‘Ice Station Zebra’ or — The Film That Excitement Forgot?
I have strong views on films with opening overtures, namely unless it’s a Biblical epic it shouldn’t have one. If you’re not Cecil B. DeMille creating Time and the Universe then it smacks of pretension. If you’re Rock Hudson in a parka looking out of his depth in fake snow whilst Ernest Borgnine attempts a Russian accent then it’s full on insanity. Fortunately the overture to ‘Ice Station Zebra’s is mercifully short acting as more of a digression, which is only appropriate because that’s also what the entire plot is — an utterly pointless digression.
‘Ice Station Zebra’ (1968) is billed as a suspense movie which is a total lie as there is zero suspense in this film at all. There’s lots of incident but only in the same way falling over in roller-skates contains incident. What there isn’t here, at all, is drama… of ANY kind.
A satellite re-enters the atmosphere, jettisoning a capsule which lands in the Arctic Circle. Commander James Ferraday, captain of the nuclear submarine Tigerfish, is dispatched to Ice Station Zebra under the guise of a rescue mission… and that’s it. Seriously, there is NOTHING more to the plot than that meaning it is, simply, a fetch quest and one (spoilers) they even manage to fuck up and not complete. It’s like being sent to the shops for milk and coming back with a stapler, and as about as exciting that.
There’s a half-baked attempt to inject some excitement with the notion of having a saboteur on board but considering hardly any saboteuring occurs — with most of the obstacles being results of chance or ineptitude — it never feels a legitimate or viable threat, possibly because the saboteur has fallen asleep through boredom by the 45 min mark. And Christ, if you thought it took the Venture an eternity to reach Skull Island in Peter Jackson’s ‘King Kong’ then that’s nothing compared to this with the Tigerfish arriving at the Arctic an hour and twenty minutes in, just in time for the intermission. It’s not pressure that’s in danger of crushing this vessel but the sheer weight of hubris bearing down on it.
And this is a problem, and a massive one in terms of the film’s pacing. Think of it this way by using a comparison to another submarine entering polar regions movie — at this point in ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ (1974) Doug McClure had travelled by submarine to the South Pole, discovered a lost world, fought Germans, battled dinosaurs, survived exploding volcanoes AND fucked a cavewoman in the same amount of time it takes Rock Hudson to get to where he should be for his story to even begin to kick in. That’s a big problem.
Yet what’s even more baffling is that it is this first hour or so that’s the best bit! It’s during this that all the “exciting” stuff happens because when they actually reach Ice Station Zebra the film grinds to a halt and never recovers. It’s appropriate this all takes place amongst the ice because this movie doesn’t so much climax as simply melt away.
So I didn’t like ‘Ice Station Zebra’? Bizarrely that’s not quite true because for all its flaws — and this film has flaws so inherently deep they’d be the death sentence for another another movie at the pitch stage — there’s a lot to love about this film, and it’s nearly all to do with Cold War tech shot on glorious Super Panavision 70. Oh, this movie looks beautiful! If you’re a fan of nuclear submarines, spy satellites, radar outposts, fighter jets and all that atomic-age, NORAD porn then you’ll be happy just to whack this on soak it all in, something the sloth-like pacing actually enhances and augments. The shots of the Tigerfish cutting through the seas or traversing under the ice floes are wonderful and if you’ve ever wanted to just dick about on a nuclear submarine then the first hour and a half has some of the best dicking about on a nuclear submarine going.
Fortunately there’s also Patrick McGoohan who injects some much needed life and vitality, fighting not so much Russian spies as battling the crashing waves of inertia and lethargy spilling out of Rock Hudson. The scene with the two of them when McGoohan wrapped shivering under a blanket highlights the gaping disparity between these two actors and when McGoohan slams his fist on the tale it feels like the only act of real violence in the entire film (watch Hudson slam his table after McGoohan and the poor guy just can’t compete).
I ended up having a good time with ‘Ice Station Zebra’ but purely on a superficial level, getting a real kick from the cinematography and Legrand’s rousing, if repetitive score. It’s a leisurely film with many technical elements to enjoy, it’s just the story isn’t one of them.
I can also understand why this was Howard Hughes’ favourite movie because this isn’t a film to enjoy at the cinema with other people but it might just be the perfect flick to play endlessly on a loop whilst holed-up in a hotel room with your finger nails and hair growing with each subsequent viewing and surrounded by bottles of your own piss.