by Steve Habrat
In the heyday of saucer men science fiction movies from the 1950s, most of the films saw the extraterrestrial visitors descending from the stars and roaming the dry landscapes of earth. They landed their shiny UFO right smack dab in the middle of Washington DC in the thoughtful The Day the Earth Stood Still and they sneakily attempted to turn American citizens into mindless clones in the chilling Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Heck, we even visited their home planets in such Technicolor classics like This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet. In 1959, director Spencer Gordon Bennet aimed to change the aliens-on-land mold with his low budget B-movie effort The Atomic Submarine, a serious-minded aquatic adventure that finds its spacemen seeking shelter and attacking earthlings from under the sea. While it certainly doesn’t rank with the classics mentioned above, The Atomic Submarine is still quite an impressive effort for a low budget science fiction outing. It features some heady political debates, some grand special effects that include underwater UFOs and a Cyclops alien complete with slimy tentacles, and a cast of veteran actors that keep the drama and tension high inside the cramped hallways of their Tigershark submarine.
The Atomic Submarine begins by explaining that a handful of ships and submarines have been mysteriously destroyed as they pass through the North Pole. In a frenzied attempt to halt the destruction, the authorities quickly close off the North Pole to any ships or submarines that may be passing through. An emergency meeting is called at the Pentagon between Commander Dan Wendover (played by Dick Foran), Secretary of Defense Justin Murdock (played by Jack Mulhil), and scientist Sir Ian Hunt (played by Tom Conway), who all begin debating how to handle the situation. A plan is devised to send the atomic submarine Tigershark out into the disaster zone and track down what is causing all the attacks. A crew is soon assembled, which includes Lt. Commander Richard “Reef” Holloway (played by Arthur Franz), Dr. Clifford Kent (played by Victor Varconi), and pacifist scientist Dr. Carl Neilson, Jr. (played by Brett Halsey). Shortly after setting out, the crew stumbles upon a saucer shaped underwater craft, which they quickly assume is an Unidentified Flying Object. The order is given to attack the UFO, but to the astonishment of the crew, the torpedoes that are fired do nothing to the ship. With no alternative options to bring the saucer down, the crew begins devising a way to destroy the ship, but their situation becomes even graver once they learn of the extraterrestrial’s plot to invade Earth.
Made with a measly $135,000 dollars, The Atomic Submarine is a science fiction film that doesn’t shy away from showing off for the viewer. The early sequences are minimal, with a group of guys stuffed into a room talking strategy with a bunch of flashing monitors and buttons behind them. Bennet will occasionally cut to the outside of the Tigershark as it glides proudly through a valley of icebergs. At times, it is glaringly obvious that Bennet is simply showing us a close-up of a child’s model submarine submerged in a swimming pool, but these close-ups do add a grand scale to the high tech piece of underwater machinery. As the film progresses, Bennet works up to a sleek UFO complete with a single glowing window on the top that leads the crew to nickname the ship ‘Cyclops.’ The UFO is unique in the sense that it is a living organism that can deflect bombs, a science fiction first! By the end of the film, the few members of the Tigershark crew manage to make their way inside the UFO and snoop around the inside of the ship. They are not met with alien monitors, neon lights, or other ornate decorations, but rather pitch-black open spaces with a single walkway cutting through the darkness and a weapon that can burn the guys to a crisp. Then there is the alien himself, which looks like a bigger version of the extraterrestrials that prowled the deserts of It Came from Outer Space. He truly is nifty and the filmmakers did manage to make him pretty intimidating.
What ultimately separates The Atomic Submarine from the rest of the other science fiction films of the 1950s is the slew of veteran actors gently guiding the film. Dick Foran is quietly in control as the no-nonsense Commander Wendover, a man ready to give the order to fire rockets straight at their extraterrestrial antagonist. Arthur Franz is the true star here as Lt. Holloway, the brave playboy who detests the pacifist Dr. Neilson and has a shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude towards the situation that they find themselves in. Franz also nabs the film’s best line when he comes face to, um, face with the alien menace at the end. Halsey is subdued as the young Dr. Neilson, the liberal-minded son of one of Holloway’s closest friends. Halsey is probably the youngest actor in the entire film and barely given the chance to save the day, strange considering that the fresh faced all-American is usually the one that is sticking it to the invading alien force in these types of B-movies. The other interesting aspect of The Atomic Submarine is the fact that there isn’t a damsel in distress anywhere near the action. In fact, there is barely a female face to be found outside of the blonde bombshell Joi Lansing. She shows up near the beginning as Lt. Holloway’s smoldering distraction for a drunken evening.
