LATITUDE ZERO (1969) – Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, the unavailability of certain movies over extended periods lends them a certain mystique that they can’t possibly live up to when they are finally released once again to the public. Recently Balladeer’s Blog dealt with this while reviewing the long locked-away movie Toomorrow, starring a young Olivia Newton John. Now it’s Latitude Zero‘s turn.
This Toho Studios movie is noted for being the final collaboration among Director Ishiro Honda, Special Effects Artist Eiji Tsubaraya and Musical Conductor Akira Ifukube. A few decades back Latitude Zero was locked away in the Toho vaults and was unavailable on home video, leaving all of us fans of cult movies panting for the day when it would be re-released.
Unfortunately, it’s neither the “science fiction classic” nor the “so bad it’s good masterpiece” that it was hyped as during its period in video exile. A bathysphere containing two scientists and a newsman is rescued from destruction by a futuristic submarine and taken to an underwater utopia. Japan misleadingly marketed the movie as if it was a sequel to Atragon, oddly enough.
The usual Raymond Burr Syndrome applies as we get American actors sprinkled in with the Japanese performers.
JOSEPH COTTEN portrays Captain Craig McKenzie, a 204 year old scientist and captain of the high-tech sub Alpha, from a futuristic undersea utopia located at the literal “Latitude Zero.” As McKenzie, Cotten is an entertaining blend of Eugene Morgan, Captain Nemo and Admiral Nelson (from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea).
The good captain is one of the major players in the super-advanced subaquatic civilization whose science – among other things – allows people to live for hundreds of years. People from all nations and from various time periods live there in peace and harmony, etc. You know the trope.
As a sci-fi paradise Latitude Zero’s twist is that many scientific and creative geniuses from around the world disappear or seem to die but have secretly arranged to defect to “L.Z.” as it’s called. They negotiate their plans to leave their old lives behind them with L.Z’s various international secret agents. It’s like a benevolent version of The Village on The Prisoner, since everyone is in L.Z. voluntarily.
CESAR ROMERO plays Malic, the 203 year old villain of the piece. Malic and McKenzie were fellow students in L.Z. long ago. (Insert your own “Malic was a good friend” joke here.) Malic broke away from the altruistic subsea civilization and began plotting to conquer the surface world AND to kill McKenzie, who often thwarts his evil plans.
Just as McKenzie has his supersub Alpha, Malic has his supersub The Black Shark, with an evil female captain, Kuroiga (Hikaru Kuroki). Malic’s headquarters is the sinister fortress called Blood Island, inhabited by Malic, his wife Lucretia (Patricia Medina) and his genetically engineered creatures like giant bats, giant rats, etc.
Romero fluctuates between James Bond Villain Mode and Republic Serial Villain Mode but never gets as over-the-top as old reviews led us to believe. Unfortunately so, for us fans of Bad Movies and high camp performances.
AKIRA TAKARADA is Dr Ken Tashiro, one of the scientists rescued by the Alpha at the beginning of the film. He eventually falls in love with the daughter of a Japanese nuclear scientist who is trying to defect to Latitude Zero to keep his latest invention from being perverted by either side of the Cold War.
Tashiro is euphoric about the scientific paradise behind the Alpha and Latitude Zero, unlike the annoyed American reporter, Lawton.
RICHARD JAECKEL portrays said reporter Perry Lawton and groaningly embodies every cliche of the “down to earth newsman finding himself in a science fiction wonderland” character. Lawton’s attitude toward Captain McKenzie starts out like an even more ungrateful version of Kirk Douglas’ Ned Land to Captain Nemo but gradually grows friendlier toward the man who SAVED HIS LIFE, unlike Douglas.
Every imaginable “Holy Cow, what the heck is THAT?” type of line comes out of Jaeckel’s mouth, but thankfully we don’t have to see him in any love scenes.
MASUMI OKADA plays the Eurasian Dr Jules Masson, the other bathysphere scientist rescued by the Alpha. He spends a large chunk of the movie in a coma from his injuries before coming to and starting a romance with the female physician who saves his life.
LINDA HAYNES is in the role of Dr Anne Barton, the hotsy-totsy MD who falls in love with Masson.
TETSU NAKAMURA and MARI NAKAYAMA play, respectively, the aforementioned defecting Japanese scientist Dr Okada and his daughter Tsuruko.
