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Monday, October 29, 2007

Undersea Adventure Movies (originally published 2/97)

For a good, rip-roaring adventure movie, it's hard to beat the exploration of a raw and untamed new frontier, fraught with mystery and danger at every turn. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of frontiers left these days. There's outer space, of course, but, as the name implies, space is composed mostly of miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. To really get anywhere at sub-light speeds you'd have to spend most of your life just in transit, playing solitaire with the onboard computer and listening to your arteries harden, which is why the space opera writers have had to come up with fanciful conceits like the Star Trek "warp drive."

Fortunately for adventure filmmakers, there remains one last homegrown frontier, still brimming with mystery and largely unexplored: the ocean depths. As the currently playing film adaptation of Michael Crichton's "Sphere" demonstrates, we can still be prodded into awe-struck speculation about what wonders might be lurking under the sea. Naturally enough, filmmakers have been exploiting our fascination with the undersea world for decades. Here are a few of the underwater adventures that are available on home video.

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954). In the 19th Century, before the term "science fiction" had even been coined, no one had a more finely tuned knack for spinning rattling good adventure yarns around futuristic gadgetry than Jules Verne. The classic novel that inspired this classic Disney film features Verne's most inspired character study, that of the mad, doomed Captain Nemo. He's a kind of Ahab, except that the object of his obsessive rage is not a white whale, but rather the human race, on whom he has contemptuously turned his back. In the submarine he has constructed he roams his undersea kingdom, surfacing just long enough to destroy passing ships when a vengeful mood strikes him. James Mason plays Nemo, ably supported by Paul Lukas, Kirk Douglas, and Peter Lorre as his unwilling (and unwelcome) guests on board the Nautilus.

"Atomic Submarine" (1959). The title vessel is dispatched to the waters under the North Pole to investigate a series of unexplained maritime disasters in the area. There they discover an underwater UFO (shades of "Sphere") inhabited by a decidedly creepy alien. This is not great cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a good, solid little action flick made by veterans of the Saturday morning serials.

"Around the World Under the Sea" (1966). It's tempting to call this lightweight but entertaining picture a TV-movie. It wasn't made for television, but its ties to the tube are legion. The cast features Lloyd Bridges from "Sea Hunt," Brian Kelly from "Flipper," Marshall Thompson from "Daktari," and David McCallum from "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," all popular television series of the period. The connecting link is executive producer Ivan Tors, who produced "Sea Hunt," "Flipper," and "Daktari." The storyline involves a crew researching underwater volcanoes in a specially designed submarine. Their adventures along the way include being attacked by a giant eel.

"Gray Lady Down" (1978). Charlton Heston stars as the captain of the U.S.S. Neptune, a submarine in trouble. The Neptune is disabled, stuck at the edge of a precipitous dropoff. If it topples over in its crippled state, the pressure will crush the ship, killing all on board. Their only hope of survival is an experimental rescue vehicle piloted by its inventor, played by David Carradine.

"DeepStar Six" (1989). When a team of scientists and military personnel investigate a mysterious cavern beneath their newly established undersea missile base, they unwittingly release an extremely nasty sea monster. The good news is that it likes them. The bad news is that it likes them for dinner. It's a variation on "Alien," to be sure, but bug-eyed monsters have been common currency among science fiction filmmakers since long before "Alien" came along. When following in the slimy footsteps of "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" and other bug-eyed monsters of the past, the only real question is whether a film delivers the goods. This one is as good as most and better than many.

I haven't forgotten about James Cameron's "The Abyss" (1989), by the way. I just feel that sea-going dramas by Cameron have gotten more than enough press lately in view of his current hit and its titanic box office numbers.

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