“Analytical Film Review: The Neptune Factor (1973)” by S.M. O’Connor

The Neptune Factor: An Undersea Odyssey (1973) Starring Ben Gazzarrra, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, and Walter Pidgeon

The Neptune Factor: An Undersea Odyssey is only ninety-eight minutes long and is billed as a science fiction film, but the science fiction only kicks in about an hour into the narrative.  Until then, it’s realistic fiction about scientists, technicians, and sailors in a plausible scenario in which a small lab sitting on the sea floor is lost during an earthquake.  [The fictional OCEANLAB II, which is roughly cylindrical in shape, looks like the U.S. Navy’s real SEALAB I, which the U.S. Navy lowered off the coast of Bermuda in 1964, and SEALAB II, which the U.S. Navy lowered into the Pacific Ocean near the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, in 1965.] I believe what the filmmakers were hoping to ground the film in reality so the science fiction would be easier to accept for audience members who need to “suspend disbelief.”  The problem is the filmmakers spend too much time depicting the realistic process of trying to locate and rescue men trapped on the sea floor after an earthquake moves OCEANLAB II.  It actually becomes boring, as if we are watching unedited documentary footage.  This kind of pacing might have worked in a certain kind of hard science fiction novel,[1] or a certain kind of dramatic film (maybe set in a monastery or on a farm or ranch), but in a science fiction film – a genre that is implicitly supposed to offer the audience thrilling sights – this comes across as incompetence.

Several Canadian government bodies and corporations were involved in this production.  This was before American movie studios decided they could save money by filming many films and shows in Toronto and Vancouver in the 1990s.  Canada had a native film industry, but it was small-scale and largely made films for a domestic (that is to say, Canadian) audience.   The scenes filmed on sets were filmed in Toronto.  I agree with my brother Liam’s assessment that the Canadians wanted to show the wider world they were very active in the North Atlantic and thought that by grafting on a science story they hoped to attract more viewers than a drama might receive.

This is a Sanford Howard production.  Sanford (“Sandy”) Howard (1927-2008) was an American producer and director of movies and television shows.  Jack DeWitt (1900-1981) was the screenwriter.  DeWitt is best known for having written the screenplay for the western film A Man Called Horse (1970), an adaptation of a short story of the same name by Dorothy M. Johnson (1904-1985), and its first sequel, The Return of a Man Named Horse (1976), both of which Howard produced.  Daniel Petrie (1920-2004) was the director.  The production company was called Conquest of the Deeps Limited and Company.  Quadrant Films and Belleview-Pathe, Ltd. were also involved.  20th Century Fox distributed the film.  The film score by Lalo Schifrin and William MacCauley has a stirring piece of instrumental music that plays over the opening credits with storm-tossed seas.  It helps demonstrate the people involved in this production thought they were making a serious film.

The Neptune Factor opens with a downward view through the clouds of a stationary freighter ship floating above the Muri Seamount in the Atlantic Ocean.  [This is an underwater volcano… which we never clearly see in the film.  It really was subjected to an earthquake in 1978.]  The ship is called the R.V. Triton.  [Many real-world ships and boats have been so named as an allusion to the Greek god Triton. In Greek mythology, Triton was the son of Poseidon, one of the Twelve Olympians and God of the Sea, Earthquakes, and Horses, and his wife, Amphitrite, who was either one of the Nereids, or one of the Oceanids, depending on who was telling the story.  Triton was the herald of Poseidon and carried a trident like him, along with a horn that made a ghastly, chaotic noise.  The largest moon of Neptune (a planet named after the Roman counterpart to Poseidon) was named Triton.]  The connection is made explicit in the coat of arms featured in the opening scene, which depicts a merman with a trident.

