The minds behind Godzilla go on a Pacific adventure. Two scientists (Akira Takarada and Masumi Okada) and an American photographer are rescued from certain doom at the bottom of the ocean, only to find themselves in the midst of a James Bond-themed battle between two secret societies: the titular Latitude Zero, a utopian undersea city, and Blood Rock, an inhospitable volcanic island. Both are achievements of mechanization and science built for opposing ends.
LZ is clean and harmonic, doctors and scientists of different nationalities, races, and eras pleasantly intermingled as they pursue benevolent research–electric cars and pollution-free power entwined with the infrastructure. It’s shot in beautiful deep focus to accentuate Eiji Tsuburaya’s Postmodern set design. A swaggering Joseph Cotten in naval garb insists there’s no traditional hierarchy or currency, only people acting with the best interests of the group in mind. Even when Cotten’s character Mackenzie takes charge, it’s in survival situations and with consideration for everyone’s capability. His Blood Rock foil Malic (Cesar Romero), on the other hand, has a tight fist over his uniformed subordinates. Failure is punished with body mutilation and modification, on display when he transfers the brain of his own sub captain into the body of a lion grafted with condor wings, just for kicks.
Interestingly, director Ishiro Honda and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka have no problem letting the other Japanese actors play Cotten’s wingmen. Takarada’s oceanographer Tashiro is, in fact, quite taken with the collective idealism of Latitude Zero. He hangs back when Malic’s monsters appear, giving support fire for Mackenzie. Only the photographer, played by Richard Jaeckel, expresses skepticism and philosophical difference, unable to see anything but American individualism and capitalist ladder-climbing (he sees the hippie-dippy city-state as the scoop of a lifetime). The rest of the crew have both an intrinsic understanding of their roles and initiative to back it up. This is especially notable with Anne, the medical doctor aboard Mackenzie’s submarine: Linda Haynes plays her with a dry wit, aware of the male gaze (“you better go first” she says in a bathing scene) but secure enough from a lifetime in a society of equals to both dress however she wants and assert herself (volunteering to go on a rescue operation, she says they may “need a doctor”). She’s certainly respected enough by Mackenzie to make the choice to scuttle an important mission to save the lives of the three outsiders, without even a second’s consideration (compare this to Pacific Rim‘s “empowered” heroine Mako Mori, who spends the entire film with male compatriots leading her by the nose).
This progressive streak is not uncommon to Ishiro Honda’s body of work. His entries in the Godzilla franchise he helped define highlighted inclusive groups, with women as the moral/ethical centers and science as a tool for mankind’s betterment if handled properly. Primarily a reexamination of Japanese identity in his other films, Latitude Zero sees these ideas go global, promoting peace & love & skintight jetpack suits. It shares a vision of the future where scientific discovery doesn’t have to be paid in blood, arguments are to solve problems rather than bolster egos (as Cotten remarks), and common humanity binds us. Even Jaeckel becomes slightly won over by such promise–though not before snapping pictures and pocketing riches. Some things, Honda suggests, may never change.