Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Cyclopean Spaceship Under the Ice: "The Atomic Submarine"


I think we can all agree that flying saucers are cool. The very idea of extraterrestrial aircraft hovering over our heads is both frightening and completely exhilarating. Now, what about UFOs under water? Essentially, if aliens can rule both the sky and the waves, then we're doomed.

That's the premise behind 1959's The Atomic Submarine. An independently made sci-fi film directed by the so-called "King of the Serials" Spencer Gordon Bennet, The Atomic Submarine details the exploits of the USS Tigershark, the Navy's most powerful nuclear submarine. After a series of deadly attacks on ships near the North Pole, the Tigershark leaves Bremerton, Washington in order to chase whatever it is that's using the frozen north for its homeport. What they find is out of this world. 


During the 1950s, when sci-fi movies played up the increasingly cozy relationship between science and the military, two services reigned supreme -- the Air Force and the Navy. In large part this has to do with the fact that sci-fi flicks kept UFOs in their natural habitat, which of course means that only flyboys or flying squids could go up and get them. Another important factor is that both the Air Force and the Navy are known for being technologically advanced and have to rely on civilian and military experts in order to keep up with advances in surface, air, and underwater warfare. 

Finally, after the long slough of Korea, a lot of Americans weren't too hip on the idea of waging another protracted land war (especially in Asia). And ever since World War II made it seem like a war could be won from the air, the American public increasingly came under the intoxicating notion that air and sea power alone could keep the country safe. The Atomic Submarine plays this up to the hilt, as we witness the best crew serving the best sub during an incredibly dangerous mission. 


There's just one catch though. The Tigershark contains an unwanted interloper. Dr. Carl Neilson (played by Brett Halsey) is the eggheaded son of a respected Navy officer and a confirmed peacenik. Dr. Neilson, who, along with his father, is responsible for the Lungfish, a type of submersible that allows a crew to attach itself to any object, only believes that peace is worth fighting for and that war is a caveman's game. 

This does not sit well with most of the crew, but it especially irks Lieutenant Commander Reef Holloway (played by Arthur Franz). Holloway was once the elder Neilson's student at the Naval Academy and he's none too happy that the younger Neilson's politics helped to shame the father out of the business. For most of the movie, Holloway and Dr. Neilson trade barbs and make no effort to play nice. 

But, since this is a sci-fi film from the family friendly '50s, the two eventually kiss and make up. It turns out that Dr. Neilson isn't a coward after all, for he helps Reef and his doomed squad to successfully detach the Tigershark from the cyclopean saucer that they rammed in order to halt its killing spree. 


Once aboard the flying saucer-cum-submarine, we get to finally see our chief villain, and boy is he ugly. A octopus-like fungi with just one eye, this ET has such an enlarged brain that he uses it to create brainwaves that allow him communicate with any select human brain. The creature just wants to talk to Reef however, and his reason is simple: since he has been sent to different planets in order to find the one most suitable for colonization, the alien has not only decided that he likes Earth the best, but he also has put his hex on Reef as a fine specimen to take back to his home planet. 

Reef's response? He shoots a flare directly into the alien's all-seeing eye and absconds back to the Lungfish. Although this action wounds the spaceman, it doesn't kill him nor does it disable his saucer. Victory, for a while, is out of earthling hands. Then Dr. Clifford Kent (played by Victor Varconi), who, despite his name, speaks with a thick Hungarian accent, comes up with a novel idea -- turning one of the sub's torpedoes into an ICBM. As it turns out, this works, and after chasing the saucer back up to its re-charging station at the North Pole, the Tigershark lets loose and blows the enemy up in mid-air. 


By this point it's pretty obvious that The Atomic Submarine is the type of movie that I just can't hate. From its obvious use of stock footage to its overly dramatic voice narration, this is the type of film that reminds us why '50s sci-fi was the absolute best. Whether watched late at night or early in the morning, The Atomic Submarine is just the right amount of camp and cool. God bless it. 

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