Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Voyage to the Bottom of the SeaLast night I watched Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Generally, it is your usual kind of 1960s style science fiction romp. It has dorky over-lit sets, silly science, and way too much plucky American can-do attitude. But there are fundamental problems with the story that it tells.

The biggest problem is its full-throttled support of American Exceptionalism. Admiral Harriman Nelson goes to the United Nation to discuss what to do about the Van Allen belts having caught on fire. (This, by the way, makes no sense.) He tells them about a plan to fire a nuclear missile at the belts, thus extinguishing the fire. A scientist from Vienna has calculated that the fire will burn itself out. The other scientists accept his calculations and dismiss Nelson’s idea as too dangerous. Nelson tells them that he will only listen to the President of the United States.

This is pretty bad, but it is entirely American. “The only reason I came to the UN was to look good. Now rubber stamp my idea and let me go do what I’m going to do anyway!” And Nelson does. He rushes back to his sub and takes off, very likely drowning some cops who were trying to stop him. When it comes time to shoot the nuke, he cannot contact the president and so just goes ahead without the okay. (Note: he didn’t try to contact the president right away when he left New York.) But what’s the big deal with exploding a nuclear bomb in the magnetosphere? What could possibly go wrong?

Generally, a character like Nelson is a villain or an object of pity. He shows all the signs of being crazy, and that is clearly where the plot indicates it is going. I figured that eventually Nelson would determine that the scientists at the UN were correct—that the fire would burn itself out—and he would abort. He seemed a little crazy, but I figured he was a positive enough character for the film to ease him back from the abyss. That is not the way it went.

Instead, there was a saboteur on board. And, of course, it turned out to be the female scientist (Joan Fontaine who was surprisingly good and who is still alive at 95). She was trying to stop Nelson because (1) she agreed with the scientist from Vienna and (2) Nelson did show all the signs of being crazy. But he wasn’t! Instead, he was just a plucky American who knew what was best for the world. In the end he shoots his wad and saves the day.

And the la-hand of the Freeeeee!
And the hoooome, of thhhhhe, braaaave!

I am as fond of the romantic hero archetype as anyone. But if Achilles was wrong, Hector would kill him and the Trojans would have won the war. In this case, if Nelson is wrong, everyone dies. But note: there is no indication that the fire would not have burned itself out. So even in the context of the film, Nelson is not necessarily right. And the science is such that roughly half of the radiation would have come back down to earth. So unless Nelson was right that the fire would not burn itself out, his solution was indeed bad even though it succeeded in its primary purpose.

The film is a good example of American hubris. In certain ways it is the Zero Dark Thirty of its day. And just like it, it doesn’t shape public opinion; it is shaped by public opinion. Because the base idea in both films is what Americans always think: we are always right and thus the means are always justified.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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