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The Neptune Factor

(AKA The Neptune Disaster) 1973, Starring Ben Gazzara, Walter Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, Yvette Mimieux, Donnelly Rhodes. Directed by Daniel Petrie.

Coming almost a decade after the best-remembered undersea films hit theatres, 1973's The Neptune Factor is an awkward marriage of science-fiction and disaster film an attempt to update the undersea genre for a new, adult crowd. Owing as much to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1953) as it does to The Poseidon Adventure (1972), this film even tries to align itself with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with the unlikely tagline "An Undersea Odyssey" superimposed under the title in the opening credits!

Usually known for their horror films, Canadian production outfit Quadrant Films went in a whole new direction with The Neptune Factor, most likely due to their co-producer, Astral honcho Harold Greenberg. This was Greenberg's first time producing a film, and there is every indication that he intended to make a prestige picture. With a budget of over $2 million and a truckload of Hollywood celebrities along for the ride, Greenberg hired the most visible Canadian director he could get for the film--Daniel Petrie. A graduate of the CBC, Petrie began a long stint working on American television in the 1950s before directing the acclaimed A Raisin in the Sun in 1961. Although his career steadily declined after that, Petrie was still quite busy when he was brought in to helm The Neptune Factor. To Greenberg and the guys at Quadrant, it may have seemed like everything was in place for a great Canadian blockbuster... but perhaps they should have read their scripts again.

Off the coast of Halifax, a manned underwater capsule called the OceanLab II collects data from the ocean floor and sends it up to a ship called The Triton. There, Dr. Samuel Andrews (Walter Pidgeon) and his assistant Leah (Yvette Mimieux) analyze the data in an effort to determine the cause of undersea earthquakes. After putting in a solid day of underwater adventure, the team of divers aboard the OceanLab II start to don their SCUBA gear and head for the surface. Chief Diver Don MacKay (Ernest Borgnine) and his assistant Bob Cousins (Donnely Rhodes) are the first group to return to the Triton, but when the next pair steps out of the capsule, disaster strikes--one of those nasty underwater earthquakes flips the OceanLab II over and sends it rolling down a cliff off The Triton's radar.

Concerned about their friends, MacKay and Cousins put their gear back on and start looking for the two divers ascending at the time of the quake. Once they are found floating lifelessly on the surface, attention turns towards the three remaining divers trapped in OceanLab II, one of which happens to be Leah's boyfriend! Despite the fact that these two characters yet to appear onscreen together, an extra urgency is felt by all. A revolutionary mini-sub called The Neptune seems like the only hope, but there's a problem. Only one man can pilot the craft, a self-important American named Commander Blake (Ben Gazzara).

After Blake and The Neptune are flown in, MacKay and Cousins join the Commander for a mission to the original lab site. Taking photographs with The Neptune's cameras, the team attempts to trace where the OceanLab II may have fallen. A violent aftershock temporarily knocks out communications, and when contact is re-established, Dr. Andrews tells the crew that more tremors are expected. Blake starts to get nervous for the safety of his precious sub, but they have to surface anyways, since the "revolutionary" nature of The Neptune obviously didn't include batteries that could last longer than 15 minutes.

Back on the ship, the photos show a trail which clearly indicates the direction OceanLab II fell. Concerned about her boyfriend, Leah convinces a reluctant Blake to take her and the team back down immediately. Since The Neptune's batteries are still almost drained, Leah suggests they tether the craft to The Triton. Once underwater again, Blake's whiny insistence that finding the OceanLab II is hopeless causes Leah to detach the lifeline to The Triton. With only a little power left, they sink into the murky depths.

Up to this point, I was buying The Neptune Factor. I didn't think it was a particularly noteworthy Canadian genre film, but it wasn't terrible. However, I just hadn't counted on the possible inclusion of giant mutated fish. At first, the crew notices only a strange luminescence in the water, but they soon find themselves viewing giant underwater plants through The Neptune's portholes. Now, this was humourous enough, since it looked like a high school science film about ocean life was simply being magnified out of context, but nothing prepared me for Ernest Borgnine pretending to flee in terror from magnified tropical fish footage. When MacKay goes out to investigate this strange new undersea kingdom, he is confronted by a large and colourful inhabitant. Close-ups of his terrified face are intercut with more nature film footage of fish, until, well, he goes back in The Neptune. The team finds themselves in trouble again when a fish starts ramming a tiny model of The Neptune.

Although the main "search and rescue" plot is helped by some better acting than the poorly-scripted dialogue deserves, the unexpected and poorly executed Jules Verne-inspired turn ruins any sense of credibility the film might have had. Without exaggerating, The Neptune Factor boasts some of the most transparent special effects since Ed Wood bought a spool of fishing line. This bottom feeder played as the second half of a double feature with Battle for the Planet of the Apes!

Not surprisingly, Canada's other 70s disaster film was also an Astral production. City on Fire (1979) also imported established Hollywood stars to help a secondary cast of Canadians rescue the sick from a burning hospital. These two films have since become some of the most vilified of the tax shelter era, frequently referenced because of their use of American actors and "American" plots. Still, Canadian elements can be found, notably in the pronounced importance on public institutions in City on Fire, while in The Neptune Factor, American Commander Blake's brash self-assuredness comes into immediate conflict with the Canadian rescue attempt.

Unlike most other Canadian tax shelter films, which only brought one Hollywood star into the fold, both of these disaster films feature strange Canadian-American ensemble casts. There's a bit of a thrill in watching such unlikely match-ups as Donnely Rhodes and Walter Pidgeon, or Leslie Nielsen and Henry Fonda, often feeling like an attempt to prove that Canadians can hold their own against actors considered Hollywood's finest (well, at least at one time). While I won't argue that the Canadian disaster films compare unfavourably to the aforementioned The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (1974), they do represent a unique subgenre of tax shelter films that have been almost forgotten today.

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