Ice Station Zebra (1968)

A US nuclear sub is loaded with a bunch of US Marines and a British spy and sent on a rescue mission to the arctic circle to find Ice Station Zebra. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union is performing the same mission. Why? Because a satellite has fallen on the station, a satellite containing photographs from a special camera that has taken extensive pictures of every major missile launch site and military base for both the USA and the USSR. Both sides want the photographs. Both sides want to keep them from the opposition. And both sides will stop at nothing to get them.

Ice Station Zebra has problems, but I still find it entertaining. Supposedly Howard Hughes loved the movie so much that he bought a television station in Las Vegas and made it run the movie 24-7 whenever he was in town. But it’s more of a guilty pleasure for those that enjoy watching it, because really, it just isn’t that good of a movie. Well, yes and no I guess. The first half, where the nuclear sub races to the arctic circle and experiences sabotage while struggling to break through the ice above, that is excellent. It’s claustrophobic, it’s exciting, and it’s tense. It’s some of the best of the film. If both halves were as good as this, I’d find this movie to be great. But the second just doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain.

That’s not to say the second half is terrible, as it starts off strong with a trek across the ice to the titular station, complete with a scene where men fall through thin ice and the floe begins to steadily move inward, nearly crushing all involved. That scene takes the tension of the first half and ratchets it up quite a bit. I winced as the ice floes slowly but with sporadic bursts moved together while the men scrambled to escape being crushed to death. That scene did a wonderful job of ramping the dread and making the audience shudder. And then the film squanders it all.

Why? Well, set design for one I’d say. Ice Station Zebra looks like it’s made of cardboard, and once the storm passes, it becomes obvious just how fake it really is. And then there is the acting: Ernest Borgnine is supposed to be Russian, but half the time he switches into a bad Scottish accent, and Alf Kjellin sounds horrendous as a Russian colonel speaking in English. The plot changes made from the book to the movie also don’t work because too much has to be conveyed through only looks and subtle facial expressions which cause major plot changes. Glance away for two seconds at the wrong moment, and you’re completely lost as to how the Allies figure out who the Russian spy among them really is. This drags down the last hour significantly. It also doesn’t help that the second half is supposed to be a tense showdown but instead feels like a bunch of guys hanging around the set all day.

Too bad, as that first half is great, even with Borgnine’s hilariously lapsing accent. I was never sure if he wanted vodka or scotch.

Supposedly this movie is being remade. No idea if it will happen, but maybe they won’t fall prey to the issues the first one suffers from.

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