The Canadian film star Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984) plays the head scientist, Dr. Samuel Andrews, who estimates if the men are still alive they have enough oxygen to survive for seven days.[2] American film-and-television star Yvette Mimieux plays Dr. Leah Johnson.[3]   She is in love with one of the missing men, Dr. Hamilton.  Italian-American film and television star Ernest Borgine (1917-2012) plays Chief Diver Don (“Mack”) MacKay.[4]  Anglo-Canadian character actor Chris Wiggins (1931-2017) plays Captain Williams, the commanding officer of the Triton.[5]  Canadian character actor Donnelly Rhodes (1937-2018) plays diver Bob Cousins.[6]  The men (and two women) in the Triton search for survivors and fret over the fate of the men in OCEANLAB II, which has simply vanished, after two of the men who were returning to the surface when the earthquake happened turn up dead.

Before the earthquake, when Mack wants to fire Stephens (David Yorston), one of the divers who went berserk and tried to hit a colleague with a wrench while they were working on a pipeline, Stephens complains Mack is driving him out of a job that pays $100 per hour.  Even taking into account they must be talking about Canadian currency, as we later learn, that wage would still make for an upper-middle class job today, and back when the film was made it would have been even more lucrative.  Another diver, Thomas (Ken Pogue) indicates this is a bad time for Stephens to lose his job because he was planning on marrying a girl he was bringing over from England, so of course Stephens and Thomas are the two divers who lose their lives in the ascent to the surface when the Triton’s umbilical cable snaps during the earthquake.

Although it would certainly be the norm in the film industry for at least some of the scenes set inside the naval submarine and the Triton to have been filmed on sound stages, there are clearly scenes that were filmed on the decks of the Triton and inside the bridge of the Triton.

There are several scenes with deep-sea divers.  These called to mind James Bond films for my brother Liam.  This is not so much because The Neptune Factor is like a James Bond film as because there are so many James Bond films where 007 and British colleagues or American allies and/or villains don scuba tanks and diving suits to make amphibious attacks, retrieve items from sunken aircraft and submarines, hide items underwater, smuggle narcotics, etc.  Some, but not all, of these scenes in The Neptune Factor look like they could have been filmed in a water tank rather than in any real body of water because the water is so clear, the seafloor is so flat, and the paucity of sea life.  The film realistically shows the madness that can afflict deep-sea divers when they lack sufficient oxygen, with Dr. Johnson when she helps look for the missing men.

The Onondaga, a Royal Canadian Navy submarine searches for the lab to no avail and departs after two days and the Commanding Officer of the Onondaga radios Captain Williams on the Triton to say he is breaking off the search and hopes the experimental sub that’s coming has better luck.[7]  The film is notable because it accurately depicts how cramped the control room of a submarine is in real life, while many film productions have built submarine interior sets that that are unrealistically large.  It would not surprise me if the Onodaga control room we see on screen here is the real control room of either a functioning Royal Canadian Navy submarine or a submarine that had become a museum ship.

Then a special research sub arrives, a battery-powered deep-sea sub like the one the research team had, straight from the manufacturer in the hopes that with it the research team can find the three missing men, who are running out of time, if they are still alive.  The three missing men are Dr. Hal Hamilton (Michael J. Reynolds), Engineer Phil Bradley (Stuart Gillard), and Diver Dave Moulton (Mark Walker). In an American film, the action would have switched back and forth between the people at the surface worried about their comrades and those men struggling to survive, which would have heightened the tension.  One of the problems with this Canadian film is that the fate of the missing men is left unresolved until the very end, so, for all the audience knows, the people in the mother ship are holding onto false hope.

Two more surface vessels arrive with the submersible the manufacturer sends, the Neptune.  Given that Neptune was the Roman counterpart to the Greek god Poseidon and Triton was the son and herald of Poseidon, thematically it would have made more sense to call the ship the Neptune and the submersible the Triton.

