When was the last time you watched an old-fashioned underwater sci-fi adventure movie on the big screen? And no, you can't include Titanic, even though my heart does go on. I've seen A LOT of movies in my half century on God's Green Earth, and it's been a while since this watery creative territory has been sailed into.
Sure, there were The Abyss, Deep Star Six, Leviathan, Sphere and maybe Deep Rising, but those flicks were nearly 20 years ago or more. Why Hollywood has an aversion to rousing yarns beneath the high seas is a mystery, but the answer probably has to do with one ill-fated plunge into the budget-drowning Waterworld.
Emerging out of the disaster-crazed '70s, a forgotten Canadian/American sci-fi gem by the name of The Neptune Factor has captured my attention. This $2 million undersea odyssey gets lumped in the shadow of other Swingin' Seventies fare like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, Soylent Green, Airport '77 and others, but it truly deserves to be ranked right up there amid the best of the genre, with a capable cast including Ben Gazarra, Ernest Borgnine, Walter Pidgeon and Yvette Mimieux.
The Neptune Factor also showcased lush underwater cinematography by Paul Herbermann, gloriously cheesy special effects by Squirm's Lee Howard and confident, professional direction by Daniel Petrie, the filmmaker who brought us A Raisin in the Sun, Fort Apache: The Bronx, Rocket Gibraltar and The Betsy. It was released by 20th Century Fox on August 3, 1973, and enjoyed a successful theatrical run.
Jack Dewitt, an old hand at writing westerns like A Man Called Horse, penned the melodramatic script, and the fantastical plot revolves around the engineers, scientists and divers in OceanLab II, an underwater science station parked off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The installation suffers a tragedy when a deep sea earthquake plunges it down a bottomless, unexplored trench where monstrous aquatic creatures lurk.
An experimental sub christened the Neptune II is dispatched to rescue the lost oceanauts who are quickly running out of air and surrounded by monstrous life forms (real salt-water tropical fish filmed with detailed miniatures). Gazarra's sub team arrives in time to save the oxygen-deprived crew after battling with enormous razor-toothed eels and a seriously deranged lionfish.
Look, the special effects are definitely a bit wobbly and at times appear to be filmed inside my childhood saltwater aquarium with the obligatory bubble diver and opening treasure chest, but 1973 was a tough year for visual effects ... and on the cusp of greater things like Space:1999, Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars. But the quaint modelmaking is adequate for the era and must be seen in the diminished light of the techniques available (unless your name was Kubrick or Trumbull).
Coming out of the Jacques Cousteau era, the cutting-edge diving equipment and submersibles featured in the film must have looked futuristic to bell-bottomed audiences. Its Oceanlab II research pod on the ocean floor was patterned after the US Navy's three Sealab habitats, the experimental underwater testing facilities of the mid '60s. Ecology and marine biology were hugely popular themes on nature programs and in magazines and Petrie filled every frame with cool Steve Zissou gear.
A year earlier, Sealab 2020 was a Saturday morning cartoon series centering around a futuristic undersea research base and gullible kids were constantly buying "trainable" Sea Monkeys from ads inside comic books. The Neptune Factor was hatched within these fertile waters with a plot that could have partially inspired James Cameron's The Abyss and many more rescue-oriented action films over the past few decades.
What's interesting about many of these sci-fi adventure films of the day is how serious in tone they were with the actors totally dialed into the overwrought drama, despite some ludicrous special effects and surreal, over-the-top musical scores. The great Lalo Schifrin provided the riveting music for The Neptune Factor, blending traditional strings pieces with some bizarro synthesizer interludes for the dreamy scenes of the sub slowly cruising past schools of overgrown groupers. The Grammy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated musician and composer is most famous for creating the Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV show themes as well as scoring THX-1138, Enter The Dragon, The Amityville Horror and all the Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movies.
But it's the colossal glassy-eyed fish that people remember most from this '70s classic, groaning like finned dinosaurs and adrift in a gigantic tank with floating anemones, hungry eels and a ginormous crawling lobster than would feed a small village in Maine.
The Neptune Factor is no masterpiece, but it's a minor classic that deserves to be remembered for its solemn conviction in the face of mutant aquarium fish and keeping the sci-fi genre warm until greater players entered the water. More fun than the old Submarine Voyage ride at Disneyland and infinitely less expensive!
Next time you're in the mood, give it an honest viewing. Full ahead!