Less horror than humour

Important questions are unanswered

Published: Mar 17 2016, 01:01:am

Saturday, July 7, 1973.
THE NEPTUNE FACTOR. Written by Jack DeWitt. Music by Lalo Schifrin. Directed by Daniel Petrie. Running time: 96 minutes. General entertainment.
IT WOULD BE NICE TO report that The Neptune Factor, one of the most expensive Canadian films ever made, was a great movie. It would also be dishonest.
    Words like disaster, debacle and, at the very least, disappointment, spring more readily to mind. Despite an investment of $1,500,000 ($200,000 of that from the Canadian Film Development Corporation), this latest undersea suspense thriller has all the finesse and style of a 1950s creature feature.
    So many things seem to have gone wrong with the project that it is difficult to pick out a single key problem.  The initial idea had genuine potential, a fact that makes the on-screen result all the more disappointing.
    Originally titled Conquest  of  the Deeps, it is the story of an oceanographic research station, the Sea Lab, located on the ocean floor off Halifax. It is serviced by a mother ship, the Triton. When an undersea earthquake sweeps the Sea Lab into even deeper waters, the scientists call in the untested, deep-diving Neptune to conduct a search.
    During its rescue mission, the Neptune comes upon an undersea volcano, and is menaced by the giant creatures that have grown there as a result of its radiant energies. And, of course, it finds the missing Sea Lab.
    The film could have been a stunning display of special effects work.What credit there is goes to Toronto's Jack McAdam, who designed the impressive interior of the Neptune.
    It's too bad that the thinking that went into the interior work didn't follow through the entire project. Unfortunately, it didn't even follow through to the exterior of the Neptune.
    It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that for the crew of the submersible to see anything beyond their craft, there would have to be subdued lighting inside and search lights outside.
    The Canadian special effects crew, under Hollywood "expert" Bill Hansard, make the same mistake as the clowns who supervised the model work for 1970's Airport. They forgot the lights.
    That kind of thing wouldn't have made much difference if director Daniel Petrie had overwhelmed his audience with some powerful performances. Too bad there is no power forthcoming from his cast of imported American stars.
     To be fair, though, Jack DeWitt's screenplay gives them nothing to build power with. His unoriginal treatment is peopled with unoriginal characters.
    Canadian-born Walter Pidgeon turns up as Sam Andrews, a lovable old scientist concerned for his lost colleagues. Ben Gazzara's Cmdr. Adrian Blake is the technocratic hero. (". . . got to use my John Wayne character," he told an interviewer in Toronto last week.)
    On the distaff side, aging ingenue Yvette Mimieux plays Leah Jansen, the single-minded woman scientist coming apart at the seams because her true love, Hal Hamilton (Michael J. Reynolds) is trapped below. And finally, Ernest Borgnine, still soggy from his dunking in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) comes on indifferently as the project's tough-talking chief aquanaut Don McKay.
    The film suffers from the same sense of misdirection that has always plagued cinema science-fiction. It manages to explain things that need no explanation and leave the really important questions unanswered.
    The filmgoer knows what the problem is. He does not know the people. Unless the people are made real, who cares whether or not they solve their problem?
    Unless the filmgoer can empathize with them, their lives have even less dramatic value than the hardware lost on the ocean floor.
    Perhaps Petrie planned to dazzle us with special effects, create an unbearable subsurface claustrophobia and carry us breathlessly to the end on waves of dry-mouthed tension. If that was the plan, it failed.
    Thugh the Nova Scotia-born Petrie knows his way around TV's hospital row, with credits that include episodes of The Bold Ones, Medical Centre and Marcus Welby, M.D., he shows no skill at all at feature-film thrill building. He lets Lalo Schifrin's semi-Strauss score (think 2001) blast forth at all the wrong times, while leaving moments of potential tension silent.
    Even the menace of the massive sea creatures falls flat. A 1970s audience really is too sophisticated to feel any fright from close-ups of fish-tank fish. Somehow a crab pushing at a model of the Neptune is less horrifying than humorous.
    The Neptune Factor was a project much like the Vancouver-shot The Groundstar Conspiracy.  Made with the strong backing of an American company — 20th Century Fox had $700,000 in Neptune — both films were highly publicized and eagerly awaited.
    Naturally, both films were closely supervised by their American backers. When completed, both turned out to be the kind of schlock that's usually double featured in rural drive-ins.
      Kind of makes me wonder just whose interests they're looking out for.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Yes, there is a Submarine Day, and it really is celebrated on St. Patrick's Day. The commemoration's date marks the demonstration on March 17, 1898 of Irish engineer John Philip Holland's Holland VI submersible for the assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. Renamed the USS Holland, it became the first submarine commissioned into the fleet, a bit of history almost certainly known to Abyss director and record-setting deep-sea diver James Cameron.
    The Neptune Factor is representative of a time of both hope and confusion in Canadian movie history. In the excitement of the nation's centennial year (1967), creative Canadians set out to create a domestic feature-film industry. The federal government responded by creating the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), an agency tasked with bringing this about. But only sort of. Ottawa, more responsive to the lobbyists representing the Hollywood distribution companies and the foreign-owned theatre exhibition chains, restricted the CFDC to financing feature production. At the time, there were thriving film industries in both France and Britain, where quota systems guaranteed domestic movies access to theatres. No such "interference" in the free market was permitted in Canada, with the result that audiences saw only the occasional Canadian-made feature.
    A second problem was the CFDC beauracracy's belief that Canadian films should only be made in the nation's designated cultural centres: Toronto (for the English) and Montreal (for the French). Support for filmmakers in places such as Vancouver or Halifax was grudging at best. And yet deals were struck and pictures such as The Neptune Factor and The Groundstar Conspiracy were produced at the margins. In order to get made, though, the starring roles went to Hollywood-based actors deemed "bankable" by the Canadian producers' U.S. partners. It was a time when many Canadian-born performers, such as Walter Pidgeon, were able to make working visits home.
     More than 40 years later, it's easy to say that the CFDC (renamed Telefilm Canada in 1984) failed in its stated mission. On the other hand, it appears to have succeeded wonderfully in its true purpose, to make the world safe for corporate Hollywood's continued dominance of mass-market entertainment.

See also: New Brunswick-born actor Walter Pidgeon visited Vancouver in 1973, when we chatted about his West Coast Canadian feature, the shot-in-Victoria crime comedy Harry in Your Pocket.