It is no secret that the science fiction films of the 1950s warned us of the dangers of the bomb, radiation, mutation, and the Reds while always reminding audiences to keep an eye on the sky. The Atomic Submarine is certainly no different than most of the other B-movies of this era in terms of coming with a message, but it seems to shake its head at some of the liberal mindedness that these films were remembered for. Midway through the film, there is a heady confrontation between Dr. Neilson and Lt. Holloway about how to approach the alien ship. Neilson argues that violence shouldn’t be the first response while Lt. Holloway is ready to bring the firepower. It is certainly a show stopping debate, but it’s especially interesting because it seems to be tapping into the tensions that were leading up to the counter culture movement, something that was only a few short years away. Overall, while it certainly won’t be remembered as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, The Atomic Submarine is without question one of the more unique, measured, finely acted, and thought provoking B-movies that filled out a cheapie double bill. Come for the impressive underwater UFO and stay for the unsettling final showdown.
The Atomic Submarine is available on DVD. It is available in the Monsters and Madmen set by the Criterion Collection.
For the uninitiated here’s a critical primer to the original Planet of the Apes series. See ’em before you see Rise. See ’em after. It doesn’t really matter.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
I love the series more than I love any of the individual films, if that makes sense. The original is easily the most impressive and sports the most exciting and innovative make-up effects. (A decline in budgets meant a decline in effective make-up in subsequent entries.) Chuck Heston devours scenery with such gruff gusto we’re partially relieved when his 20th century astronaut Taylor loses his voice for several scenes. As holds true of the whole series, even for sci-fi, the logic is wobbly and the social subtext, blunt and anvil-heavy. But I always return for the performances, particularly those of Roddy McDowel (Cornelius), Kim Hunter (Zira) and Maurice Evans (Dr. Zeius). And of course, Linda Harrison as Nova, the mute human slave girl, is pretty easy on the eyes. The action sequences are well realized and the ape town sets impressive, but there’s no denying that PotA is one lucky B-movie in A-movie clothing. Despite a dreary twist ending — no surprise considering Rod Serling wrote the script (which is based on a novel by Pierre Boulle) — PotA shies from getting too high-falutin’ and knows to incorporate a sense of playfulness that would make it perfect fare for rainy Sunday afternoons in front of the TV with Dad for decades to come.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
My vote for the silliest and least imaginative entry, Beneath, does little more than recycle the entire first half of the original with James Franciscusas part of a crew of astronauts sent on a reconnaissance mission to rescue Taylor and his (unbeknownst to them, dead) crew. After a few expository clips from the end of the first movie, Franciscus’s trajectory (discovery of talking apes, realization that he is in danger, acceptance of assistance from Cornelius and Zira, hiding, escaping, etc.) is the same as Taylor’s. When Beneath finally does get around to doing it’s own thing, it does so by introducing a mysterious society of deformed telepathic humans, led by Victor Buono, who worship, pray and chant about nuclear warheads underground (?!). It pretty much loses its way from there and even Franciscus crossing paths with Heston’s Taylor (who, by now, is firmly off his nut) does little to salvage any coherence left in the cash-grabbing direct sequel. Spoiler alert: In the end the Earth is pretty much nuked to nothing. “It’s ARMAGEDDON!” Heston hamily emotes.
