Out of primordial depths to destroy the world!
The 1950s were in many respects an adolescent phase for the whole country. It has been celebrated as a time of innocence, as well as a time of optimism and progress. Still, there was a growing, nagging sense that perhaps progress wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Sure, American families had electric washers and dryers and ranges and irons and vacuum cleaners. On the other hand, we also had the Bomb, and we were just starting to realize that the magic bullet that ended World War II was to be the defining reality of this bold new world. There was a nascent concern that maybe our scientific achievements were getting ahead of our abilities to control them or to predict their consequences.
Hollywood wasted no time in capitalizing on both our confidence and our fears, often in the same movie. There was a virtual invasion of giant monster pictures, with all manner of creatures that had been altered by our opening of the atomic Pandora's box. While these movies played on our fears about the consequences of progress, they also generally ended with the reassuring message that the authorities, generally in the form of the US military, would be able to handle whatever came our way.
Of course, for the target teen audience, the obvious point of these flicks wasn't atomic age propaganda, but a fun, frightening night at the movies with the girl next door. It Came from Beneath the Sea is one of the better examples of a 1950s giant monster movie, incorporating the larger cultural themes of the era while providing some excitement, thrills, and good clean fun.
Oh yeah, and there's a giant stop-motion octopus, courtesy of special effects demigod Ray Harryhausen. It just doesn't get any better than this.
Facts of the Case
Newsreel footage shows us the wonder that is the atomically-powered submarine, the newest scientific marvel in the Navy and the pride of the fleet. Voice-over narration tells us, in portentous tones, that this wonder of engineering has been built to deal with anything…but there are some dangers we just didn't anticipate.
The crew of this technological crown jewel is completing their triumphant shakedown cruise in the Pacific when they pick up a large, unidentifiable sonar contact. They attempt evasive maneuvers, but the unidentified object is soon upon them. Something grabs the ship, holding it motionless in the water despite the exertions of its mighty atomic engines. After a few minutes of struggle, the ship is freed again of its mysterious restraints. When Commander Matthews (Kenneth Tobey, The Thing From Another World, Airplane!) sends out divers to inspect for possible damage, they find a chunk of pinkish, rubbery material the size of an oil drum lodged in one of the sub's crevices.
Upon the sub's return to Pearl Harbor, the pinkish material is turned over to Dr. Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue, This Island Earth, The House of Seven Corpses) and Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers). These two highly respected marine biologists just happen to be vacationing in Hawaii at the time, and are pressed into service to solve the new mystery. They discover that the mysterious material is octopus flesh, and it is highly radioactive. They theorize that recent American H-bomb tests in the Pacific have disturbed a rare, enormous species of octopus from its deep ocean lair. The tests also exposed it to large amounts of radiation. Apparently, the fish it would normally prey upon have a natural ability to detect radiation and are now able to evade the massive predator, so it has had to look for new sources of food, such as submarines or unsuspecting merchant vessels.
Soon the whole US Navy is engaged in the hunt for the giant mollusk. It reaches California, setting the stage for a final, deadly confrontation in San Francisco Bay. In the midst of this crisis, Commander Mathews, Dr. Joyce, and Dr. Carter have time to engage in a romantic triangle and exchange proto-feminist banter.
The real star of It Came from Beneath the Sea is Ray Harryhausen. The rest of the film—plot, characters, script, and so forth—is really just window dressing in this showcase for Harryhausen's amazing stop-motion puppetry. Columbia TriStar has acknowledged as much by making this movie part of their Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection. The special features are geared toward Harryhausen and his art. The most prominent piece of Harryhausen goodness is the 58-minute documentary, "The Harryhausen Chronicles." Narrated by Leonard Nimoy, this documentary features extensive reflections from the effects king himself as well as his long-time pal Ray Bradbury and several of the biggest names in effects today, people like Dennis Muren of ILM who were heavily influenced by Harryhausen's work when they were young. The documentary is packed with clips from the many amazing films in Harryhausen's career. Also included is a three minute featurette entitled "This is Dynamation," which was a short behind the scenes look at special effects and was used by Columbia to get audiences to the theaters for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. The only drawback to both of these otherwise fascinating pieces is that they have been included on several other discs before, including The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Still, Columbia TriStar deserves credit for actually bothering with extra features for a movie most studios would have dumped on the market bare bones, or allowed to simply rot in their vaults.
