Toho Studios may mostly be known for their Godzilla and other kaiju movies but in the late 60s they created a little gem called Latitude Zero, where an altruistic Nemo type does battle with his nefarious evil counterpoint, and his monstrous creations. To capture some of that good ole American box office Toho wasn’t shy about importing American actors – it certainly worked for the sci-fi movie The Green Slime – and thus this film sports a cast that includes the likes of Richard Jaeckel, Cesar Romero and Joseph Cotten, and in case you were wondering it was as awesome as it sounds.
This movie doesn’t so much as have a plot as it does a series of events that unfold during its 105 minute running time – and would have probably worked well as a pilot for a fantastic television – but as plots were never the strong suit of Toho Studios its lack thereof is something one comes to expect. Latitude Zero opens with narration, explaining to the viewer that a Japanese research vessel has come to the equator to investigate something called The Cromwell Current, and where we find a bathysphere containing Dr. Ken Tashiro (Akira Takarada), physicist and oceanographer, Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada), a French geologist, and Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckel), a photographer from Transglobe News, all being is lowered into the depths.
Things go bad rather quickly when a seismic eruption rips the bathysphere from its mooring cable, and tosses it across the seabed, but lucky for our heroes the advanced submarine Alpha, commanded by Captain Craig Mackenzie (Joseph Cotten), just so happened to be nearby monitoring the seismic activity, and our trio is rescued. Jules and Perry’s injuries are quickly healed by the super science aboard the Alpha, but Ken’s injuries are too severe for the onboard medical equipment, so the Alpha is forced to abandon its research mission, and it returns to base.
Unfortunately it’s not all that peaceful under the sea – thanks to the villainous Dr. Malic (Cesar Romero), who works out of his evil lair on the secret island of Blood Rock – and we learn that Malic and Mackenzie were old schoolmates back in the day, but where Mackenzie’s career choices led to the creation of an undersea world in the hopes of aiding mankind, Malic on the other hand decided to go the super villain world conquering route. A more interesting note is that Mackenzie and Malic are both over two hundred years old, and that the submarine Alpha was apparently launched back in 1805. How or why this is the case is never really explained, but as later we see that Mackenzie has a pool of water – that a three minute dunking in grants a person twenty-four hours of immortality – I’m going to assume “Super Science” is the reason. Their difference in world views has made Malik hell-bent on destroying his old school chum.
While heading for Mackenzie’s undersea kingdom they are attacked by the Black Shark, a submarine captained by Malik’s chief minion Captain Kroiga (Hikaru Kuroki). The Black Shark is faster and better armed than the Alpha, but Mackenzie’s clever maneuvering, as well as some new modification to his sub, allows our heroes to escape, and they safely dock inside the underwater paradise known as Latitude Zero. Now there have been many underwater cities depicted in various movies and televisions shows up to this point in time, but this one is more of a bloody underwater country than it is a mere city. It has research buildings, hospitals, community centers, farms, and districts with varying architecture depending on the particular residents tastes and nationality.
Professional cynic Lawton can’t believe Mackenzie when he is told no one is in charge of Latitude Zero, but according to Mackenzie when greed is no longer a factor there is no need to have power over one’s neighbors, or become Top Dog, and as the community mainly consists of scientists – that he secretly invited to Latitude Zero over the years – it is an interesting theory. Many of the residents walk around in gold lame outfits – as this is a science fiction movie that’s kind of expected – but as everyone here is immortal, some tend to walk around in the clothing of the time period they came from.
We learn that over the centuries Mackenzie has been sending agents abroad to collect like-minded individuals, so they to can take part in his dream, and they also secretly sneak some of their scientific achievements to the topside world, but of course Malik is the fly in the ointment, and the main plot of this movie is him trying to kidnapped world renowned scientist Dr. Okada (Tetsu Nakamura), who has come up with an inoculation for radiation. The Black Shark intercepts the ocean liner that was carrying Dr. Okado, and his daughter Tsuruko (Mari Nakayama), before they could rendezvous with agents from Latitude Zero, and the two are brought back to Blood Rock. Not only does Malik hope to get the secrets from Okado, but he also wants to lure Mackenzie into a trap, with the captured scientist as bait.
Will our heroes team-up with Captain Mackenzie to rescue Professor Okado and his daughter? Will Ken Tashiro fall in love with the beautiful Dr. Anne Barton (Linda Haynes), who looked to have fallen in love with him while he was still unconscious from his injuries? What of Lucretia (Patricia Medina) Malik’s lover and confidante? Will her jealousy of Kroiga’s affections for Malik doom them all? Of course yes is the answer to all of those questions, but it’s the last one that leads to the film’s most interesting moment. After the Black Shark failed to destroy the Alpha, Malik promised Lucretia that he’d do away with Kroiga, but instead of the standard “Dump henchperson into a piranha pool” plan he instead has her brain transplanted into the body of lion, that he then grafted condor wings onto, and then he sicks her on Mackenzie and friends.
There may just be one slight flaw with that plan, if you’ve put the brain of someone you just betrayed inside the body of a giant killing machine how does one expect this monster to react? Oh, did I forget to mention he also used a ray that increased the monster three sizes? So while our gold lame wearing heroes traipse across Blood Rock, fighting off giant rats and bat monsters, the Kroiga-Griffin just watches, not giving two shits what our heroes do. Malik is forced to flee aboard the Black Shark – stupid Griffin not doing her job – but Malik’s not out of the fight yet. Mackenzie and company managed to make it back to the Alpha, but Malik was waiting for them, and even though the Alpha’s newest modification allows it to fly it doesn’t look like it can escape the deadly laser cannon aboard the Black Shark…or that would have been the case if the Kroiga-Griffin didn’t attack the Black Shark, causing its laser to misfire, which then resulted in both it and the island exploding.
Latitude Zero is an immensely goofy science fiction movie, but it is incredibly fun, and there is just so much to enjoy with this thing. You have Cesar Romero hamming it up wonderfully, as he did on the Adam West Batman series, Richard Jaeckel is no stranger to Japanese production as he starred in the sci-fi monster flick The Green Slime, he does a good turn as the jaded hero, and Joseph Cotton…well he kind of looks tired, and was probably doing this film so he could buy a nice new boat or something. This isn’t the kind of movie that would ever win a Best Foreign Film award, but if you got some youngster in your family this could be a movie that may turn them onto more Toho films. My two little nieces just love Toho’s monsters, and the suitmation in this film is really good, so it really has something for everyone of all ages. The film was directed by the great Ishirô Honda, and it has a fantastic score by the legendary composer Akira Ifukube, so if you are up for a fun afternoon matinee of viewing submarines, monsters and campy acting, you couldn’t pick a better movie.
Note: I like to imagine that this movie is a prequel to the Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer Christmas Special and that Kroiga survived the destruction of Blood Rock and is now ruling the Island of Misfit Toys.