Italian-American film, stage, and television star Ben Gazzarra (1930-2012) plays Commander Adrian Blake, the commanding officer of the Neptune.[8]  He is listed as the star, but doesn’t appear on screen until thirty-two minutes (or roughly one-third of the film’s running time) in.  We discover when Dr. Norton Shepherd (Ed McGibbon) meets Commander Blake on the tarmac as he disembarks from an Air Canada jetliner and escorts him to a helicopter that the Triton and OCEANLAB II belong to a private company called Triton Enterprises.  We also learn that Blake has retired from the U.S. Navy when he corrects Dr. Shepherd “Ex-Commander, I haven’t been in a uniform in four years.”[9]  Further, he is not confident of the status of the Neptune because it recently underwent an overhaul and has not subsequently undergone sea trials.  As they board the helicopter, when Shepherd jokes Blake will be the first to know if the Neptune springs a leak, Blake explains at a depth of a mile beneath the surface the Neptune would not “leak,” it would implode.

Forty minutes in, we finally find out what kind of experiments were being carried out at OCEANLAB II when Mack during the Neptune’s second dive, explains to Blake, “Believe it or not, we were trying to determine what causes earthquakes, plus the whole ecology shtick – biological research, sediment sampling…”  Then another volunteer from the Triton, Bob Cousins interjects, “Test and evaluation of navigation and homing devices, deep-water fishing and farming, full-scale housing.”  Mack sincerely finishes, “Because all of God’s children gotta have food and a place to live.”  In other words, these are people with the best of intentions.  In a science fiction/horror film, they would have been at work on something sinister or while the rest of the team would have had benign motives one team member would have been doing something wrong unbeknownst to them or the team would have had pure motives but been willing to do something unethical or unwise to achieve their ends.

On the second dive, Blake, Mack, Cousins, and Dr. Johnson discover the lab has fallen into a deep trench, and rescuing the trapped men will be a matter not only of reaching them before their air supply gives out but also of evading giant fish, giant seahorses, giant eels, and a giant lobster.  [They speculate the plants and animals have grown to huge proportions because of heat from the underwater volcano.]  The second major problem with the film is that the giant sea creatures are obviously tropical fish in a fish tank.  Some of them are downright cute.  Further, the model submarine shown in exterior shots diving and interacting with the “giant” sea creatures looks too much like a wee tot’s bathtub toy.

The filmmakers would have been better off either taking the full-size submersible we see being brought to the Triton and surfacing at the end of the film and building a single huge animatronic sea creature like the forty-foot-tall King Kong Agostino (“Dino”) De Laurentiis (1919-2010) had made for King Kong (1976)[10] or building a large-scale model akin to the model of the Nautilus submarine Disney built for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), an adaptation of the Jules Verne (1828-1905) novel[11] and building one or two animatronic sea creatures that would look gigantic compared to it.  The filmmakers who made The Neptune Factor also could have combined the two techniques with a giant animtaron to place in conjunction with the real submersible used in some scenes and a large-scale model of the submersible and one or two animatronic sea creatures of comparable size.  Today, of course, filmmakers would sculpt or fabricate maquettes (scale models) and use C.G.I. (computer-generated imagery) to animate them.

The result we have here, with the trench footage that looks like it could have been filmed in a fish tank the size of a medium-sized fish tank that is larger than one would find in a typical home, but in the waiting room of a hospital or  doctor’s office to help keep patients calm – not even a large fish tank such as one would find in an aquarium – comes across like the filmmakers spent too much money filming real actors and actresses on the surface vessels (and presumably sets that would have filled in for the interiors of those vessels), the interior of the military submarine, divers on the sea floor, and cast members in the interior of the experimental sub, and did not have enough money left for special effects in post-production, so the scenes with the giant sea creatures the filmmakers saved for the end that should have amazed audiences instead look like something out of a student film made on a budget of $100.

