Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Unknown World

In addition to being this humble blog's namesake, a Cyclotram is a fancy tunnel-boring vehicle for exploring the innards of the Earth, from the 1951 SF movie Unknown World. If you read the viewer comments at IMDB, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes, or elsewhere, you'll come away with the idea that it's an especially boring take on the standard 50's SF movie plot, in which you wait and wait for the cave monster to show up, and it never does. I have nothing against silly rubber monster / giant bug movies, of course, but Unknown World was never intended to be one. It's a deadly serious and rather bleak story about the possibility of nuclear war, speculating about whether there's any hope for the human race. The notion of a machine that lets people travel deep into the Earth isn't original, of course, but in this version of the story our team of scientists is looking for the ultimate fallout shelter, a sanctuary for humanity in case nuclear war breaks out. Which is something everyone seems to regard as just a matter of time. Recall that this movie was made in 1951, right after Stalin had gotten the bomb, and not long after China had fallen to the Commies. The Korean War was going on, and Joe McCarthy was on a roll. It had just started to dawn on people what a global nuclear war would mean for the human race, which I think directly sparked this movie. When people talk about the fun, optimistic, carefree 1950's, they aren't generally talking about 1951.

The Cyclotram crew travels deeper and deeper into the earth, while trading sarcastic, irritable jabs and regarding their vitamin-pill rations with increasing horror and disgust. At one point, their "take charge" guy gives a stirring speech about how the mission needs a strong leader to give orders and be obeyed, and he charges off to forge ahead. Another guy makes a cynical crack about it in the manner of a WWII GI, but gets up and follows the first guy. They're soon found stone dead, having marched straight off into a pocket of poisonous gas. Another guy falls to his death while saving the Cyclotram's resident spoiled rich guy (who'd funded the mission on the condition he could ride along, like a proper 1930's style adventurer). They finally reach a vast cavern with a phosphorescent sky, containing a vast ocean. It looks a lot like being outside, and the surviving team members think they've found the oasis they've been searching for. But alas, this is not to be. This is a serious film, and there are no monsters or bikini-clad slave girls to be seen. No, the scientists discover that no living thing can reproduce successfully in this place. Perhaps it can host a meager, nightmarish existence for a single generation of a remnant human population, but it is quite literally a dead end. The mission has failed. There is no sanctuary to be found, and the very idea of "duck and cover" is just a big lie. While they're moping about, a volcano starts to erupt, and they need to make a run for it. Dr. Morley, whose idea the expedition was, doesn't make the effort because he's abandoned all hope and figures we're all doomed anyway, and he's got nothing to live for. And so he's lost in the eruption and rising water.

While trying to return, the Cyclotram plunges into the great undergound ocean (yes, it's amphibious, too!), dropping far past the limit of its depth gauge. It finally hits bottom, and then begins rising mysteriously, rising within water all the way to the surface, where the survivors are surprised to find themselves near an unspoiled tropical paradise island. Which is a nice change from the bleak and stormy Aleutian volcano where they started off. All in all a rather hollow and unconvincing "happy ending", which I think was deliberate on the filmmakers' part. Everyone's breathing a sigh of relief to finally get out of that damn cave, of course, but it's not like the tropical island is a *real* safe haven if the Bomb goes off. If you were writing a thesis, you could probably make a good case that the ending is at least an allusion to dying and going to some imagined heaven. Movies from this era were typically not very subtle if their primary goal was really religious instruction, so I don't think this was the intent here. No patronizing narrator, no soft focus and heavenly chorus on the closing shots of the island, none of that. So I think the message was much more direct: Nuclear war and human survival are the central issues of the age, and hiding in a cave, or under a desk, or otherwise refusing to face the issues directly, is a fruitless and dangerous exercise.

An interesting tidbit: Victor Kilian, who played Dr. Morley, the lead scientist and inventor of the Cyclotram, appears nowhere in the credits. Seems he was blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer shortly before the movie came out. He managed to work in a few more films, always without appearing in the credits, but even that quickly tailed off, and after 1952 he didn't work again until 1960, and after that not until 1976.

If the filmmakers had just had the foresight to dub the film into Swedish, and then subtitle it back into English before releasing it, it would have become an art-house staple. I'm not arguing that the film is a masterpiece, exactly, but at least this way people would be judging it by the right standards.


TR said...

This is a very well written review. Makes me want to watch the film.

Gordon said...

Victor Kilian was born in 1891 which puts him at 60 y/o for this film. Wrinkles, loss of interesting facial features, and flab are just as devastating to movie careers as evil right wing perpetrators of no particular artistic merit. (sorry, I lean the other way so I'm YOUR natural antagonist). I caught and enjoyed your Kelly Butte blog during the planning of a hike there. I would love to duel kindly, point for point, with your world-view. You surely can't feel like an abused minority with your views in this day and age, and in PDX (nor do I). Your reference to black-listing seems to refute that idea - it's hard to admit that you won and there's nothing left to fight for.