"Goliath Awaits" starts out as a pleasantly dopey novelty but eventually, at a boiled snail's pace, glugs and gurgles itself into sleepy imbecility. The stated premise of the four-hour Columbia Pictures TV movie is that 337 people have miraculously survived 40 years underwater in a sunken luxury liner and now resist the offer of a rescue from the combined navies of the world.

But the real premise lies in a familiar prime-time curse: Any story that ought to be told in two hours can also be told in four. And so the drama drags on and on, tonight and tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 20, lumbering toward a 45-minute climax that is more lulling than stirring.

As the film opens, with an actor impersonating Edward R. Murrow doing a 1939 broadcast from London, the good ship Goliath is plunging toward New York when she is hit by a German torpedo. The attack includes one shot from the torpedo's point of view as it penetrates the hull; it's so good that it couldn't have been done by director Kevin Connor and must have been lifted from footage in the Columbia library.

Soon it's 1981, and a random salvage cruise uncovers the ship and, startlingly enough, noises coming from inside the hull. Once inside, divers discover how some sort of air bubble has enabled people to stay alive, and they also encounter a totalitarian state run by a dithery tyrant (Christopher Lee) and his hatchet man (Frank Gorshin, playing it stooped and broadly, as if Barry Fitzgerald had been cast as Igor in "Frankenstein").

There are more complications. Eddie Albert, in a hilarious turn as a fusty admiral, at first disbelieves the tale ("I still think this is nonsense, but I'm impressed with your candor," he tells a diver); later, convinced there are survivors, he reveals that a senator on board the Goliath was carrying a diplomatic pouch addressed to FDR. In that pouch is a document forged by the Nazis indicating U.S. intentions to bomb the British Navy!!!

"What's on that paper is dynamite," says Albert. "If it falls into the wrong hands, it could wreck NATO, at the least!"

The pure foolishness of all this is diverting for awhile -- even if at their first meeting the passengers don't even ask the divers who won the war -- until it becomes oppressively obvious that the story is going to be dragged out well beyond a civil length. Then there's nothing to do but watch all the fancy-shmancy naval rescue equipment (more even than in "Airport '77") and play place-the-face with the cast: Jean Marsh as a doctor oblivious to The Horror going on right in front of her puss; a balding Robert Forster as a surly rescuer; John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan as the senator and his wife, both of them sharing a horrible secret.

And yes, it's really grand old ham John Carradine as a silent-movie actor, signing autographs in octopus ink and asking the rescuers about the William Morris agency. Told that television has taken over the world, he asks, "You mean they finally perfected that silly little box?"

The movie's answer to that question is obviously "yes, and no."