The producers of The Neptune Factor could have tried harder to make the fish, seahorses, eels, and a lobster seen on screen look bigger.  Sometimes in old movies where the filmmakers did not want to employ Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) or someone with a similar skill set to make stop-motion dinosaurs, or wanted to supplement stop-motion dinosaurs, the filmmakers would take real living lizards, maybe attach a fin, and then make them look huge compared to cast members with green screen techniques.  Examples include the prehistoric fantasy film One Million B.C. (1940), which was produced by Hal Roach, Sr. (1892-1992) at Hal Roach Studios and United Artists; One Million Years B.C. (1966), a Hammer Film Productions remake of One Millions B.C. (1940);[12] and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), a science fiction film inspired by another Jules Verne novel.[13]  Granted, today, these special effects still entertain small children, but adults and teenagers find them risible, yet with the technology available the choices the filmmakers had were between making animatronic sea creatures or using green screen techniques to make living animals appear enormous, and they chose instead to simply show small living sea creatures in isolation or with models of the Neptune and OCEANLAB II that look like toys.  The only use of green screen shots in the film seem to be the couple of time that characters look out the window and see “giant” fish, but too often instead of the audience seeing the characters looking out the window and seeing giant eyeballs, etc. the director cut from the characters inside the Neptune submersible to fish that are supposedly outside the Neptune.  Even when the characters are seen inside the Neptune looking out the windows and the windows are filled with imagery of fish, the fish do not look gigantic.  Instead, it looks like the characters are simply looking at large pictures of small fish.  There are a couple of shots of small fish eating smaller fish in a single bite that are genuinely disturbing, but that is nature – people should not romanticize animals, and it is not frightening to watch fish devour other fish.

Perhaps this is a minor quibble but after I watched the film it occurred to me the filmmakers missed out an opportunity when they cast two Italian-Americans to play characters meant to trace their descent to the British Isles to have them play Italians.  Since this was an original story, and not an adaptation of a novel or play, the director was free to have the screenwriter re-write the parts for Italians to reflect their actual ethnicity.  Italian actors and actresses in Hollywood do not get many opportunities to play Italians except when they are cast as Mafiosi and the wives or mistresses of Mafiosi, as if there were no Italian merchants, bankers, engineers, tailors, bakers, etc.

The cast is comprised of talented actors and actresses who treat their roles seriously, but they are completely undercut by ridiculous special effects.  I never heard of this film before Liam found it on FXM (Fox Movie Channel) and I imagine whomever chose to show it had not bothered to watch it beforehand, and only chose to do so because it was in 20th Century Fox’s film catalogue so they would not have to pay anything to show it.  There are old films where special effects have not aged well, but most of the special effects in this film cannot have ever convinced viewers.  Sometimes, the special effects in old films that are no longer convincing, such as matte paintings that depict cityscapes or distant castles, or the bare sets or surrealistic sets in German Expressionist films, have a naïve charm, as if one is looking at a stage set for a play where the imaginations of the viewers have to fill in the details, but the special effects in this film are laughable. I can picture people watching it now to fast-forward to the end to mock it.  On a five star scale, I am giving The Neptune Factor two-and-a-half stars.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Science fiction writers and fans distinguish between “hard” science fiction that accurately depicts real science and technologies that might be plausibly developed in the future, whereas with “soft” science fiction the writers do not feel constrained by science. Examples of hard science fiction include Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, published in 2011, and Sir Ridley Scott’s adaptation of it, The Martian (2015), while examples of “soft” science fiction include the science fiction novels of Ursula K. LeGuin (1929-2018), the two Doctor Who shows, and Gene Roddenberry’s television series Star Trek (1966-1969).  The novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) set on Mars and the Star Wars films and ancillary media are classified in a third category, “space opera.”  Characters may fly around in space ships, but the stories owe more to ancient and medieval history, fairy tales, sword and sorcery stories in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian short stories, and high fantasy stories in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien then to science.  They are fantasy stories dressed up in the clothes of science fiction.

