“Short Film Review: The Neptune Factor (1973)” by S.M. O’Connor

The Neptune Factor: An Undersea Odyssey (1973) Starring Ben Gazzarrra, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, and Walter Pidgeon

The Neptune Factor: An Undersea Odyssey is only ninety-eight minutes long and is billed as a science fiction film, but the science fiction only kicks in about an hour into the narrative.  Until then, it’s realistic fiction about scientists, technicians, and sailors in a plausible scenario in which a small lab sitting on the sea floor is lost during an earthquake. I believe what the filmmakers were hoping to ground the film in reality so the science fiction would be easier to accept for audience members who need to “suspend disbelief.”  The problem is the filmmakers spend too much time depicting the realistic process of trying to rescue men trapped on the sea floor.  It actually becomes boring, as if we are watching unedited documentary footage.  This kind of pacing might have worked in a certain kind of hard science fiction novel,[1] or a certain kind of dramatic film, but in a science fiction film – a genre that is implicitly supposed to offer either tension or thrills – this comes across as incompetence.  Multiple Canadian government agencies and corporation were involved in the production, and I agree with my brother Liam’s assessment that the Canadians wanted to show the wider they were very active in the North Atlantic and thought that by grafting on a science story they hoped to attract more viewers than a drama might receive.  The cast is comprised of talented actors and actresses who treat their roles seriously, but they are completely undercut by ridiculous special effects in the final half hour.   I can picture people now watching it to fast-forward to the end to laugh at it.  On a five star scale, I am giving The Neptune Factor two-and-a-half stars.

Frequent collaborators Sandy Howard (1927-2008) and Jack DeWitt (1900-1981) were the producer and screenwriter, respectively.  20th Century Fox distributed the film.  Daniel Petrie (1920-2004) was the director.  The film score by Lalo Schifrin and William MacCauley begins with a stirring instrumental piece that plays over the opening credits with storm-tossed seas.  It helps demonstrate the people involved in this production thought they were making a serious film.

The Canadian film star Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984) plays the head scientist, Dr. Samuel Andrews. American film-and-television star Yvette Mimieux plays Dr. Leah Johnson.  She is in love with one of the missing men, Dr. Hal Hamilton (Michael J. Reynolds).  Italian-American film-and-television Ernest Borgine (1917-2012) plays Chief Diver Don (“Mack”) MacKay.  Anglo-Canadian character actor Chris Wiggins (1931-2017) plays Captain Williams, the commanding officer of the Triton. The men (and two women) onboard the Triton search for survivors and fret over the fate of the men in OCEANLAB II, which has simply vanished, after two of the men who were returning to the surface when the earthquake happened turn up dead.  The film realistically shows the madness that can afflict deep-sea divers when they lack sufficient oxygen after the quake with Dr. Johnson when she helps look for the missing men.

The Onondaga, a Royal Canadian Navy submarine, searches for the lab to no avail and departs after two days.[2]  The film is notable because it accurately depicts how cramped the control room of a submarine is in real life, while many film productions have built submarine interior sets that that are unrealistically large.

Two more surface vessels rendezvous with the Triton with the battery-powered deep-sea submersible the manufacturer sends, the Neptune.[3]  Italian-American film, stage, and television star Ben Gazzarra (1930-2012) plays Commander Adrian Blake, the commanding officer of the Neptune. He is listed as the star, but doesn’t appear on screen until thirty-two minutes (or roughly one-third of the film’s running time) in.


[1] Science fiction writers and fans distinguish between “hard” science fiction that accurately depicts real science and technologies that might be plausibly developed in the future, whereas with “soft” science fiction the writers do not feel constrained by science. Examples of hard science fiction include Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, published in 2011, and Sir Ridley Scott’s adaptation of it, The Martian (2015), while examples of “soft” science fiction include the science fiction novels of Ursula K. LeGuin (1929-2018), the two Doctor Who shows, and Gene Roddenberry’s television series Star Trek (1966-1969).  The novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) set on Mars and the Star Wars films and ancillary media are classified in a third category, “space opera.”  Characters may fly around in space ships, but the stories owe more to ancient and medieval history, fairy tales, sword and sorcery stories in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian short stories, and high fantasy stories in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien then to science.  They are fantasy stories dressed up in the clothes of science fiction.

[2] The Onondaga were one of the five nations in the Iroquois Confederacy.  Their historic lands roughly correspond with Onondaga County, New York.

[3] Given that Neptune was the Roman counterpart to the Greek god Poseidon and Triton was the son and herald of Poseidon, it would have made more sense thematically to call the ship the Neptune and the submersible the Triton.

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