The Neptune Factor: An Underwater Odyssey (1973)

Rating: **
Review Date: 8/23/20
Cast: Ben Gazzara, Yvette Mimieux, Walter Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, Donnelly Rhodes

"Enter a world that is awesomely beautiful, and beautifully awesome."

A team of scientists are building an underwater habitat called Ocean Lab to study a variety of things. Unfortunately, they built it right next to a cliff, and an earthquake sends the lab tumbling into an abyss. With only seven days of life support in the lab and no way to escape or even make contact, the surface team races against time to rescue them. A military submarine spends four days searching for wreckage with no results, so an experimental submersible called Neptune II is called in. Its pilot is Commander Blake (Ben Gazzara), whose primary mission is to photograph the wreck for insurance purposes. This doesn't settle well with the scientists, who insist on trying to rescue any survivors with the forty-eight hours they have left. Against his better judgement, Blake reluctantly agrees, so down they go. Three hundred meters down in the trench (which is bright as day), they encounter gigantic sea life, possibly due to nearby geothermal activity. Mack (Ernest Borgnine) is nearly eaten by an enormous lionfish and a giant crab knocks the Neptune II off a ledge after it loses power. In the last five minutes, they finally find the wreck and desperately try to save the crew from a group of hungry eels.

It's a top-notch production featuring beautiful photography and a strong music score. The underwater cinematography is gorgeous and the crystal clear waters of The Bahamas are stunning. The documentary styled fish photography is also quite impressive, but it ultimately works against the narrative. The film's biggest problem is pacing. It's dreadfully slow and tedious, and literally nothing happens in the first hour. Sadly, it becomes even less interesting once they get into the water. I kept checking my watch every couple of minutes, wondering if they would find Ocean Lab before I died of boredom. The characters are dull and the acting is stiff and unconvincing. Half the cast is introduced at the beginning in order to manufacture some drama (the psychotic diver, the claustrophobic diver, and the doctor whose fiancée is topside), but then they're completely abandoned for the majority of the film. Walter Pidgeon has a throwaway role as an elder scientist, and he sadly looks WAY past his prime. Yvette Mimieux provides some eye candy as a headstrong scientist babe who wears tight polyester slacks, and is the one who is most willing to die for the mission. Commander Blake is a prickly an unlikable asshole, but he's also extremely intelligent and competent, and he knows the risks and reality of the mission better than anyone.

The visual effects are a mixed bag. Some shots of the miniature sub look great, while others look horribly tacky. The gigantic fish look beautiful, but also look ridiculous when they're interacting with the toy sub. The climactic battle with the eels is a visually confusing mess of overlays, and a sense of danger and urgency is never fully realized. The underwater sound effects become increasingly annoying as the film wears on, and it's tiring to keep hearing the cast say "ooh, look at that!" and "hey, listen to this!" Sadly, the film wastes its potential by spending too much time focusing on unrelated fish photography, and not enough time on the rescue mission itself. Granted, searching for a needle in a haystack involves a lot of waiting and downtime, but it doesn't make for good entertainment, and literally all of the action happens in the last 2-3 minutes. The 2-star rating is probably a bit harsh and I was tempted to bump it up to three for the production values alone, but the pacing and scientific absurdity exhausted my good will.