Ray Harryhausen certainly deserves all the accolades that he receives in the special features. His feature creation for It Came from Beneath the Sea is the octopus that grabs subs, sinks freighters, and ravages San Francisco. His techniques were groundbreaking at the time, and still hold up surprisingly well. His creation presents an almost believable menace, with massive tentacles rising out of the water and destroying the Golden Gate Bridge and other famous San Francisco landmarks, as well as crushing cars and helpless bystanders. For the most part the matting and compositing of these effects with live action elements is seamless, with the exception of a few bad looking rear projection shots.
The movie itself is a notch or two better than most similar movies of the era. Yes, a lot of the dialogue is a bit stilted and corny, and yes, the movie does ultimately serve up the great Cold War message that we will be okay, because the Navy (in this case) is out there to protect us. Still, there are some remarkably modern sentiments expressed. The source for much of this is the two scientists. Dr. Lesley Joyce is held up as a new, modern woman who doesn't need a man to tell her what her place is, and who can hold her own with any man who would dare to try. Of course, she goes from making these sorts of statements one minute to stereotypical screaming and falling in love with Commander Matthews the next, but for the 1950s this character is radical departure from traditional women's roles. There is also a pronounced tension between the military and the scientists as to the proper approach to take in dealing with this creature. There is also a questioning of the experiments that drove it out of its lair. The questions raised are old hat today, but would have been quite fresh in 1955.
While the plot and dialogue might be a little predictable, the acting performances, at least, show a bit of spark. Domergue is fiery, sultry, and assertive as the script demands, and she pulls it off quite nicely. Tobey is just right as the clean-cut naval officer and designated hero; he practically made a career out of playing variations on this role in other productions. Curtis is a welcome addition to the cast, partly because of his screen presence but also because of his historical importance to the science fiction genre.
The quality of the audiovisual presentation on this DVD is striking. No one expects a B movie from the 1950s to look this good. Picture quality is excellent, with very few signs of digital defects. There are some problems in outdoor scenes featuring the sky, but no more so than in most recent color releases. Subtle details show up with very nice clarity, and the subtle differences in the various shades of the monochromatic spectrum are differentiated nicely. The source print appears to be in remarkably good condition as well, with very little evidence of nicks, scratches, or other damage.
The audio is surprisingly good as well, with dialogue and sound effect both coming through more clearly than expected. There is a pronounced, distracting hiss under some scenes aboard the submarine, but it appears that this may have been an intentional sound effect gone awry.
In addition to the Harryhausen special features listed above, this DVD also includes trailers for It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Mysterious Island, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lest the reader get the wrong impression and think that I loved every minute of this film, it needs to be said that it is, after all, a low budget B movie from the 1950s. The dialogue is pretty terrible, and contains far too much militaryspeak. Also, even though the movie tries to present Dr. Joyce as a modern, independent woman, there are some things that are just not right. For instance, early on in the film, there is a seduction/flirtation scene where Commander Matthews tries to spark her interest. As written and acted, however, this scene becomes creepy to a modern audience, and would certainly be sexual harassment today. The plot is fairly dull and predictable, depending on Harryhausen's effects to move things along and keep it interesting—something which of course would never happen in a movie of today…
In this age of digital wizardry run amok, we sometimes take amazing, photorealistic special effects for granted. We forget how hard earlier filmmakers had to work to create passable illusions for their movies. Ray Harryhausen was creating amazing special effects back in the days when computers were still the size of a giant octopus and could only be used for boring things like life insurance calculations. Yes, to our jaded modern eyes a lot of the effects work in this picture can look corny and outdated, but we need to remember how groundbreaking they were at the time, and how they paved the way for the eye candy we love so much today.
It Came from Beneath the Sea is not a great movie, but it is an earnest, mostly successful attempt at light entertainment. Its true value is as a historical document, both of the cultural and political attitudes of the Cold War, and of the filmmaking techniques of the 1950s.
Not guilty! The film and the DVD are both released to terrorize unsuspecting mariners everywhere.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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