Allen had begun producing twenty years earlier, trying out 3-D and winning an Oscar for a documentary based on ecologist Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us in 1953. After a bad experience with The Story of Mankind he found a home at 20th Century Fox, producing and directing summer matinee attractions to tap the family audience sparked by 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth. For his cheap remake of the silent classic The Lost World, Allen hired special effects great Willis O'Brien, but filmed his prehistoric monsters with live lizards instead of stop-motion animation.
For the summer of 1961 the producer assembled an eclectic jumble of thematic content guaranteed to pull in the kiddies. The title Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea evokes Walt Disney's spectacular Jules Verne success of a few years before; Allen nabbed that film's Peter Lorre for a supporting role. Star Walter Pidgeon had starred as a mad scientist in the futuristic Forbidden Planet; her he tries his hand at a MacArthur-like Admiral who also happens to be a scientific genius.
Science news was mostly optimistic in 1960, and news of nuclear submarines, space exploration and deep-sea exploits capturing the popular imagination. A key plot device was lifted from recent headlines about the detection of belts of radioactive particles found encircling the Earth, and named after their discoverer James Van Allen. Screenwriter Charles Bennett pasted these ideas into a storyline that plays like a Republic serial, with fantastic sights and perilous dangers in every scene.
A new super-submarine called the Seaview is undergoing its initial trials at the North Pole when calamity strikes: the Van Allen radiation belts have ignited, and skies all over the Earth are blazing with fire. With temperatures already at 139° and rising, human survival doesn't look good. Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) orders Captain Crane (Robert Sterling) to head for the United Nations in New York, to propose a daring plan of action. Nelson and his aide Commodore Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre) want to extinguish the fire with a Polaris missile fired from an exact location in the Marianas Islands. When the U.N. rejects his proposal, Nelson defies their authority and orders Crane to set sail to the Pacific without delay. His passengers, including guest researcher Dr. Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine) and castaway survivor Miguel Alvarez (Michael Ansara), are involuntary passengers on a perilous voyage that sees the Seaview tangling with underwater minefields and pursuing U.N. warships. After some bizarre accidents and fires occur Captain Crane begins to doubt the Admiral's sanity, thinking that Nelson might have set them himself. As the Seaview nears its objective it encounters a pursuit submarine blocking its path, which is only the first of a number of last-minute emergencies.
Variety aptly described Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea "a crescendo of mounting jeopardy." The Seaview must contend with roasting heat from the stratosphere, a giant squid, nuclear sabotage, a religious fanatic, on-board fires, a submarine attack and a second tentacled sea monster. As if all that weren't enough, Captain Crane suspects that his Admiral has gone crazy, and is keeping a Caine Mutiny- like diary to justify a mutiny.
Irwin Allen fills the CinemaScope screen with actors, all of whom struggle to make sense of their characterizations. Ex- MGM contractee Robert Sterling seems terribly disloyal when he threatens to abort the mission; only a sub attack keeps him from carrying through with his mutiny. Future TV genie Barbara Eden looks great in a tightly tailored uniform. She screams a lot, and dances to a trumpet played by Frankie Avalon's young Lieutenant. Avalon's contribution to the show is limited to relaying commands on the bridge ("Dive! Dive!"), but he also croons Russell Faith's title tune over the main credits. Oscar winner Joan Fontaine plays an annoying psychiatrist with a degree in Busybody Insults; the acclaimed actress's presence in this unrewarding role is a real mystery. Allen's flat direction and the exposition-filled screenplay do nobody any favors: our favorite scene-stealer Peter Lorre can't even find an opportunity to ad-lib.
But America's matinee audience didn't come to see Shakespeare, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea delivered thrills unavailable on Television. The Seaview looks like a Navy sub given a fashion makeover with giant tail fins straight from a late-model Cadillac. The glass observation windows in its nose allow the cast to enjoy the view at the Bottom of the Sea. The ship is introduced lurching high out of the water in a crash-surface maneuver. It looks spectacular, but real submariners must have laughed - the Seaview is not outfitted with seat belts, and its compartments are filled with loose items.
The film's special effects put a selection of large miniature submarines to good use in Fox's giant exterior water tanks. Cinematographer Winton Hoch assisted in lighting the impressive shots of the Seaview cruising at periscope depth, with the fiery sky shining down from the burning sky. Optical effects expert L.B. Abbott manipulated slow-motion shots of flamethrowers to create direct views of the inferno blazing above. As pure fantasy, the sight of the submarine approaching the United Nations building as New York glows red-hot makes for a particularly effective vision of apocalypse.
Some effects scenes are weak, but the sequence with the Seaview trapped in the minefield is very well managed. Allen never attached much importance to scientific details. The Van Allen belts contain nothing that can burn, and they're way out in space where there's no oxygen for a fire. When the Polar ice cap breaks up, the resulting icebergs sink, pelting our submarine on the way down. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea can be chalked up as a lively juvenile adventure, even if its brand of Cold War fantasy makes a scientific research vessel also double as a military craft, with a full complement of atomic warheads. There's something fundamentally disturbing about a story for children in which the world is saved by a nuclear missile.
With the Seaview given a new identity as an espionage vessel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea soon became a long-running TV series. The popular show became the first of several gaudy, action-oriented fantastic TV attractions produced by Irwin Allen. It would take Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek to once again raise the quality level of science fiction TV programming.
20th-Fox Studio Classics' Blu-ray of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a bright and colorful transfer of this adventure favorite. The HD images allow us to admire the many arrestingly beautiful special effects shots of the super-sub cruising underwater, lit from above by the burning sky.
Author Tom Colliver's commentary compares the movie to the TV series and explains some of its special effects. An older HD extra called Science Fiction: Fantasy to Reality discusses the Sci-Fi film genre before shifting to a discussion of Global Warming, making dubious use of clips from Voyage and The Day After Tomorrow. Global Warming is a serious problem, but not because the sky is on fire... and nuclear weapons will not save the day.
By Glenn Erickson