The Neptune Factor (1973) – A Review


A review of the 1973 sci-fi disaster film The Neptune Factor, starring Ben Gazzara, Ernest Borgnine and Yvette Mimieux – it’s sort of like a low-rent version of The Abyss


At the bottom of an ocean floor, an Oceanlab is doing research when an under-sea earthquake strikes. The quake opens up a fissure in the ocean floor and the lab and its three scientists have fallen down a deep ocean trench.

Now being too deep to be reached by divers and regular equipment, a specialized min-sub arrives on the scene and is the only hope of a rescue for the scientists. Time is of the essence too – there’s only so much air the men have. Diving to the bottom of the ocean floor and going deeper than ever before the rescuers make some amazing discoveries.

The Neptune Factor was an early entry in the 1970s disaster movie craze. Coming one year after The Poseidon Adventure, the film probably wanted to capitalize on its success with having a similar sounding name, a nail-biting story of survival with the threat of water and casting Poseidon co-star Ernest Borgnine in it.

Walter Pidgeon was probably also meant to bring some of the cache he carried from being in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. 

Ernest-Borgnine-Yvette-Mimieux-The-Neptune-Factor-1973-underwater-disaster-sci-fi-movieThe Neptune Factor doesn’t end up anywhere near as exciting as it might sound. It’s sort of like a very low-rent The Abyss, if it were done cutting as many effect corners as it could, and forgetting to add any tension, creativity, compelling subplots and characters, while reaching for an expansive adventurous scale that it never comes close to reaching.

It’s all a very matter-of-fact exercise. We meet these scientists and divers. Pidgeon is the elder scientist and Yvette Mimieux is the pretty girl scientist working topside. Down below in the water there’s the chief diver Borgnine. They’re all busy doing their science-y experiments, taking readings and catching samples. 

The only kick the opening of the film has is Borgnine having to fire another diver because he just can’t handle the the stress and pressure of the job. It seems like this would be some kind of intriguing subplot that would be important at some point in the story. But no. He just fires the guy.

Also we learn Mimieux’s fiancé is one of the divers in the Oceanlab who goes missing when the earthquake strikes. So naturally she’s emotionally driven to recover that lab and rescue him when disaster strikes. The setup is done with no finesse and is as stale and rudimentary as could be.

Cue Ben Gazzara, who gets called in with his advanced sub the Neptune. He’s quite the arrogant, smirking, dismissive sub commander and cares more about keeping his sub safe than really finding and rescuing the trapped crew. From there, he, Mimieux and Borgnine climb into the sub and dive.

Yvette-Mimieux-Ben-Gazzara-The-Neptune-Factor-1973-sci-fi-disaster-movieGazzara’s character is pretty odd and not the heroic rescuer you’d think he would be. He’s constantly skeptical of the clear evidence that the lab is still intact, that the men are trying to signal for help and the necessity of diving deeper to get to them. He dismisses the arguments and runs away from the risk they must take to get to the sunken lab at every point. It becomes a series of scenes going back and forth between Mimieux and Borgnine trying to convince Gazzara to dive and he refusing.

They would have been better off had he just loaned them the sub and he could stay topside.

Then abruptly at one point I guess he has a change of heart and realizes the scientists lives are more important than getting a dent in Neptune. If that’s the arc of his character they really didn’t present it very well. It’s just a light switch for his character. 

The-Neptune-Factor-1973-sci-fi-disaster-movie-underwater-special-effectsThe big sci-fi payoff as they venture deep into the crevice, is discovering what is meant to be ‘giant sealife’. Yeah. It’s really just close-up shots of fishies that we’re meant to believe are frightening. It’s extremely shoddy and completely unconvincing. It’s the type of ‘special effects’ that became an old cheap trick in 1950s B-movies. The fish do not look threatening at all and it’s all the movie has to give us in what was billed as – “THE MOST FANTASTIC UNDERSEA ODYSSEY EVER FILMED!’

It’s a funny moment when Mimieux looks out a porthole window and exclaims, “My gosh, I’ve seen something like before but it was two inches long!”. The film cuts to a close-up of a fish that is obviously quite tiny. It’s pretty laughable. 

For a film whose premise is this race against the clock rescue, director Daniel Petrie sure doesn’t convey any kind of building momentum. The movie is incredibly dull. The characters just stare, stand around and along with us, wait for something to happen. There’s no subplots whatsoever to fill the long lifeless scenes of them sitting in the sub. We never even cut inside the damaged lab to see what’s happening with the trapped scientists. That could have provided some diversion.

Even when Gazzara and the team are running low on power, but all decide to take the risk of continuing to look for the lab, it’s so blasé a decision that it doesn’t even put any added pressure on them. It’s just like, “Ok, let’s keep going”. Meanwhile through all this the only other character we cut back to is Pidgeon, who is just waiting on the boat doing really nothingThe Neptune Factor is sorely missing any drama. The sub should have been looking for that!

The-Neptune-Factor-1973-bad-disaster-sci-fi-movie-Borgnine-Gazzara-MimieuxI don’t think much science went into the film. There’s a lot of talk about the dangerous depths they are at and the lethal pressure that threatens their lives. Falling into the crevice, the lab is suspected of being crushed and imploding. BUT THEN we watch divers just swim around down in this crevice! Borgnine puts on his diving gear and just swims around these giant fish. I guess they were wrong about that implosion risk – or did they just forget about it completely?

None of the characters are interesting at all! You want to talk about flat. And the actors do nothing to liven things up. Maybe they just thought, “Let’s just get through this as fast as possible. I’ll just say the lines they gave me”. I would have warmly welcomed some exaggerated over-the-top performances! Come on, you have Borgnine, let him just cut loose!

The-Neptune-Factor-1973-movie-film-poster-sci-fi-underwater-disasterIt might not have ended up looking like it, but apparently there was some decent money behind The Neptune Factor. It was produced by an independent Canadian Film Company and it was hoped to be a blockbuster underwater adventure. I’m not sure if the filmmakers just didn’t have enough money left when it came to the special effects of maybe they just had the wrong people working on them. Great special effects, probably wouldn’t have helped the film anyway. The film is just so darn sluggish and lifeless, some good effect shots wouldn’t have mattered.

The best I can say about Neptune Factor is some of the underwater scenes of divers are decent and some of the model shots of the sub are passable – that is before all the ‘big fish’ attack it and skewers the scale of everything. It has a good score from legend Lalo Shiifrin. And the movie poster looks awfully cool, even if it isn’t a fair representation of what the film actually delivers on.

It’s one of those films that really have become forgotten about. I only learned of it recently. It seems it’s become one of those odd films that set out to be something special, but didn’t score and wasn’t worth remembering by the majority of people.

I suppose it was a painless paycheck for the cast. It’s a shame they didn’t have any kind of dangers to throw at them other than sending them on a sightseeing tour through an aquarium. 

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