The late Irwin Allen was famous for two things: disaster movies like “The Poseidon Adventure,” and campy melodramas that were so bad they would have been complete disasters had they not been so unintentionally funny.
“Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (1961) begins like the former but quickly devolves into the latter. If you don’t believe me, just wait and see how loudly you laugh when Peter Lorre appears waist-deep in a pool “walking a shark” that’s as rigidly rubberized as a prop can be. Or see if you don’t chuckle when Admiral Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) is described as one of the world’s foremost scientific minds and we’re told that he alone has a plan to stop a ring of radiation that’s made Earth look like another Saturn and is threatening to destroy the whole planet—a scenario that feels fresh out of “Flash Gordon.”
Heck, I cracked up every time Nelson lights up a cigar inside the closed-air system of the futuristic submarine he designed—an atomic-powered affair with a glass-nosed observation deck. He must have smoked more stogies over the course of this 105-minute voyage than George Burns could have managed, had Allen tabbed him for the lead.
My family thought it downright hilarious that as the Seaview is cruising along on a mission near the polar cap and the ice field is melting under the intense heat of radiation so strong that crewmen are collapsing after only brief exposure, what do they come upon but a marooned man (Michael Ansara) and his dog who have somehow lasted several days on an ice floe. Isn’t a small animal supposed to be like a canary in a mineshaft? How did this little guy survive? For that matter, how did the man? And what were they doing out there anyway? None of those questions is satisfactorily answered, and that’s another trademark of Allen’s—as fans of his campy sci-fi TV series “Lost in Space” can attest.”
I don’t know what’s funniest—a “battle” with a giant squid that just sits there on the bottom of the sea except for a few squirming tentacles manipulated by puppeteers, or coral reef life deep on the sea bottom. And I don’t know what turns out to be the campiest—dialogue that has actors standing around a lot, or poor casting. Since the TV pilot was launched three years later with Richard Basehart and David Hedison in the lead roles, and since Allen left the writing (except for two episodes) and direction for that superior outing to others, maybe it was both. All I know is that in this film Peter Lorre really doesn’t do much of anything except stand around looking Peter Lorre-ish, and Frankie Avalon seems totally, gratuitously cast—brought onboard only to capitalize on his popularity with teens. He sings the title song—an inexplicably wispy, romanticized ballad that clashes with the film’s seriousness—but does very little after that.
Then there’s the only woman onboard, and conveniently she’s engaged to the sub’s Number 2 man, Capt. Lee Crane (Robert Sterling). Barbara Eden (who would go on to charm audiences in “I Dream of Jeannie”) plays Lt. Cathy Connors, but she too doesn’t have a whole lot to do and seems there only because she had recently starred in the popular TV version of “How to Marry a Millionaire.” But the worst is a character actor who has a slow, country drawl and says everything in an unemotional voice that suggests he’s incapable of processing the information. Even when the narrative is steering into crisis after crisis, this fellow still delivers his placid commentary over the sub’s radio with not one shred of urgency in his voice. It’s jarringly inappropriate, and like so much about this film, unintentionally funny.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a “penny-pinching congressman” (Howard McNear, who played Floyd on “The Andy Griffith Show”), a psychiatrist (Joan Fontaine), and Vice-Admiral (John Litel) visit a sub and it turns into a save-the-world mission with an admiral who may or may not be losing his mind, at least one saboteur onboard, and an order stateside to sink the Seaview because no one outside the sub believes Admiral Nelson’s plan will work.
Even for science fiction it’s a little far-fetched, though because of all the unintentionally comic elements “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” still turns out to be cardboard escapist entertainment of the campiest kind.
“Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” is rated PG for “some perilous situations.”
“Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” is presented in 1.35:1 widescreen, and colors seem slightly over-saturated, as often is the case with films from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. But the level of detail is quite good, even in the underwater shots—well except for the squid “battle”—and black levels are strong. No compression issues turn up, so the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc seems to be a good one.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 4.0, with additional options in Spanish and French 2.0 and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. The best I can say about the sound is that there’s a nice surround feel to it. But for my taste the bass could have a little more presence and the timbre could be more elastic.
Tim Colliver, author of Seaview: The Making of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1992), offers a full-length commentary that’s packed with explanations about the special effects and fun anecdotes pertaining to the cast, the props, and Allen’s methods. We get more of Allen’s “template” in a six-minute interview with Eden, who recalls him with fondness. Apart from the theatrical trailer and an isolated score track (Dolby Digital 2.0) the only remaining bonus feature is an overview on “Science Fiction: Fantasy to Reality,” a 17-minute clip montage with narration that covers ground ranging from Jules Verne to Ray Harryhausen.
Irwin Allen’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” may be a campy affair, but you’ve got to give them credit for talking about climate change at least 30 years before it became a “hot” topic in the scientific community. Call it another guilty pleasure for fans of science fiction and old-time adventure movies.