Sometimes an Atomic Submarine Is Just an Atomic Submarine
It was bigger, harder, and stayed in longer than ever before: the dawn of the 1950s saw the miracle of the atomic submarine, an inexhaustible weapon that assured the ultimate victory of America and freedom over… well, over whomever it was we were supposed to be fighting.
In the case of It Came From Beneath the Sea, the enemy-du-jour is a gigantic octopus, which smashes its way across the Pacific Ocean and attacks San Francisco after atomic testing drives the creature into a mindless rage. Convention mandates that the eponymous nemesis—the “it” that, in so many movies of the time, inexorably “came from” outer space or beneath the sea or some other such ponderous realm—be so fantastically strange that the narrator must describe “it” in urgent tones verging on hushed panic.
A solitary giant squid, however, isn’t quite scary enough to fit this bill. In fact, not even the narrator seems particularly intimidated. Unpredictable and fierce, nature might get in a sucker punch or two, he explains, but the modern engineering marvel of the atom sub is bound to win in the end. “Man’s greatest weapon of the sea,” the atom sub is “strong enough to absorb any blow” and has armaments “of greater force than the worst enemy she might encounter.” As the sub cruises mightily through the waters, the narrator sums up: “The mind of man had thought of everything—except that which was beyond his comprehension!”
Deliverance from nature comes thanks not only to the atom sub, but also to the “mind of man”: the advanced science and engineering that went into the sub’s design, coupled with the technical and military know-how that steers it ably through the treacherous waters.
And there’s the rub, as we get a peek inside this marvelous instrument of warfare. Turns out the wonders of seafaring in the latest military technology aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be: operating the sub, a job one would think to be awful complicated, is “just like an automatic elevator,” according to the first mate. Aimlessness characterizes life on board, with nothing to pass the time but to “eat and sleep, and press a button if there’s some work to be done.” The miracle sub of tomorrow might be unbeatable, but in the process has also become inscrutable. Technology has outpaced the ability of the ship’s officers to understand it and they pilot in an abstract, switch-flipping mode, at considerable distance from their own labor. They sway not to the waves but to the lazy rhythms of Hawaiian beach music, piped through the ship’s intercom.
After a tense, inconclusive run-in when the unseen octopus holds the sub fast in a slithery, suction-cupped tentacle, the damaged vessel docks at Pearl Harbor and Commander Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), its flummoxed skipper, enlists a pair of scientists to help examine an octopoidal tissue sample the sub brought back. Knowledge workers avant la lettre, the scientists, like the sailors, work at some remove from their objects of study, and from the screen. In fact, they’re so distant that the Ed Woodian scene hardly happens at all: cumbersome radiation suits muffle their spoken lines and obscure their faces in shadow, and the mysterious tissue sample is encased in a radiation-proof shroud, too dangerous and top secret for even the audience to be allowed to see it.
By this time the movie’s technology seems almost as weird as the octopus—who, incidentally, we have not yet set eyes on, except as an unsightly blotch on a radar screen. A minute later, though, the movie overcompensates for all this cold distance by lurching wildly into late-night steaminess, as Professor Joyce (Faith Domergue) and Commander Mathews—whom we may now call “Pete”—find love among the test tubes. Dr. Joyce absently picks up a particularly long, thick one on the lab table and fondles it, as she and Pete venture into each other’s personal space and “drive at” issues having to do with “romance.” And why shouldn’t they? After all, they’ve known each other a full five minutes now.
Joyce holds the test tube out like a toy submarine, waving it through imaginary waters. “When you’re driving that atomic submarine of yours,” she asks, gazing at the tube but clearly thinking of something else, “do you have much time for romance?” A tool her profession understands to be a receptacle, the test tube becomes a phallus when she uses it to contemplate military technology instead of scientific research.
It can be either too hot or too cold, but the relationship between people and their technology in this movie is never quite right. The split atom is perceived as a self-canceling collision of extremes, the product of atomic testing, the octopus is the nuclear menace that threatens to destroy us; sturdy and steadfast, the atom sub is our glorious salvation. The movie’s ideological take on technology is beyond Freudian. It’s practically Biblical.
This becomes clear about 75 minutes later. Smashing and devouring its way toward San Francisco, the mad creature lays siege to the Bay area—turning our beloved Golden Gate Bridge into scrap—and the wondrous atom sub must take again to the water to protect our way of life. Atomic power reaches both its zenith and its nadir, as its potential both for wanton destruction and for unleashing protective force are turned up to the max.
Soldiers with flamethrowers manage to push the octopus back into the sea, where the sub does underwater battle with it in a reprise of the movie’s opening scenes. Again, the sub is pinned down in the murky water as the octopus winds a tentacle around its hull. The prospect of deep-sea suffocation frightens Pete less than it annoys him: “This is where we came in,” he groans, upon receiving the news that the sub is once again caught fast in the octopus’ tentacles. After much torpedo-firing and a protracted scuba-diving adventure, Mathews and his crew manage to destroy the octopus and without any further questions, life in America continues as though nothing had happened.
Thus the movie betrays a curious neurosis about the dawning atomic age, in which the conflict between atomic hero and atomic villain—too complex or enigmatic to yield to mortal understanding—is waged in an other-worldly, undersea realm, and yet provides the movie with its underlying coherence, its narrative structure. It Came From Beneath the Sea, and many other movies of its ilk, leave one with a peculiar sense of a culture that worships and fears the ferocity of its own weapons.