Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

The new, state of the art nuclear submarine Seaview is on diving trials in the Arctic Ocean. The Seaview is designed and built by scientist and engineering genius Admiral Harriman Nelson (USN-Ret) (Walter Pidgeon). Captain Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) is the Seaview’s Commanding Officer. One of the on-board observers is Dr. Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine), studying crew-related stress. The mission includes being out of radio contact for 96 hours while under the Arctic ice cap, but the ice begins to crack and melt, with boulder-size pieces crashing into the ocean around the submarine. Surfacing, they discover fire burning in the sky. After the rescue of a scientist and his dog at Ice Floe Delta, Miguel Alvarez (Michael Ansara), the sub receives radio contact from Mission Director Inspector Bergan at the Bureau of Marine Exploration. He advises that a meteor shower pierced the Van Allen radiation belt causing it to catch fire, resulting in a world-threatening increase in heat all across the Earth. Nelson’s on-board friend and scientist, retired Commodore Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre) concurs that it is possible. Bergan informs Nelson that the President wants him at a UN Emergency Scientific Meeting as soon as possible.

Nelson and Commodore Emery calculate a plan to end the catastrophe. The USOS Seaview arrives in New York Harbor in two days. At the meeting Nelson informs the UN that according to their calculations, if the heat increase is not stopped, it will become irreversible and Earth has “a life expectancy of about three weeks.” The Admiral and the Commander have come up with a plan to extinguish the Skyfire. He proposes firing a nuclear missile at the burning belt from the best calculated location, the Marianas. Nelson posits that when fired at the right place and time, 1600 hours on August 29, the nuclear explosion should overwhelm and extinguish the flames, away into space, essentially “amputating” the belt from the Earth. The Seaview has the capability to fire the missile.

However, the Admiral’s plan is rejected by the chief scientist and head delegate, Emilio Zucco (Henry Daniell) of Vienna. His reasons are that he knows the composition of gases in the belt and he believes the Skyfire will burn itself out at 173 degrees. Zucco’s plan is to let the Skyfire do just that and he feels the Admiral’s plan is too risky. Nelson claims that Zucco’s burn-out point, however, is beyond that date and time if the current rise rate is maintained. But at Zucco’s urging, Nelson and Emery are shouted down and the plan is rejected. Despite the rejection, the Admiral and the Commodore quickly leave the proceedings, advising that his only authorization will be from the President himself.

It is a race against the clock as the Seaview speeds to reach the proper firing position, above the trench in the Marianas in the Pacific. During this time Nelson and Crane agree on tapping the Rio-to-London telephone cable to try to eventually reach the President. However, an unsuccessful attempt on the Admiral’s life makes it clear that there is a saboteur on board. But the confusion over who the saboteur might be revolves around rescued scientist Miguel Alvarez, who has become a religious zealot regarding the catastrophe, and Dr. Hiller, who secretly admires Dr Zucco’s plan. Other obstacles present themselves: a minefield and a near-mutiny. And Crane himself begins to doubt the Admiral’s tactics and reasoning. During the telephone cable attempt, Crane and Alvarez battle a giant squid. Although the London cable connection is made, Nelson is told there’s been no contact with the States for 35 hours. Also, a hostile submarine follows the Seaview deep into the Mariana Trench, but implodes before it can destroy the Seaview.

Near the end of the film the saboteur is revealed to be Dr. Hiller. Captain Crane happens by as she exits the ship’s “Off Limits” Nuclear Reactor core, looking rather ill. She has been exposed to a fatal dose of radiation: her detector badge is deep red. Walking over the submarine’s shark tank, she falls in during a struggle with the Captain, and is killed by a shark. The Admiral learns that temperatures are rising faster than expected. He realizes that Zucco’s belief that the Skyfire will burn itself out is in error.

At the end, Seaview reaches the Marianas. There, in spite of the threats and objections of Alvarez, Seaview launches a missile toward the belt and it explodes the burning flames outward, saving the world.


The late 50s and 60s must have been a scary time to be alive because it seems like everything I watch involves fear of something, be it the Russians, aliens, or something out in the ocean coming to get us. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea plays on a fear that is very real and that we still have today, making this perhaps the most relevant picture from this era I’ve watched since The Day the Earth Stood Still, if not moreso.

What is this about?

Walter Pidgeon plays the designer and builder of a nuclear submarine called upon to fire its missiles on the Van Allen radiation belt to put out the fire raging there that threatens to incinerate the earth in this deep-sea adventure.

What did I like?

All-star. At the time of its release, many of the cast members hadn’t become household names. Fast forward 50+ years and the likes of Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lorre, Michael Ansara, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Eden, and a very young Frankie Avalon all strike up various memories of long careers and lives. It does give one cause to pause and think how the studio was able to get them all under contract for this flick.

It could happen. In my native land of Texas, it has been raining so much that parts are flooding. Meanwhile California is experience its worst drought in history. Down here in south Louisiana, the high was 64. Usually at this time of year, its 84! I say all this to say that something is off with our weather and its a sure bet that part of it goes back to the ozone layer, the very thing that a meteor shower breaks through in this film and nearly fries the planet. Unless you’re blind, like politicians, then you can tell that we’re experiencing a trend of global warming, if not worse, thanks to the way we’ve treated our ozone. If we’re not careful, the events of this film are actually going to happen, only we  won’t be as prepared. Who would’ve thought that a film released in the early 60s would hold relevance 50 yrs later?

Calamari, anyone? I love film that use giant creatures. No surprise that a sea adventure where we briefly encounter a couple of underwater sea creatures is great. I would have preferred for them to be stop-motion, but that just me. Both the squid and octopus attempt to crush the submarine, both failing, but not before we get a glimpse of their enormous. I guess they grow them big down there.

What didn’t I like?

Change of heart. So, I’m sitting here listening to the captain spout off his reasons why he believes the admiral’s plan will backfire, if not worse. He makes some good points, as does the admiral. This gets a little testy and uncomfortable at times, then as the film has its climax, suddenly the ship’s captain has had a change of heart and rather than fighting with his superior officer.

Dive, Dive! The great thing about a movie the features submarines is that they go underwater, right? We get plenty of scenes with the sub under the water’s surface, but it is the structure of the sets that bother me. Having never had anything to do with the Navy, save for recruiting me my senior year of high school, I can’t speak to how big or small, they are.

Sub-mariner. Diving in modern times is hard, but when one is down deep in the depths, you can’t just surface immediately. There has to be a period of time for the body to adjust without getting the bends, as they call it. So, why is it this not addressed? Your guess is as good as mine, but I would wager it was just something they felt unnecessary to include.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is perfect fodder for if you want a Saturday afternoon adventure. However, the film itself is not a masterpiece, by any stretch of the imagination. The true meaning of this film is what is important. We need to save the ozone layer, or else that spells about the end of life on this planet. Do I recommend this picture? Sure, but be warned that at times this comes off as a bit more preachy than it should.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars


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