2019 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge: Day 14: The Neptune Factor (1973)

Day 14 S.T.D Madness!: Science, Transformations & Dabbling: A cracked scientist’s creative palette

This writer was a wee lad when 1973’s The Neptune Factor played at the neighborhood duplex. Equipped with nothing but the television and print ads we, the grade school-era Ralph McQuarries, feverish drew our Neptune submarine art class recreations, anticipating our parents taking us to see the film that weekend.

An Irwin Allen-styled earthquake? An underwater ocean lab plummets into a deep ocean trench? Lazy scientists that never leave the lab and, when they do, their hysterics unleash the beast? The “Aliens” attacking the crew of the Nostromo in James Cameron’s “Abyss” . . . are giant killer eels?

I’m all in . . . or at least I was: age robs us of our innocent, youthful tastes.

As is the case with the sensationalistic movie posters of ‘70s: the film behind the one-sheet never delivers on the art work promises. There was no “digital water” in the pre-CGI, George Lucas ‘70s; so the special effects endangering The Neptune consisted of fish “optically enlarged” into head butting, growling and howling, blood-thirsty monsters that cavort with Godzilla-style miniatures.

Beware: Giant Seahorse Crossing Ahead!

Forty-five years later, as I embark into the skies of blue and sea of green on my White & Red Submarine to battle the Aqua Meanies of Neptuneland, I’m blown away that The Neptune Factor — at its core it’s just your average sci-fi B-picture, only with a million dollar budget — starred Ernest Borgnine (“Cabbie” from Escape from New York), an Oscar winning actor. His co-star, Ben Gazzara (“Brad Wesley” from Road House), earned multiple Golden Globe and Emmy nods and Broadway accolades. Walter Pidgeon had two Oscar nods in his pocket; Yvette Mimieux worked consistently as one of MGM Studios’ leading contract players throughout the 1960s and made her debut in H.G Wells The Time Machine.

The Most Fantastic Underwater Odyssey Ever Filmed,” so proclaimed those advertisements that fueled those art class fantasies.

And that was MGM’s goal: to do for the ocean what Kubrick did for space — by placing an Irwin Allen paint-by-numbers disaster plot underwater. And in case we forgot: the closing credits again remind us — with the film’s subtitle — we just experienced “An Undersea Odyssey.”

Uh, did we, really?

To hell with the Blue Meanies that freak me out, still, to this day. Full steam ahead to Pepperland, Ringo: We sail to a land where, instead of a HAL supercomputer jeopardizing the crew and mission, we get an Yvette superbitch disobeying orders, throwing switches, blowing circuits and causing the “Discovery” of the film to tumble ass-over-elbows down an aquatic abyss. Instead of a mind-bending space gate: we get a mind-numbing plethora of giant tropical fish. Instead of an acid-spewing Xenomorph: we get a head-butting Gold Fish.

For a film junkie like me: it’s celluloid déjà vu.

I’m watching the “giant” underwater crabs attack the toy-miniature Space Probe Taurus (1965) — only on a reported $2.5 million budget — all over again. At least the giant rat-spider-bat from Angry Red Planet (1959) was fun. It’s no fun watching 80 minutes of a future, post-apocalyptic New York cab driver feigning awe over a tropical fish tank under a zoom lens.

In the pre-2001: A Space Odyssey epoch, your typical science fiction film of the ‘50s and ‘60s consisted of Shakespearean-trained character actor John Carradine (father to “Snake Charmer” in Kill Bill) slipping into a silver lamé “space suit” to find a cure for the Earth’s vampire plague by way of a horde of bubbling, gurgling vials and beakers strewn across a wooden table in the “science lab.” On the wall was the requisite Bulova industrial-clock hung above a bank of reel-to-reel tape players replete with flashing lights that indicate danger is ahead.

For a film junkie like me: it’s celluloid déjà vu.

Here I am, watching another long-in-the-tooth actor — this time it’s Walter Pidgeon — in the same Carradine lab. And there’s a shot of a Bulova clock on the wall, again, you know, to remind us the stranded sealab’s oxygen is running out and the aquanauts will die.

Oh, Stanley. How did the “underwater you” go so wrong?

Stanley Kubrick, along with special effects artist, Douglas Trumbull, opened the once scoffing eyes of Hollywood’s mainstream studio system to the fact that the once low-budget genre of science fiction could present the same level of quality to the screen as any of their bloated-budget war, western, or bible epics.

The first A-List star to cross Hollywood’s sci-fi picket line was Moses and Ben-Hur himself: Charlton Heston. All three of Chuck’s contributions to the genre — Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1971), and Soylent Green (1973) — became critical and box office hits—not just domestically, but internationally. Thanks to Heston setting the stage and proving science fiction could be well-made and generate favorable reviews and box office returns, then the flood gates opened with Yul Brynner, Bruce Dern, James Caan, Nigel Davenport, Sean Connery, Jackie Cooper, Richard Harris, Paul Newman, George Peppard, and Oliver Reed all making science fiction films.

And it was time for Ben Gazzara to jump into the deep end of the pool.

Made by 20th Century Fox and co-released by Fox and MGM Studios, The Neptune Factor (retitled for TV and video as The Neptune Disaster and Undersea Odyssey), essentially, is an underwater, sci-fi reimaging of Ernest Borgnine’s previous hit, the gold standard of ‘70s disaster pics: The Poseidon Adventure. And why is Walter Pidgeon here? For an air of familiarity: he captained The Seaview for Irwin Allen’s 20th Century Fox’s sci-fi sub flick, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Yes, for a film junkie like me: it’s celluloid déjà vu.

And there I was, six years later, my mind swimming with X-Wing dogfights over the Death Star, anticipating the release of Voyage to the Bottom of the Black Hole, uh, I mean, The Black Hole Disaster, I mean, The U.S.S Cygnus Disaster, uh, The Poseidon In Space, as The Neptune shed its watery space as it shot off into outer space — minus the photo-giant fish tomfoolery — with Borgnine and Mimieux at the helm once again, this time aboard the Palamino, as they entered Disney’s Star Wars-inspired black hole.

And cinema history tells us The Black Hole was initially conceived in 1974 as a Poseidon-inspired sci-fi adventure — to capitalize on the sci-fi craze sparked by Heston’s success — known as Space Station One, aka, Voyage to the Bottom of the Black Hole Abyss as the Aliens Attack the U.S.S Poseidon Neptune Disaster Adventure. Considering the coolness of Trumbull’s post-2001 space opera, Silent Running, Space Station One, if made in 1974, could have worked.

Yes, it all comes back full circle because . . . for a film junkie like me: it’s always celluloid déjà vu.

And yes, I still run crying to my mommy because those Blue Meanies are still coming to get me, for a Beatle is scarier than a fish. Live in fear of the seas of green with the full movie on You Tube and Daily Motion.

Do you need more celluloid déjà vu? Then pull up a Chalmers, uh, I mean, chair, and visit the post-apocalypse world of Bladerunner—before Bladerunner—with 1962’s Creation of the Humanoids. And, it gets worse with 2020’s Underwater.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and B&S Movies, and learn more about his work on Facebook.

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