[2] Walter Pidgeon, who had received two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor performances in the 1940s for Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Madame Curie (1943), and he also starred in such beloved films as John Ford’s Welsh-set drama How Green Was My Valley (1941), but he is best remembered now for his role as Dr. Edward Morbius in Forbidden Planet (1956), a science fiction adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. However, Pidgeon was undoubtedly cast in The Neptune Factor as a nod to his leading role as Admiral Harriman Nelson in Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961).  That science fiction film set aboard a submarine is not as well known today as Forbidden Planet, but it is still shown on television occasionally because Irwin Allen (1916-1991), who produced, directed, and co-wrote the film, went on to make a television series based on it, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), reusing the model submarine Seaview from the film, and the series was so popular that it was still being shown in syndication when I was a boy.  Richard Basehart (1914-1984) played Admiral Nelson on television.  The show is available on D.V.D. and the movie is available on Blu-ray and the Amazon Prime streaming service.

[3] Yvette Mimieux is best known for her performance as Weena the Eloi girl whom the time traveler George (Rod Taylor) rescues from drowning while her attractive but dimwitted Eloi brethren callously look on and then from the Eloi-eating Morlocks in The Time Machine (1960), George Pal’s adaptation of the classic science fiction novel by H.G. Wells (1866-1946).

[4] Born Ermes Effron Borgnino, Ernest Borgnine was a U.S. Navy veteran of the Second Great World War who went on to become a star of both the big screen and the small screen.  As a character actor, he had significant supporting roles in From Here to Eternity (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and The Dirty Dozen (1967).  As an unlikely leading man, he won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Marty (1955).  In it, he played the eponymous character, Marty Piletti, an overweight, thirty-four-year-old Italian-American butcher who is under pressure from his family to marry like his siblings, yet when he finds a school teacher as lonely as himself, Clara (Betsy Blair), his family and friends deride her plain looks and he almost loses his chance at love until he realizes he does not have to care about their opinions of Clara if she makes him happy.  Shortly after Borgnine made The Neptune Factor for Sandy Howard, he starred as the leader of a Satanic cult in a ridiculous horror film called The Devil’s Rain (1975).  On television, Borgnine starred in the sitcom McHale’s Navy (1962-1966).  He also guest starred on many television shows, one of which was Donald P. Bellisario’s Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988) in 1983, after which Bellisario cast him in the supporting role of Dominic (“Dom”) Santini on Airwolf (1984-1987), the employer and mentor of the show’s hero Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent), pilot of Airwolf, a prototype supersonic helicopter.  Borgnine played the part in the first three seasons, while the show was on C.B.S., but he was not in the show for the fourth season, when it moved the USA cable network, and a body double stood in for him when his character was killed off.

[5] Chris Wiggins was an English banker who immigrated to Canada in 1952 and became a stage actor.  In 1960, he was a member of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada (now more simply called the Stratford Festival), the famous repertory theater festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada that inspired the television series Slings & Arrows (2003-2006).  He is best known for his role as Jack Marshak in Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990), a syndicated horror television series.  Jack was a former stage magician and expert on real occult matters who helped the show’s heroine Micki Foster (Louise Robey), her cousin Ryan Dallion (John D. LeMay) in Seasons 1-2, and her friend Johnny Ventura (Steve Monarque) round up and store away cursed objects her late Uncle Lewis Vendredi (R.G. Armstrong) sold out of his antique shop as part of a pact with the Devil in which he would receive immortality, wealth, and supernatural power in return for sending out objects that granted malevolent magic powers to owners in return for human sacrifices.  Wiggins provided voices for numerous cartoon characters, including the elephant Cornelius, the advisor to Babar, King of the Elephants, in several shows.

[6] Canadian character actor Donnelly Rhodes is best known to American audiences from characters he played on soap opera The Young and the Restless and the soap opera spoof Soap (1977-1981).  He starred as Dr. Grant Roberts on the Canadian-American show Danger Bay (1985-1990).  On Canadian television, he had an important supporting role on Da Vinci’s Inquest (1998-2005). He guest starred as the gruff Major Sherman Cottle, Chief Medical Officer of the battlestar Galactica in thirty-six  episodes of the rebooted science fiction series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009).

