 7 guidelines were 5’11” and 180 pounds, but that was totally because of the claustrophobic tightness of the Mercury capsules. The spacious interiors of our movie’s rockets should be able to carry some extra pudge (I should note that Doctor Werher is tall and bulky, way over 160 pounds).
Anyway, my biggest problem is that it took a way-too-short amount of time to get that entire space station operational, just the three years from the first orbital flight to today. There’s virtually no way that would/could happen that fast, especially for an unproven first-in-class design in the still-largely-theoretical field of mechanical engineering in space.
Ok, back to the plot. Beanpole astronaut Major Bill is here at the base, slated to be moon rocket’s primary stick. Word comes from the suits in Washington that he’s being bumped, literally at the last minute, from glory-getting pilot to jock-strap-holding co-pilot by a certain Colonel Briteis and he’s pissed! Pissed enough that he, at first, throws up his puny hands like a petulant child whose older brother gets to go to Pizza King while he has to stay home and eat broccoli soufflé, demanding that he be scrubbed from the mission altogether. The General talks him down eventually, because he‘s more a Father Figure than a commanding officer at times. It seems that Major Bill has a personal beef with Colonel Briteis that goes way back to four years ago (“1966”) when then-Captain Briteis bumped still-Major Bill from being the first human to make an orbital flight. The movie then takes a surprising dig at Charles Lindbergh, suggesting that Briteis was fast-track promoted for political reasons, just like Lindbergh (allegedly) was.
So surely Colonel Briteis is some arrogant alpha-male douchebag USAF test pilot/fighter jock-type with iron balls and a sandpaper personality, right? John Frickin’ Wayne in a high-altitude pressure suit and all that, I’m sure we’re just going to fucking hate everything about him. Word comes that he’s arrived now and the camera pans to the door. Some bouncy hot twentysomething girl comes in first, must be the Colonel’s secretary or his mistress or something, she should really step out of the way and let the Colonel through… wait, what? What?!? That twiggy-thin over-eyelinered little girl IS Colonel Briteis!?! Wha…huh, er… But, but, but girls can’t be astronauts! They’re, they’re, you know, girls. Pam, what the hell is going on here? Girl’s can’t fly rockets, it’s 1953 in America, what sort of insanity is this? Oh my god, and she’s wearing pants! …I can’t go on.
Written in November 2013 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.
comments powered by Disqus
that's between you and the vengeful wrath of your personal god...