Escape from Planet of the Apes (1971)
Now we’re getting somewhere. This marks the first time our simian leads get to play the fish out of water. Cornelius and Zira do the titular escaping, back through time to the “present” when humans still held the keys to Earth’s destiny. Perceived by the government as a threat to human existence they go from being sensations (“Talking apes!”) to hunted pariahs. This is easily the most cerebral and well-acted of the original series with McDowell and Hunter, as the tragically pregnant talking ape, giving career-highlight-type performances, both droll and heartbreaking. By now the downbeat finale is a series staple, and no Apes conclusion has yet to top the THEY-DIDN’T?! shock value of Escape’s borderline-cruel last act. With fewer apes in attendance, it’s obvious that the make-up of the two primaries has returned to it’s original grandeur.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
One of the most surprising things about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is how much it owes to both Escape and Conquest. For one, Caesar (McDowell playing his own character’s son) — Zira and Cornelius’ surviving offspring who was switched at birth with another chimp by a benevolent circus animal trainer (Ricardo Montalban!) is originally a product of the second and third lesser-known sequels. In conquest, upright (but suspiciously silent) apes have become Earth’s domesticated pet of choice after a mysterious virus wipes out the world’s dogs and cats. Every bit as smart and sophisticated as their human counterparts, Caesar loses faith in the human race after Montalban is murdered, and leads a revolution of apes against humans. The revolution begins with the previously subservient and apes uttering the single syllable “No!” Rise brings much of this premise full circle while simultaneously setting the stage for the original Heston Apes via several subtle but well-developed prequel strategies. Conquest suffers from being relative-to-the-series slow. The political agenda of the first film is resurrected and employed even more heavy-handedly, which is no good this late in the game. The movie ends with what is essentially a poorly executed race-war riot. Budget constraints are clearly visible especially in group shots of ape extras. But the next entry would trump that distinction…
…with Claude Akins in a gorilla mask that looks about as impressive as Claude Akins in an Official Planet of the Apes Halloween Mask from Woolworths. That’s good for laughs, anyway. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) also features the diminutive singer/songwriter/Phantom of the Paradise, Paul Williams, as an orangutan voice of reason. Battle is easily the cheapest looking of the original series’ sequels but also sports a decent enough story that relies more on action than dramatic exposition. Roddy McDowell appears again as Caesar; now the ruler of a peacefully integrated society of apes and humans. Yeah, how long do you think that’s gonna’ last? I should also mention that African Queen director, John Huston, appears a handful of times as the ape “Law Giver.” No shit. –and I’m not sure whether to upgrade or downgrade for the movie’s parting shot of an ape statue shedding a single tear.
Conquest Grade: C
Battle Grade: B-
by Will Nepper
If you’d have told me a decade ago that there was any banana juice left in the Planet of the Apes franchise, I’d have expected you meant it in a straight-to-video capacity. Tim Burton’s Apes — just like his Alice and Willy Wonka — seemed to reflect a filmmaker with little understanding of what made the source material great. (And when I apply the adjective “great” to anything PotA-related, I don’t mean it so much as in a “cinematic-achievement” way, as I do a “Tony-the-Tiger” way.)
The PotA series is beloved by many but not because its all that special. It’s a sci-fi movie that was in the right place at the right time. Its effects were state-of-the-art and fairly convincing. (I mean, if man evolved halfway back to ape … I could see it looking like that I guess.)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes may represent the first shot of dignity the series has ever been allowed. It’s a well-acted, well-structured prequel that establishes a loose origin story for a series that actually deserves one. (How did those apes get so smart anyway?)
James Franco looks a little bored as some top-shelf genetic medical mad scientist-lite type of guy who has invented what is supposed to be the “cure to Alzheimer’s” (or just “The Cure” in the original trailer). When tested on apes they find that its brain-building properties turn chimps into little cheeping Steven Hawkings! Cool! –wait! Not cool! That’s how the Statue of Liberty got buried!
When things go to shit in the test-monkeys-to-cure-Alzheimer’s wing of Franco’s Mega-Medical-Corp employer, he finds himself adopting Caesar, the first recipient of the AMAZING only-temporarily-cures-Alzheimer’s-but-makes-monkeys-rule-the-Earth serum.
Franco is impressed with Caesar’s ability to communicate, emote, and make it okay to like CGI again (and let’s not forget how uh-dor-a-bullll and natural he looks in kids’ clothes!) that he decides to bring the hairy kid home to meet Dad (John Lithgow, underplaying it for as change) who — and you may be one step ahead of me here — happens to have Alzheimer’s.
But as much as Franco seems to love living with his genetically-altered monkey-old-man sitcom-ready duo, his genetic animal specialist or whatever girlfriend has the good sense to mention that this situation might be on a collision course with an action-packed last reel. After an unfortunate incident in which Caesar damn near takes Franco’s neighbor apart he’s sent away to an ape … storage … facility? … or Hell Zoo? … or some Animal Planet version of the Truman Show? I don’t know…it’s been a few weeks since I screened the movie.
When Caesar sees that he’s rejected by both human and ape alike, he makes like Charlie Bronson and takes the law(s of nature) into his own hands. After making friends with a gorilla and an orangutan, he breaks out, steals the secret formula and blesses all of his monkey pad-mates with the gift of accelerated evolution. You can guess what happens next? Or maybe you can’t — either way, Rise is worth your time.
