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Reviews

The Atomic Submarine

The Atomic Submarine

Spencer G. Bennet

UK, 1959

Credits

Review by Thomas Scalzo

Posted on 22 April 2007

Source The Criterion Collection DVD

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Determined to spend every minute of his well-earned leave making good use of his little black book, Commander Richard “Reef” Holloway settles in for a relaxing evening with a cute blonde. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door. The news is bad: a series of unexplained attacks has been reported in the Arctic sea; several vessels, both domestic and international, have been lost, and an extraterrestrial enemy is suspected. Holloway’s leave is over. Piling aboard a navy submarine with an assortment of military men and scientists, Reef sets out for the Arctic, ordered to discover the cause of the attacks, and destroy it as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Soon enough, the crew encounters the mysterious vessel, and we learn (through a painfully redundant voiceover narration) that the cause of all the Arctic mayhem is an underwater flying saucer. Not a submarine, a flying saucer. From outer space. Underwater. An underwater flying saucer. Initially, the crew shows an impressive open-mindedness to the situation, quickly accepting the existence of the extraterrestrials, and working together to devise a plan to track and intercept the elusive craft. As soon as the offending aliens are cornered, however, debate is curbed in favor of stereotypically hard-nosed American military posturing—what is unknown is evil, what is evil must be destroyed.

That the resultant attack fails, and leads to the sub being inextricably lodged in the side of the saucer, should not, however, be seen as a damning critique of such black and white bellicosity. On the contrary, when Reef and company finally manage to board the alien craft, and come face-to-face with the pulsing, one-eyed, mind-reading mass at the heart of the saucer, it reveals, in no uncertain terms, that its mission is ultimately to eliminate humanity. Any moral gray areas disappear. Even the most liberal members of the crew understand that this Cyclops from the stars has brought nothing but destruction. It cannot be allowed to live.

Despite a shoestring budget, hokey models, and slapdash special effects, The Atomic Submarine delivers enough creative storytelling techniques and efficient acting to transform potentially inane set pieces into engrossing adventures. The memorable journey into the heart of the alien craft, in particular, is a feat of cinematic economy. Attempting to free their sub from the hull of the saucer, a small team, lead by Reef, explores what appears to be an empty sound stage, armed with blowtorches and revolvers. As two of the men set to work, Reef is distracted by an otherworldly voice. Suddenly, the men begin bursting into flame. Though there is nothing on screen but a group of men on a black stage, the scene is charged with terror and wonder.

This ability to make something out of next to nothing also extends to the film’s overall message. Although unwilling to make any excessively divisive political statements, The Atomic Submarine’s seemingly insubstantial story does offer a moral: when faced with an attack from without the folds of humanity—an attack, as it were, from the gods—survival rests on more than bombs and brawn. Although, Reef, the stalwart Navy man, is the ultimate hero of the tale, the final victory over the enemy craft is truly a team effort, reliant on both creative missile-launching solutions from the European scientists aboard, and the adroit skills of Carl Neilsen: a young, and expressly anti-war, doctor/submersible pilot. In this dangerous new age it seems American might alone is no longer enough to solve the world’s problems.

The film’s closing scene vaguely reinforces this idea, with Neilsen and Reef contemplating what they just endured. Although polar opposites at the start of the film, each man has come to respect the other’s virtues. Neilsen looks up at the stars, and wonders at the home planet of the extraterrestrial terror. Reef doesn’t want to talk about it. Neilsen presses the issue, asking what humanity will do if the creatures come back. Reef is lost in thought for a moment, then answers, “there are a great many ills here first,” perhaps suggesting that a unified and peaceful humanity is the best defense for a future extraterrestrial assault. With this poignant thought still lingering, Reef, realizing he has lost his little black book aboard the alien craft, shakes his fist at the sky. It’s a silly scene, but its thematic implications are clear: the philandering, hawkish Reef, and the old ways of thinking he epitomized, may well be a thing of the past.

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