Tuesday, May 12, 2009

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Goliath Awaits (1981)

From "Operation Prime Time" ("for better programming...") came this 1981 made-for-television, prime time extravaganza starring Christopher Lee, Robert Forster, Mark Harmon, Emma Samms and Frank Gorshin (in the performance of his career).

If you were around in the 1980s and paying attention to pop culture currents, you likely will recall this Kevin (Motel Hell) Connor-directed genre TV venture; one which was advertised with the haunting image of a winsome woman (Samms) gazing out of a porthole on a ruined old ship; staring out at the murky depths beyond.

That evocative, Gothic image alone probably generated some great ratings for this impressive four hour mini-series (shown over two nights, as I recall.)

Goliath Awaits opens in 1939 as Edward R. Murrow reports that England has just declared war on Hitler and Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the British sea liner Goliath is already at sea and imperiled by a pack of German U-Boats. Soon, the magnificent vessel is sunk with all 1800 hands aboard, and lost to the tides of time. Her exact fate (and location) becomes a nautical mystery.

In 1981, however, an exploratory ship captained by Peter Cabot (Harmon) discovers that Goliath is -- miraculously -- intact (and positioned upright) some 1000 feet beneath the surface of the sea. As a deadly hurricane approaches, Cabot dives to investigate. He hears an S.O.S. emanating from the rusting hull of the "most famous ship of all time" and more incredibly, peers into a porthole and sees that beautiful porcelain face staring back at him.

Cabot quickly goes to the U.S. Navy for help solving this mystery. Admiral Sloane (Eddie Albert) is intrigued by the discovery and orders Commander Jeff Selkirk (Forster) to lead a rescue team to Goliath. Sloan boasts a secret too. Aboard Goliath (and in the care of a U.S. Senator named Bartholomew...) is a diplomatic pouch with an eyes-only message for President Roosevelt. The contents of that communique could conceivably tear down the NATO alliance. Now there are two jobs for Selkirk: rescue Goliath's survivors and also acquire (and destroy) the communique, which is believed to be a Nazi forgery.

The British vessel Enterprise 4, from British Oceanics, leads the rescue attempt. After receiving a message from Goliath in Morse Code (which warns the air is "toxic" and to "beware of McKenzie"), Enterprise's submarine docks with Goliath far below the surface, and a Navy team enters the ship through a torpedo breach. There, Peter, Jeff and Dr. Sam Marlowe (Alex Cord) learn that 337 souls now live aboard Goliath thanks to an air-bubble that has existed aboard the sunken ship once "equalization" occurred with the sea outside the hull.

In charge of this isolated society on Goliath is Mr. McKenzie (Lee), a former third-engineer and a man of extraordinary resources and intelligence. When the ship was struck by the torpedo all those years ago, McKenzie thought fast and managed to convert the ship's engines into air processors. Even more than that "miracle," he created an entire Utopian society, one featuring hydroponic gardens, fish hatcheries, and other wonders. Accordingly, the people of Goliath virtually worship the man.

Alas, there are also rebels aboard Goliath, deformed "Bow People" (suffering from the bends) who -- according to McKenzie -- just don't "fit in." They are lead by a man named Ryker (Duncan Regeher), a man who rejects McKenzie's brand of authoritarian leadership.

McKenzie's major domo is a petty Irish criminal, Wesker (Gorshin), who performs the difficult (and morally questionable...) tasks required to make a society like Goliath's thrive. This means that Wesker commands a virtual gestapo security force, and administers lethal injections to the physically or mentally infirm...those who can't work, but would use up precious resources.

Even as Peter finds himself growing attracted to McKenzie's fetching daughter, Lea (Samms), he starts to see the downside of Goliath's society and a the world where an "old man made himself king." Soon, he becomes convinced (thanks to Ryker) that McKenzie and Wesker will never permit the rescue, because they will be losing their hold on power. Commendably, McKenzie puts the decision up to a democratic vote, but lies to his people about the feasibility of continued survival aboard ship. In truth, the vessel is running out of fuel, and the environment will soon turn bitter cold and inhospitable.

What you get, then, in Goliath Awaits is a thoughtful meditation on the idea you find in some Space:1999 episodes of the 1970s: that (to quote the episode "Dorzak"), it is the battle for survival that makes monsters of us all. McKenzie is a fascinating character: a man who achieved technological miracles to save his people. He created a workable society from the ground up, one that -- amazingly -- flourished for forty years. Yet, at some point, he got used to the power, to "playing God," and his miraculous victory on Goliath became an oppressive terror to some of those whom he ruled.

You may recognize some elements of Goliath Awaits' plot from the famous fourth season Twilight Zone episode "On Thursday We Leave For Home," a story in which another charismatic, brilliant leader (James Whitmore) of an isolated community (on an inhospitable planet) came to resist a rescue mission because he simply couldn't give up his authority; can't give up the idea that he is "needed."

