An American submarine is dispatched to the Arctic to a research station in distress. Mysteriously, three flamboyant caricatures join the mission, two being airlifted in after they've already set off. After some uninspired slice-of-submarine-life, we arrive and a plot of cold war intrigue unfolds, resulting in a US-Russian standoff.
I'm sure original 1960s audiences found the film plausible, but for me the whole thing comes off as ridiculous. My modern sensibility wants to recast the cold war cautionary tale into a MASH(TV)-like comedy, with our mysterious strangers in the Frank Burns and Colonel Flagg-type roles, and the submarine captain as the reasonable straight man. The rank self-important seriousness of the dialog calls out for a comedic counterpoint which just doesn't exist here. Even when the "twist" (if it's worth calling it that) is revealed, it's entirely too factual an event, with no depth of any sort.
Like many aspects of the cold war, Ice Station Zebra believes too much in its own point of view. Given some simple assumptions, the general situation is not unreasonable. This could have been a much better film, even with keeping the characters more or less the same.
I'll give a few words to the cinematography - looking past some of the dated effects, the film is very well shot. The shots on the sub are pretty convincing - which must be where most of they money went, as the outdoor sets at the ice station appear to be borrowed from the original Star Trek series, and there's nary a breath of cold air nor anything that behaves like actual snow in the whole sequence.
The film is long for the amount of actual content. Such a pretense of epic quality, complete with overture, entr'acte, and exit music, probably has something to do with the narrow interpretation left to the characters. The long shots of the sub negotiating treacherous waters are fine, except that there's really only enough plot to fill a movie of half the length. This is not Das Boot, where the pressure builds steadily throughout, but that's probably what they were after.
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