“It Came From Beneath the Sea”


Every now and then I get the opportunity to see a really dreadful movie that is nonetheless very enjoyable.  This one, part of my theater’s Science on Screen series, was a hoot (oops, didn’t notice that the web promo called it that, too — well, it was).  It was in black & white and was made in 1955 on a very low budget (hence the two missing arms?).

A gigantic (albeit six-armed) octopus from the greatest depths of the sea is galvanized into action when radiation from H-bomb testing in the Pacific affects its normal feeding habits.

An atomic submarine captain (Kenneth Tobey) teams with a pair of scientists (Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis) to stop the monster before it terrorizes major coastal cities. But after snacking on a couple of freighters and scooping up some tasty landlubbers from a beach, the enraged ‘pus manages to make it way to San Francisco. In famous set pieces, the sea beast demolishes the Golden Gate Bridge and the Ferry Building, thwacks a helicopter out of the sky, and sweeps an enormous tentacle through Market Street, before a final showdown.

With fantastic stop-motion animation by special effects master Ray Harryhausen (Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans), this hoot of a sci-fi adventure (complete with a romantic triangle) is a classic of the Golden Age of monster movies, and rarely shown in 35mm on the big screen.

University of Chicago biologist Michael LaBarbera is a big fan of vintage monster flicks, especially those from the ‘50s. In his published paper “The Biology of B-Movie Monsters,” he explores the realities of movie-creature anatomy, including the limits of King Kong’s and the 50 Foot Woman’s bone structure, why a real-life Mothra would have breathing problems, and how the Incredible Shrinking Man would need to eat his own weight daily just to survive.

Join us before the film as Professor LaBarbera discusses the biological implications of really big and really small B-movie creatures, focusing on the massive cephalopod in It Came from Beneath the Sea, one of his all-time favorite B’s.

About the Speaker

Michael LaBarbera teaches biology and biomechanics at the University of Chicago, where he is a professor in the Department of Organismal Biology & Anatomy and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an Associate Editor of The Biological Bulletin, and served on the Board of Reviewing Editors of Science for 11 years. Professor LaBarbera has published on everything from the biomechanics of marine invertebrates to why animals don’t have wheels to the aerodynamics of flying snakes. He has lectured to non-scientist/general public audiences in over 30 U.S. cities and has appeared on many radio and television shows.

The presentation was very interesting.  Before it began, I noticed a man in a suit sitting by himself at the end of the first row (where I always like to sit, in the middle — if I wanted to see movies from far away, I would just watch them on TV).  So I went and asked if he were the presenter, and he was — we had a little chat about how great the theater is.  Then I went back to my seat and embarrassed the heck out of myself by accusing the other person in the front row of eating my popcorn.  She wasn’t, of course; I was just being unobservant about where my seat actually was.  She was very gracious about it, but my distress at my behavior did overlay the lecture, so I don’t remember too much of it, and the beginning of the movie.

The plot, such as it is, is pretty well described in the theater’s blurb above.  I did notice an interesting dichotomy in the movie’s treatment of women.  The lead scientist who made the key discovery was female, and her character was allowed to be an expert and to tell the military men what was what (though in high heels and tight skirts).  But the rest of the time it was “don’t worry your pretty little head” sorts of things, and when they finally went out to battle the giant sextopus, she had to stay behind with all the laypeople.

The nuclear submarine scenes were interesting (must be very primitive compared to subs today — although, some may still be in service?  Not sure if they decommissioned them all) and the Captain (the one who eventually gets the girl), played by Kenneth Tobey, looked very familiar.  So I looked him up:  he later went on to star in the TV show “The Whirlybirds,” which I remember watching as a kid!  He had a lot of TV and movie roles after that, up into the 1990s.  But first, he vanquished the monster that had demolished the Embarcadero.


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