Writer, producer, director Irwin Allen is probably most known as the “Master of Disaster” because of his successes with such films as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, but in the 1960s he was most notably a producer of high adventure science fiction television shows. Programs such as Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants and The Time Tunnel cemented him as the king of primetime science fiction, but not all his attempts were successful, which leads us to today’s installment, City Beneath the Sea.
In much the same vein as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea this pilot has to do with undersea exploration but comes across as more of an overly melodramatic soap opera than anything else, which would explain why the Network didn’t pick it up to go to series. It takes place in the far flung future of 2053 where the massive undersea city of Pacifica is thrown into disarray when crisis strikes the surface world and only they can save the day.
It seems that the United States is being wracked with earthquakes that are causing things like drilling platforms to randomly explode, so the plan to move the gold supply in Fort Knox to the safer vaults down in the undersea city of Pacifica needs to be sped up. The President (Richard Basehart) forces Admiral Matthews (Stuart Whitman) out of retirement to take over the operation. The problem is that Matthews left Pacifica under a cloud of suspicion and anger and his second in command Woody Patterson (Robert Colbert), who now runs Pacifica, isn’t keen on being demoted so his old boss can have his old job back. But orders are orders so Matthews is yanked away from his cushy corporate job to tackle this impending crisis.
Re-used props and sets are not the only thing hampering this production as pretty much every character has the depth of a Saharan puddle. Everyone in Pacifica is pissed off at Admiral Matthews, and that seems to be their sole character trait; they all resent him coming back because they blame him for the death of Bill Holmes (Larry Pennell), who along with Matthews is responsible for the creation of Pacifica, but which we will of course later discover that he was not responsible for at all. Our cast of clichés are as follows:
Lia Holmes (Rosemary Forsyth), wife of the dead co-creator of Pacifica who really, really hates Matthews.
Elana (Susan Miranda), the Girl Friday to Matthews and probably the only competent person in this undersea world. This doesn’t mean she gets out of having to wear a very short skirt.
Aguila (Burr DeBenning), a man biologically altered to breathe underwater but has no gills or any outer appearance of being a fish person. Can we say “Budget cuts?”
Brett Matthews (Robert Wagner), brother to Admiral Matthews and who is so obviously up to no good that everyone must be a moron to not suspect him.
Professor Holmes (Whit Bissell), father of Lia and lone voice of reason about Matthews’ guilt over his son’s death.
Dr. Ziegler (Joseph Cotton), one of the heads of the civilian population who also hates Matthews and appears only long enough to cash a paycheque.
And for some reason boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson.
The plot, if one could so far as to say this “movie” has a plot, is a mishmash of disparate elements thrown together in such a haphazard way that it barely holds together for its 98 minute running time. If you then look at the “science” element of this science fiction show it is even more insanely stupid; we learn that all the gold in Fort Knox is being moved to this undersea city so that it can be kept safe inside it’s titanium vault, but also coming along for the ride is a huge shipment H120A, an incredibly powerful radioactive material which a mere small portion of could power the world for years, and gold is the only element that can keep it from going critical. So it is super important that it is stored surrounded in gold. That sounds logical and safe.
Unbeknownst to Admiral Matthews, his brother and a shadowy syndicate of villains have been working on a plan to loot the vault for years. An accident is staged shortly upon the Admiral’s arrival that happens to be very similar to the one that killed Bill Holmes; it turns out that both incidents were part of a distraction to substitute weak titanium plates for the proper ones which would allow Brett and his cronies to cut through the vault walls as if they were tissue paper.
But wait, things get even crazier when Matthews is called back to Washington and is informed that a planetoid heading towards Earth is what has been causing all the tectonic disturbances. Its immense density is three million times heavier than Earth and thus causing gravitational havoc on our poor planet. Worse is that the projected landfall is, you guessed it, Pacifica. So Matthews must hurry back to Pacifica to organize an evacuation to inland locations. Bullshit. I may not be a scientist but I’m pretty sure that if an asteroid, with three million times the mass of our planet was to strike us, moving inland would be about as helpful as that tiny umbrella Wile E. Coyote always used.
You know you’re in trouble when James Darren is your science advisor.
Admiral Matthews rushes back to Pacifica to start the evacuation process while his brother encourages his partners that their heist plan is still good even if an asteroid is going to obliterate the city in a matter of hours. By now it’s been revealed to all that Mathews was not responsible for the death of Holmes and that Quin, a flunky working under Brett, is the murderer. This turns Lia’s hate for Mathews into adoration, because that’s how emotions work, and thus she will refuse to leave his side during their impending doom. Matthew’s himself will come up with the brilliant plan to stay behind and launch Pacifica’s nuclear arsenal at the planetoid in the hopes of diverting its path away from Earth.
So with the lives of everyone on the planet hanging in the balance, Matthews has to divide his attention between missiles launched without presidential approval and thwarting the robbery in Pacifica’s vault. With toolkit in hand he charges off to stop the heist and eventually kill his brother in an ironic fashion.
This movie was a mess. Even by cobbled together television pilot standards. None of the actors give even the slightest bit of a believable performance, with most of them clearly in paycheque cashing mode. The effects aren’t terrible for a TV production but for a show billed as City Beneath the Sea it mostly consists of people talking in rooms and hallways with not much actual undersea action. And I know that most 1960s science fiction movies weren’t bastions of scientific accuracy but this film reaches whole new levels of stupidity with its “science.” Not at all surprised that NBC passed on this one.