Two aspects of producer Irwin Allen’s cinematic identity converged in this campy sci-fi movie, which was made for television as the pilot for a series that never materialized. The project echoes Allen’s past, because Allen produced the 1964-1968 adventure series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, as well as the 1961 theatrical feature from which that series was adapted. Yet City Beneath the Sea also hints at Allen’s future, because the picture is a disaster saga, and Allen’s name became synonymous with the disaster genre once he unleashed The Poseidon Adventure (1972). City Beneath the Sea scores as high on the Cheese-O-Meter as anything Allen ever made. The narrative is silly, the performances are robotic, and the storytelling is primarily designed to showcase elaborate costumes, sets, and special effects. That said, City Beneath the Sea is brainless fun, with laughably one-dimensional characters struggling to survive a series of absurd crises. Every scene bursts with exposition, because screenwriter John Meredyth Lucas struggles to include all of the pulpy plot elements provided by Allen, who is credited with writing the story. Seen today, City Beneath the Sea feels like a relic from a distant time, because the pristine design style represents a mid-century-modern vision of the future. “Sleek” is the watchword, and nobody on this production was afraid of using bright colors.
Set in 2053, the movie begins with the U.S. President (Richard Basehart) demanding that former Navy Admiral Michael Matthews (Stuart Whitman) return to duty as commander of Pacifica, a huge underwater research installation. Here’s the laugh-out-loud premise: The U.S. has been transferring its cache of gold from Fort Knox to Pacifica because of seismic activity near Fort Knox, and now the U.S. has learned that it must also transfer a huge store of fissile radioactive material to Pacifica for safekeeping, because only proximity to gold keeps the material from exploding. Oh, and a giant meteor is about to crash into the Earth, with Pacifica the likely ground zero, so the dozens of people living underwater must abandon the station as soon as the gold and radioactive material are secured in a meteor-proof vault. As if that’s not goofy enough, City Beneath the Sea features an “aquanoid,” a mutant who can breathe either air or water. Woven into all of this hogwash are the various cardboard characters one always finds in Allen’s pictures: The stalwart hero blamed for an accident he didn’t actually cause, the bereaved widow whose recriminations crush the stalwart hero beneath a mountain of guilt, the duplicitous lieutenant planning an evil scheme, and so on. (As for that evil scheme, it’s a brazen gold heist, since City Beyond the Sea clearly needed even more plot material.) In addition to Basehart and Whitman, actors providing the film’s wooden performances include Joseph Cotten (who appears in just one short scene), Rosemary Forsyth, Robert Colbert, and Robert Wagner.
City Beneath the Sea: FUNKY