Goliath Awaits is sort of "On Thursday We Leave For Home" meets The Poseidon Adventure. Despite the fantastic nature of the scenario (300 people survive in an air bubble over the generations...), Goliath Awaits is contemplative, deliberate and smart. It doesn't skimp over the difficult aspects of a rescue mission at the bottom of the sea. In fact, it even paints a relatively full (and realistic) presentation of the world's reaction to the rescue, from White House Press conferences to TV news bulletins, to the diverse reaction of Goliath's citizenry. Since I've always been fascinated by stories about strange disappearances and mysteries at sea, I very much enjoyed the film and the fictional world it created.

Kevin Connor (who also directed Land that Time Forgot and some episodes of Space:1999), executes s a few brilliant compositions on what was obviously a relatively limited budget too. For instance, there's a P.O.V. shot where the camera adopts the position of a speeding torpedo, and we essentially "ride" it (underwater) as it strikes the Goliath's hull. Amazingly, the already-impressive shot doesn't end with the expected collision. Instead, there's a sort of optical cut and we actually enter the ship's interior with the torpedo, and see crew standing by unwittingly as it explodes. It's a fancy shot for the pre-CGI age, delightfully conceived.

Another good composition also involves subjective P.O.V. A Navy rescue diver enters the Goliath, and emerges from the water, only to see Wesker standing before him, aiming a pistol at him. Before we can entirely register what's happening, the gun is fired, and we see the diving helmet's glass visor (over our eyes, essentially) shattered. Then blood hits it the visor in a spray.

Goliath Awaits also reminds me of Space:1999's "Mission of the Darians" or even The Starlost, genre entertainments in which a giant vessel is compromised, and mankind is forced to "evolve" or "adapt" based on limited resources. Here, the people of Goliath dwell not merely in an air bubble, but in the equivalent of a time bubble. They existin a world where Hitler was not defeated, and where the ship's band is always playing "Happy Days are Here Again." John Carradine plays a movie star of the silent age, the only celebrity in residence on the ship, and another beacon of a long-gone age.

The idea that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" is a cliche, I guess, but Goliath Awaits makes an interesting genre tale out of the truism. Lee gives a restrained but highly effective performance as McKenzie, a dignified man who unknowingly went from being a savior...to a devil. And I also admired the sub-plot involving Jane Marsh's character. She plays Goliath's Dr. Goldman -- a Jew -- a character who is asked to permit Nazi-like tactics by Wesker so that the strong survive, and the weak perish.

I distinctly remember watching Goliath Awaits in 1981 (when I was 12 years old), and at the time I loved it. Today it seems a bit over-long and drawn-out, but the miniseries remains an interesting meditation on the use and mis-use of power. The claustrophobic feeling of encroaching doom is strong, and the climactic sense of catharsis -- as Lea rises to the surface and sees the sun for the first time in her life -- is still moderately affecting.


I see that some ambitious film studio is remaking the classic Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a TV movie of the 1970s. If that endeavor proves successful, and TV-movies become the new "re-imagined" efforts of the industry in the decade ahead, it's not at all difficult to imagine an updated, big-budget movie version of Goliath Awaits. The magnificent Frank Gorshin is gone, alas, but Christopher Lee would still be a great choice to play McKenzie. He brings a regal, noble quality to the role, making the man more than just your average villain. You can't help but admire McKenzie, despite his turn to the dark side. He accomplished so much, but somewhere, in the long, difficult years, the tide turned...and he lost sight of morality. For a country now undergoing an examination of "torture" and terrible (illegal), immoral things done in all our names, this is a timely character study..

7 comments:

  1. How have I not heard of this movie?!? Wow, I'm dropping off my game! This looks great, and I am a big fan of Emma Samms (I know, you thought I'd say Lee!) and Forster. Wow.

    This looks amazing. I must search it out. Thanks for this review (and the great stills! The one of Samms is really odd and alluring).

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  2. Hey Amanda By Night --

    Check it out if you get a chance. It's right up your alley, I think. I enjoyed Goliath Awaits even if it could use a little judicious editing in the last act...

    best,
    JKM

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  3. Is it my imagination, or does this whole setup strike you as being very much like the game Bioshock? A society built underwater, a power-mad ideologue, an Irish assassin who takes care of the low stuff - I have to wonder if Goliath Rising was a major influence on the game.

    -Darren MacLennan

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  4. Valid comparison, Darren! Watching the movie today, I was struck by that very same comparison.

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  5. Anonymous3:34 PM

    I very much enjoyed your review; it hit upon the reasons I liked the miniseries. I wasn't born yet when it came out and only saw it on television around 2003 or 2004; I watched it as a new fan of Mark Harmon's (from "NCIS"). The effects weren't that great (neither was Harmon's mustache), and it did seem to drag a little in places, but the characters and the idea of power and society were so good - it had me hooked. Very intelligent series.

    And, of course, it had Alex Cord. (It's Archangel! Not dressed in white!) :-)

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  6. i've wathched this movie on tv, in my country, indonesia. i was just A little kid that time (now i'm 40!).

    the story wAS hearttouching!
    i still remember how the girl of the movie (i forgot the name. sorry) sees the sun for the first time when the rescuers succeeds take her out of the deep ocean to the surface of the ocean. she looks at the shining sun and exclaims in wonder: BEAUTIFUL.....

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  7. lol..how i remember this film.. it was in two halves...and i only got to watch the first, thanks for reminding me of it.. i shall search it out and finally watch...part two

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