Its story is constructed with the dramatic heft found in a lot of late 70s sci-fi without sacrificing the stuff that makes you want to see a PotA movie, like battles and clumsy sociological subtext.
Fans of any of the Apes’ earlier incarnations with a keen eye are endlessly rewarded with references, in-jokes and meaningful connections. For a broad example, Rise establishes the Gorilla-as-militant, orangutan-as-thinker, chimps-as-sensitive-and-kind dynamic that runs consistently through all Ape endeavors.
Some of the dialogue is clunky and as much as I usually enjoy James Franco (really!), I didn’t buy him in Rise. It kinda seemed like hiring Cheech Marin to play Albert Schweitzer. Beyond that though, I don’t have many bad things to say about Rise. It represents the best that the science fiction genre has to offer; the binding together of known science and fantasy in a way that takes hold of the imagination. Add to that what may be the most convincing digitally-rendered characters I’ve ever seen (How about that motion-capture technology? Amiright?), an impressive (if not completely absurd) action finale, and it makes sense that Rise has become the sleeper hit of a summer stuffed with crap you couldn’t pay me to see…and Captain America. Grade: B
I want you to take a moment and name a film that you saw when you were a kid that left an indelible impression on you. Go ahead, I’ll wait. What was that? I’m sorry, I honestly don’t believe that Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, while an incredible film, left an emotional mark on you at the age of six.
Okay, now I’ll tell you mine. I saw E.T. for the first time when I was about four years old. How do I remember that? It is because I was petrified of this alien that made grunting noises like my father getting out of the chair. I couldn’t see the alien, so I assumed he was scary-looking. I could never get through the first half of it until I was about six when my mother told me that everything would be okay and just to watch it. Elliott brought E.T. up to his room, and in the grand reveal, he wasn’t that scary. For the next hour and a half, I went through a range of emotions: laughter at E.T. getting drunk, exhilaration as he and Elliott flew over the moon, concern when E.T. went missing, terror when the government descended on the house, sadness when E.T. “dies,” excitement when Elliott and his friends escape the government, and finally happy-sadness when E.T. flies away. Now, try and get that out of a movie when you’re six.
The fact of the matter is that Steven Spielberg is an incredible filmmaker. Yes, I hear your scoff and I do not care because it is because of his films that I was able to open my imagination and discover other works out there from many different filmmakers. We all have to start somewhere, and if it wasn’t for the films of Steven Spielberg, I do not believe my imagination would have been ignited.
J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is, unapologetically, a love letter to the Spielberg films of the late 70s and early 80s…and there is nothing wrong with that. Today, the movies at multiplexes are sequels and special effects extravaganzas that (for the most part) lack in the most important visual effect of all: the story.
Now, unless you’re Christopher Nolan (Inception, please), it is very rare that there is truly an “original” story out there because it has all been said and done before. However, there is nothing wrong with taking a concept and spinning it off into its own unique story, and that is precisely what Super 8 is.
A group of friends in western Ohio decide to make a zombie super 8 film over their summer vacation. They witness a train crash and “something” escapes and it is up to our young heroes to save the day!
That is the plot of the film, essentially. But it is the atmosphere and the characters that both Abrams and the amazing child actors create that is the heart and soul of this film. I can’t think of the last time I saw a mainstream Hollywood movie where there was such an engaging community of characters- to be honest, this movie could’ve done away with the entire monster plot and just watched these kids make a movie. It is because of these characters that you become emotionally involved in their plight and you root for them all the way through the end credits. Harkening back to E.T., Super 8 expands on the themes of friendship, family, letting go, and growing up. How rare it is to see a mainstream Hollywood film deal with these issues in both an intelligent and entertaining way.
Now, this film is not without its disappointing parts. Like an adrenaline-riddled thirteen year old, Abrams goes over the top with many of the effects that actually detract from the wonderful story he is telling. Also, the ending, while satisfying, is very abrupt and nearly brings the movie to a screeching halt. There could have been another half hour to wrap things up in a tidier manner.
With that said, it is obvious that I am biased towards Super 8. It was a trip down memory lane for me, back to a time when I saw movies from the late 70s and early 80s and wished there were more for me to see. It is also an ode to my hero, Steven Spielberg, and the effect he has had on film lovers for nearly 40 years. My hope is that kids that are twelve or thirteen see this movie and become enamored with the most wonderful special effect of all: imagination. Grade: A-