FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
As I know the science fiction oeuvre of Ishiro Honda fairly well, my revisit to LATITUDE ZERO had me wondering if he selected the script-- which included a genius with a special subtmarine-- because he wanted to relive his experiences on the serious sf-drama ATRAGON. The truth, naturally, proves more prosaic. American producers approached Toho Studios with the script to a 1941 radio drama, “Five Against the World,” and Honda was simply assigned to the movie because he’d enjoyed success with FX-movies. Possibly Toho greenlighted the adaptation because they believed that the viewing public in Japan might relate to the mystique of submarines, with or without SF-elements, though the 1964 success of ATRAGON probably would have been far from their minds.
Though various sub-chases take place during ZERO, the story doesn’t center upon the main character’s possession of a super-submarine. In ATRAGON, the central character, a former WWII submarine commander, fakes his death in order that he and his confederates can construct a marvelous submersible capable of avenging Japan’s defeat. However, the appearance of a greater menace, the undersea kingdom of Mu, obliges the commander to use his super-sub to protect the surface world as a whole. ATRAGON’s tone is necessarily dark and adult.
In contrast, ZERO is pretty obviously designed for audiences of kids and adolescents. Three deep-sea explorers—two scientists and a journalist—descend beneath the ocean waves in a bathysphere in order to analyze the prevailing currents. An undersea quake almost spells their doom, but a mysterious sub rescues them, though one scientist, Masson, is injured. (Ostensibly French, the character is played by Japanese actor Masumi Okada.) The commander of the craft is one Craig McKenzie (Joseph Cotten), and he takes them to an underwater city, named Latitude Zero after the imaginary intersection of the equator and the international date line. The other two explorers, oceanographer Tashiro (Akira Takarada) and reporter Lawton (Richard Jaekyll), then get the grand tour of the subsea city, which has apparently been in existence for some two hundred years, even as Captain McKenzie himself has. Though nothing is said about how such a city came to be—possibly because such details would have lessened the film’s gosh-wow impact—Latitude Zero has become a hidden refuge for peaceful people seeking to escape the outside world’s turmoil. That said, the only city-inhabitants directly encountered are McKenzie, his aide Kobo, and a blonde female scientist, Doctor Barton.
However, there’s a few serpents trying to ruin this aquatic paradise. Chief among them is Doctor Malic (Cesar Romero), who is said to be as old as McKenzie. He and his allies—his lover Lucretia (Patricia Medina), his submarine commander Kuroiga, and various genetic monsters—live on a nearby island and continually mount attacks on Latitude Zero. No reason is given for Malic’s enmity. Since McKenzie has one sub, the Alpha, and Malic has another, the Black Shark, one might suspect Malic of “submarine envy”—except that early in the movie, McKenzie unashamedly admits that the Black Shark is more powerful than his craft.
Whatever Malic’s motives, he and McKenzie have evidently reached a stalemate. However, Malic kidnaps a surface-world geneticist and his young daughter, and by threatening the daughter Malic forces the scientist to create a radical new monster, a cross between a lion and a condor. Moreover, for some perverse reason, Malic also has the scientist transplant the brain of Kuroiga into the monster’s head.
Before Malic can use his new monster to attack the city, McKenzie, Kobo and the three surfacemen elect to rescue Malic’s captives. They all soak themselves in a special bath to give themselves temporary invulnerabllity (with the lovely Doctor Barton joining them in this “mixed bath,” even though she never takes part in the rescue mission proper). Then the rescuers all don golden suits which can shoot lasers from the fingers. They use the Alpha to beard Malic in his lair, and while Barton stays on the ship, the men stage a commando raid, fighting their way through giant rats and mutated bat-men. It’s cheap but lively superhero-style action, and I confess I derived a mild pleasure in seeing Joseph Cotten playing the part of an action-hero, despite his age and his many more reputable credits. (In addition, the actor was combating a bad case of the flu during filming, but managed to complete all of his scenes without throwing the film off schedule.) The heroes succeed and liberate the captives, while Malic and Lucretia fall victim to their own evil designs. At the conclusion Tashiro and Masson elect to remain in Latitude Zero, while Lawton returns to the surface world—though Lawton then encounters some doppelgangers that make him wonder if he just dreamed the whole thing. (Since a WIZARD OF OZ ending isn’t really viable, maybe one could imagine that Latitude Zero exists in a parallel dimension—though even that rationale may be giving the matter more thought than the scripter probably did.)
Though ZERO was aimed at younger audiences—and the older kids probably appreciated best Barton’s never-quite-nude scene—the film does resonate with many of Honda’s other films, from space operas in which the Earth’s warring nations come together against an external threat to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, wherein humans and giant monsters have come to live in peace. True, Latitude Zero is more akin to Shangri-La, removed from the workaday world. But even amid all the pulp-style action, the script does emphasize the importance of a peaceful and contemplative way of life, even if it may be more ideal than real.