It seems backward to me that a fake rocket shooting through fake stars would look more convincing than a fake submarine drifting through a simulated Arctic sea, but comparing First Man Into Space with its companion picture, The Atomic Submarine, I'll be damned if that isn't the case. Perhaps it's the preponderance of fishbowls and all of their plastic accoutrements in real life, or perhaps it's that we all know what it looks like under the water and the fact that the U.S.S. Tiger Shark never actually gets wet that makes it hard to not see the effects in The Atomic Submarine for what they are. A plastic toy and wavy lighting makes for a tough sell, even in a campy, retro sense.
It also doesn't help that the bad guy in The Atomic Submarine has had his bizarre image supplanted by a far better known pop-cultural force.
The plot of The Atomic Submarine is this: Some unknown assailant or force has been destroying U.S. subs working under the North Pole. Not just any subs, either, but nuclear subs. Intent on stopping whatever it is, the government sends their top craft, the Tiger Shark, to find out what is causing the mayhem. Armed with a couple of extra scientists, as well as a joyriding pacifist who has invented a special diving craft with his father, the men of the Tiger Shark head out to sea. Once in the Arctic Circle, they encounter a malevolent saucer with a single staring "eye," which they then dub Cyclops. Unable to shoot it out of the water, they try to ram the ship, getting the sub's prow stuck in its hull. The pacifist, Dr. Carl Neilsen (Brett Halsey), and his tough-guy nemesis, Commander Richard "Reef" Holloway (Arthur Franz), board the Cyclops with three expendable men, hoping to pull their nose out of the Cyclops' butt. Once on board, Reef encounters the thing that is piloting the killer craft and uncovers what is really going on.
What is really going on is that aliens are looking to colonize Earth, and the single creature at the helm of the aptly named Cyclops is a one-eyed, many-tentacled extra-terrestrial. He first makes his presence known as a voice appearing in Reef's head, and upon hearing John Hilliard's dubbing, I immediately thought of Kang and Kodos, the alien invaders from The Simpsons. Little did I suspect that when I actually saw the Cyclops pilot, he would also look like Kang and Kodos. Mere coincidence? Possibly. Kang and Kodos were apparently based on an old EC sci-fi comic, and who knows? Maybe Irving Block and his team of effects men were inspired by the same comic book.
Of the four movies in the Monsters and Madmen boxed set, The Atomic Submarine is easily the bottom of the stack. I'm all for preposterous stories, but the design of the interior of the alien machine lacks any internal logic, and the way the Tiger Shark defeats the invader puts an unbearable weight on one's suspension of disbelief. Not even the ham-fisted dichotomy between the pacifist and the warrior doesn't geta its full due. Despite the final scene of the movie being a wistful moment shared by Neilsen and Reef--on land, and lit like its daytime on the ground in direct opposition to the starry sky that brings the men pause--the filmmakers don't even go for the obvious pay-off, driving home that despite Nielsen's previous distrust of the military, he now sees that there is a need for vigilance. Somewhere out there is a great threat, and it will take men like Reef to keep the planet safe from harm. Take that, you peace loving science guy!
It will also take better men than we see here to make a decent adventure movie about space-age submarines. Then again, I just may have a pitch for the guys at The Simpsons. I know how to work Kang and Kodos into the 2009 Treehouse of Horror!