Wednesday, November 24, 2010

#366: The Atomic Submarine

(Spencer G. Bennet, 1959)

This was a real surprise. After two okay inclusions in the Monsters and Madmen boxset, here's a really spectacular film. Shot in an astonishing six days of principal photography, The Atomic Submarine is just as low budget and makeshift as First Man into Space, but crackles with the kind of imagination and subversive filmmaking that film didn't provide.

The two big standouts here are the effects and the music. The former are alternately hilarious and incredibly inventive, though often both. The submarine itself is so obviously a model that you keep expecting to see a hand holding it as it floats through the water, while the alien itself was clearly more of a substantial undertaking that certainly never feels real but is so appealing constructed that you hardly mind (it was also clearly the inspiration for the aliens on The Simpsons). Effects like this remind you what has been lost with the adoption of computer generated images. Instead of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and cunning, all you can see in effects now is work. You would never go to see Spiderman and ask, "How did they do that?" because the answer is now always "Computers." This has ideally benefited the storytelling by preventing you from being taken out of the movie - and in some instances where the effects are seamless, it certainly has. But in movies like The Atomic Submarine or The Thief of Bagdad, these effects had to be made on the fly, often by people who had never encountered these issues before. Part of this is that cinema was still relatively new in the 1950s and part of it was the lack of modern technology. But what it adds up to is an extremely entertaining experience. Then there is the music, which is played over most of the moments featuring the effects. This is some strange music, certainly of its space-age time but also somewhere between the most psychedelic 70s porn music and the laid-back cool of that era's Jazz. It's mindbending and totally awesome, the kind of score that reminds you how many buried treasures there are in films like this.

The story of The Atomic Submarine is no more impressive than the story of First Man into Space: a bunch of military guys and scientists go to the north pole to find out what is preventing ships from passing through, only to find an alien intent on colonizing the earth. The narration is done in a newsreel style that reminded me of Fishing with John more than it did newsreels. But the acting is actually not too shabby and the film is bursting with so much love for film and creativity despite its low-art origins that I don't think it's possible for even the most jaded viewer to avoid its spell.

One last thing, a character here is put on the submarine because a close family member was unable to go and he is the only other person who can operate a highly technical piece of machinery, so he goes reluctantly. Remind you of anything else?

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