The story in Latitude Zero flows fairly nicely and starts with Joseph Cotten and his Alpha crew saving the bathysphere trio from being killed by an underwater volcano eruption. Dr Masson is so badly injured that Dr Barton says she must get him to Latitude Zero’s high-tech hospitals if she is to save his life.
Enroute to L.Z. the Alpha is spotted by the villainous Malic who sics his sub The Black Shark on it. We viewers get treated to some fun submarine versions of “The Enterprise versus the Romulan Spaceship in Balance of Terror” fight scenes as Captains McKenzie and Kuroiga show their battle savvy.
Needless to say the Alpha safely reaches L.Z. and, as Dr Masson is healed by Dr Barton, Perry Lawton and Dr Ken Tashiro are given a tour of the underwater paradise by Captain McKenzie. New complications arise when Malic’s minions kidnap Dr Okada and his daughter before they can defect to the subsea utopia.
SPOILERS: Captain McKenzie and his Alpha crew launch a rescue mission to free Dr Okada and Tsuruko from Blood Island before Malic can force Okada to reveal his scientific secrets. Idiotically, Perry Lawton, Ken Tashiro and the JUST RECOVERED Jules Masson are allowed to go on this dangerous mission, despite their lack of military training and lack of familiarity with the futuristic weaponry they’ll be wielding. Hilarious!
But NOT as hilarious as the giant bats and giant rats on Malic’s island. Think of the Banana Splits only not as menacing. And when Cesar Romero creates a giant gryphon by surgically combining a huge lion and a huge eagle the special effects are so lame it looks like he’s attempting to create the ultimate sports team mascot.
The high-tech weaponry of our heroes provides some mild entertainment. They use devices which let them fly, plus a chemical bath which makes them bullet-proof for hours at a time, and gloves which shoot lasers and serve as flamethrowers.
Naturally the good guys win and Malic dies in the destruction of his island headquarters. Tashiro and Masson decide to stay in L.Z. with their new romantic partners Tsuruko and Anne Barton. Perry Lawton returns to the surface world with photos of Latitude Zero AND a haul of diamonds, which L.Z. has in abundance and which McKenzie willingly gave to Lawton.
Now comes the worst part of the movie. Just for the hell of it the filmmakers give us a nonsensical ending in which Lawton, aboard a floating raft, is rescued by a U.S. naval ship captained by … Commander Glenn McKenzie, also played by Joseph Cotten.
It gets worse. Just as we viewers are wondering if THIS McKenzie is a descendant of the 204 year old McKenzie, things get even dumber with the arrival of this second McKenzie’s subordinate officer Lieutenant Hastings … played by Cesar Romero!
So now you may wonder if BOTH of these guys are descendants of McKenzie and Malic, and maybe their families formed a truce over the decades. Even worse, none of Lawton’s photos of Latitude Zero show anything at all AND his diamonds are now nothing but gravel.
THIS leaves you wondering “Okay, are we supposed to think only Lawton survived the bathysphere’s destruction at the beginning of the movie and everything else was a hallucination caused by the bends as he rose to the surface?”
Even THAT gets struck down as Joseph Cotten gets a wire from shore saying that Perry Lawton’s bank received a fortune in diamonds in his name and which is being held for him. WHAT?
And you can forget about this second McKenzie being in on it with the OLDER McKenzie, because he makes it clear to us viewers that he doesn’t understand how anybody even knew Lawton had been found and rescued by his ship.
Why do this to us after we sat through your damn movie? If they wanted to get around the fact that Lawton’s photos and diamonds would lead to the governments of the world invading Latitude Zero there are easier ways around it.
For instance, have Lawton HIMSELF decide that he will stay in L.Z. with the others rather than risk having the surface world ruin this scientific paradise. It had already been established by now that Lawton found the women of the city incredibly hot, so you could even end the movie on a light note by having him chatting up a sloe-eyed babe while Joseph Cotten and the others joke that maybe the reporter’s motives for staying AREN’T as altruistic as he loftily claimed.
But the ending they DID give us invites you to just shrug and say “Screw it. It’s just a stupid movie.”
I’ll end by restating my earlier observation that Latitude Zero is not a neglected masterpiece, but neither is it a Golden Turkey, although Malic’s creatures will definitely make you laugh your ass off. +++
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