[7] The Onondaga were one of the five nations in the Iroquois Confederacy.  Their historic lands roughly correspond with Onondaga County, New York.

[8] Ben Gazzarra rose to fame with the role of Lt. Frederick Manion, a soldier who is placed on trial for murder after he avenges the rape of his wife, Laura Manion, played by Lee Remick (1935-1991), in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959).  Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) played the defense attorney and George C. Scott (1927-1999) played the prosecutor.  On television, he starred in Arrest and Trial (1963-1964) and Run for Your Life (1965-1968), as well as the miniseries QB VII (1974), which was an adaptation of a Leon Uris (1924-2003) novel. Many of the films he starred or had supporting roles in were sordid.  John Cassavetes (1929-1989) cast Gazzarra, Peter Falk (1927-2011), and himself in Husbands (1970), a film about three professional men who jointly have midlife crises in the wake of a friend’s unexpected death.  In The Sicilian Connection (1972), Gazzarra played Joseph Coppola, an Italian American who turned to the Sicilian Mafia for protection from their counterparts in Marseilles when he began to smuggle Turkish opium into the U.S.A. He starred as Al Capone in Capone (1975), which was a sensationalistic and inaccurate retelling of the life of the founder of the Chicago Outfit. Gazzarra was one of the many stars in Voyage of the Damned (1976).  This was historical fiction inspired by the true story of a German steamship captain who tried to convey over 900 Jewish refugees on the M.S. St. Louis from Nazi Germany to Cuba, only for the ocean liner to be turned away by Cuban and American ports.  Desperate, they accepted asylum offered by four European countries, three of which were later conquered by Germany.  Cassavetes cast Gazzarra as Cosmo Vitelli, a strip joint owner whom the Mafia tricks into becoming a hitman, in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).  Cassavetes cast him in Opening Night (1977) as stage director Manny Victor, who is struggling with unstable Broadway star Myrtle Gordon (played by Gena Rowlands, the wife of Cassavetes).   Peter Bogdanovich cast him as the star, Jack Flowers, an American pimp in Singapore, in Saint Jack (1979). That same year, he appeared in Bloodline (1979).  This was an adaptation of a Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007) novel that had many of the biggest stars of the era, including Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993), James Mason (1909-1984), Gert Fröbe (1913-1988), and Omar Sharif (1932-2015) in a tale that tied the murders of prostitutes in snuff films to a murder and murder attempts carried out to allow for the sale of stock in a closely-held billion-dollar pharmaceutical company.  Gazzarra was able to play villains well into his fifties and sixties.  He was the arch villain in Road House (1989) and almost ten years later played porn king Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski (1998).  In 2003, Gazzarrra won a Primetime Emmy for his performance in the H.B.O. telefilm Hysterical Blindness (2002) as Nick Piccolo, a suitor to Virginia Miller (Gena Rowlands), the mother of the telefilm’s heroine, Debby Miller (Uma Thurman).

[9] As a courtesy, it is common to address former military officers such as generals and admirals and officeholders such as presidents, governors, and ambassadors by the highest titles they formerly held.

[10] Mind you, that forty-foot-tall animatron is hardly seen in King Kong.  For the most part, we see Rick Baker in a suit made by Baker and Carlo Rambaldi (1925-2012).

[11] The Jules Verne novel in question was Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin, published in 1870, and translated into English as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas: A Tour of the Underwater World.

[12] One Million Years B.C. included both Harryhausen’s stop-motion dinosaurs and a green screen shots of a turtle and a lizard made to look enormous.  The film caused a sensation with a still photo of American actress Raquel Welch in a fur and hide bikini becoming a bestselling poster, as seen in The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

[13] That Jules Verne novel was Voyage au Centre de la Terre published in 1864, and translated into English alternatively as A Journey to the Center of the Earth and A Journey to the Interior of the Earth.

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