Back in 1989, James Cameron released The Abyss, a movie set (mostly) aboard an oil rig some 500 metres below the surface of the Caribbean Sea. The film was a success, and several similar movies followed: DeepStar Six, Leviathan, The Rift, The Evil Below and Lords of the Deep. In the thirty years since, there have been one or two more, of varying degrees of success and quality: Sphere, Avalon: Beyond the Abyss, Dark Descent…
The most recent of these to hit cinemas is Underwater by William Eubank, actually completed in 2017 but not released until this year. It’s tempting to think the delay was a consequence of the lack of originality of its plot and the complete fucking witless hash it makes of its setting… But then JJ Abrams is a successful film director, so perhaps not.
Tian Industries – despite the name, this is no trans-Pacific production – is drilling for oil in the Mariana Trench, 11,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Kepler 822, the control centre for the drilling station, is located 1500 metres above the trench’s bottom. It is apparently connected to a surface facility by an elevator and umbilical shaft. Which would be, er, 9.5 km tall.
An earthquake strikes Kepler 822, causing parts of the structure to rupture. The Mariana Trench is part of a subduction system – that’s what actually created the trench – and also part of the Pacific “Rim of Fire”. According to the USGS, around 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes take place in the Rim of Fire. So building a facility there that’s not earthquake-proof would be incredibly fucking dumb.
Sadly, the dumbness does not end there.
I have written on this blog before about deep sea exploration and undersea hyperbaric environments. I have even written about the Mariana Trench and the three – to-date – visits to it. The thing to remember about the Mariana Trench is its depth – approximately 11,000 metres, or 36,000 feet, or seven miles. At that depth, the pressure is intense: nearly 1,100 atmosphere, or 7.5 to 8 tons per square inch. A facility built to operate at those depths needs to be able to withstand that enormous pressure.
Happily, human beings don’t need to survive such intense pressure. They can live and work in nice sealed habitats with internal pressures of one atmosphere. The highest recorded depth reached by a human being, incidentally – and it was simulated in an hyperbaric chamber on land – is 701 metres, or 70 atmospheres. A thousand atmospheres would turn a human being into a smear in a nanosecond. Yet that is exactly how the survivors of the quake escape from Kepler 822: they put on diving suits, take an elevator down to the sea-bottom – where the pressure is 1,100 atmospheres! – and then walk 1.5 kilometres to a drilling station. At least, that’s the plan.
Unfortunately, the plan is complicated by… a monster. Well, monsters. And they kill off the survivors one by one.
Science fiction often talks about something called “suspension of disbelief”, often “willing suspension of disbelief”. In the contract between reader, or viewer, and writer, or film-maker, the reader has chosen to accept something that is plainly either untrue or implausible. They will accept for the purposes of the fiction that the world operates according to that authorially-imposed phenomenon. A universe in which human beings can travel meaningful distances within a single lifetime is itself one of science fiction’s most fundamental tropes and entirely dependent on suspension of disbelief.
In the real world, we have Newton’s Third Law: to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That applies just as much to suspension of disbelief. So, call that reaction – appropriately, given the film under discussion – implosion of disbelief.
Implosion of disbelief occurs when a fiction is set in a world whose governing rules and laws map onto the physical rules and laws of our own world but are inconsistently applied and so break those rules and laws in ways that undermine the workings of that universe. It may well be that some of the tropes which trigger it have become cinematic convention – the starship rumbling as it crosses the screen, starfighters banking in space… Some, I suspect, might be on the way there, but should not be – like, bombs in space. FFS.
Underwater is a textbook example of implosion of disbelief. It makes a point of discussing pressure in dialogue… and then every single example of the effects of high pressure in the movie is completely wrong. When Kepler 822 implodes – and this is in the first ten minutes of the film – the viewer sees a wall of water rush down a corridor. When the USS Thresher (I have mentioned this before) sank in 2,600 metres of water, it has been calculated the two sides of the submarine’s hull met at a combined speed of 75,000 kph. That’s not a “rushing wall of water”, that’s “blink and– splat!”. FFS.
Later, Underwater‘s survivors leave Kepler 822. They put on fancy diving suits – perhaps they’re supposed to be Atmospheric Diving Suits, with 1 atmosphere inside for the comfort and safety of the diver… but the current record for an ADS is around 610 metres… and one capable of surviving 11,000 metres would look like a small tank. But they can’t be at 1 atmosphere inside Kepler 822 because they have a moon pool. Which means the air pressure inside matches the water pressure outside. Except it’s not a true moon pool, because once they’re below water, they must open a hatch… and that causes a huge increase in pressure – enough to implode one of the survivors’ diving suit. FFS.
These are, it turns out, remarkable diving suits. Capable of withstanding 8 tons per square inch, yet their helmets can be smashed open with several blows of a fire extinguisher when the wearer is running out of oxygen. Strong enough to withstand that pressure, yet weak enough to shatter after several sharp blows. FFS.
Oh, and let’s not forget the power-source for Kepler 822, which is some sort of spinning thing, and might be, from the dialogue, a nuclear reactor, although it resembles no known nuclear reactor. Happily, it threatens to explode when an impetus is needed to evacuate Kepler 822, and can be made to explode when the monsters threaten to overrun the facility. Nuclear reactors, of course, do not explode. And explosions, of course, cause pressure waves, even underwater, ones that would not only kill the pursuing monsters but also those being pursued. FFS.
It’s true not every person who watches a movie set in the depths of the ocean knows how that environment operates. The same is also true of films set in space – although the concept of vacuum is perhaps more widely understood than that of a hyperbaric environment. Both are intensely hostile; both will kill you in a heartbeat. Neither needs to be made “survivable” for good drama. Underwater‘s complete fucking misrepresentation of the hadal zone, the parts of the ocean below 6,000 metres, only makes it look like an incredibly fucking stupid film. The fact its plot is a “soggy Alien” is pretty much irrelevant. And the fact the “mother” monster is clearly modelled on Cthulhu, which leads to a shot sure to appeal to Lovecraft fans, not enough to offset the film’s other myriad faults.
It doesn’t matter that most of the cast – Kristen Stewart especially – successfully inhabit their roles, because their roles are badly written. It doesn’t matter that the film manages to cram a four-act plot into 95 minutes with impressive economy, because the plot is wholly derivative. And it doesn’t matter that the cinematography is actually good, because it is photographing something that causes implosion of disbelief.