It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Soggy and stupid

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.

FFS.


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Moving pictures, #24

I’m now receiving five rental DVDs a week – so with that, cable television, my own (expanding) DVD/Blu-ray collection, and a Fire TV Stick, I’m making pretty good headway through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Not sure what happens when I finish it, however. Not sure I want to know. I don’t, of course, write about every film I’ve seen, chiefly because some of them are rubbish and not worth mentioning. Which doesn’t mean all of the films I do write about are good.

muriels_weddingMuriel’s Wedding*, PJ Hogan (1994, Australia). I can remember when everyone was talking about this film, but I never actually got to see it myself at that time. But now I have. And, well… it’s amusing, I suppose – although a corrupt small-town businessman and his feckless offspring are hardly the most edifying of subjects. Toni Collette is good in the title role, but I could never work out if she was supposed to be stupid or malicious. Both, I suspect. In many respects, the film reminded me of an ABC television series from the 1990s, SeaChange, which I really liked (it’s never been broadcast in the UK, I saw it on Dubai’s Channel 33). It too was set in a small seaside town and featured a casst of Australian working-class grotesques. Co-star Rachel Griffiths also reminded me a lot of Juliette Lewis, particularly from Natural Born Killers, which I’d watched a couple of weeks ago – it made for an odd viewing experiencing. An entertaining comedy, but I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But I am glad I finally got to see it.

imitation_gameThe Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum (2014, USA). Alan Turing’s contribution to computer science and code-breaking during World War II is pretty well-known. His contribution to wartime espionage, however, isn’t. Which is probably because he made zero contribution to wartime espionage. Which is not what this awful film would have you believe. Remember U-571? A glossy Hollywood WWII movie about the quest to capture a German Enigma machine and code books so that allies could decipher enemy communications? Remember how U-571 claimed the first Enigma machine was captured by the hardy crew of a US submarine… and so pissed off an entire nation because it was British sailors who’d captured the first Enigma machine before the USA even entered the war. The Imitation Game, despite its British setting and British cast, is a US film. And plays the same stupid games with historical fact. According to The Imitation Game, Turing not only single-handedly cracked the Enigma code but also managed to unmask the Soviet spy at Bletchley Park. It’s all nonsense, of course, and the Wikipedia post on the film has a sizeable section on the accuracy (well, lack thereof) of the movie. As for Benidorm Cucumbersandwich, he’s a bit one-note, isn’t he; and it’s getting a trifle monotonous. A film best avoided.

the_signalThe Signal, William Eubank (2014, USA). I love how science fiction is open to enigmatic stories, and I love how cinema as a medium is also suited to such stories… I mean, most of Sokurov’s films are bafflingly opaque, but I still love them. And in written science fiction, I prefer genre as far away from pulpish action/adventure as it can get. You’d think The Signal would be right up my alley, in my bailiwick, etc, etc. So it’s a shame I found The Signal so dull. I certainly believe it’s possible to put an interesting spin on familiar tropes, and this film tries desperately hard to do that. But it never quite comes off. Three MIT students track a hacker to a remote location, where they experience a close encounter. They’re then captured and held in a secret underground research facility, but manage to escape. Only to learn things are not what they thought they were. I suppose those three MIT students are the first turn-off – stories which rely on exceptional protagonists are never going to appeal to me because I am no longer a teenager. But there are some nice ideas in The Signal, it’s just that they’re married to a plot that’s far too… Hollywood, and that works against it. Disappointing.

idiotsThe Idiots, Lars von Trier (1998, Denmark). The more films by von Trier I watch, the more of a fan I’m becoming. I like the fact he pushes hard against what cinema is, he uses it to tell stories that most would either shy away from (perhaps for good reason) or for which cinema would not seem a suitable medium. I think The Idiots falls into the former category, because it’s a pretty tasteless plot. A group of relatively well-off adults spend their time acting as if they are mentally disabled in public. They’re not doing it to prove a point, or to make clear a social injustice. Their motives are mostly selfish, and their behaviour mostly designed to be offensive and shocking. The film has, understandably, proven controversial. I think it – accidentally – makes a few valid points, though I suspect von Trier was inspired more by shock value than social policy. Having said that, a lot has changed since 1998 in regard to care, and there are films like Elling which present an entirely different picture. Von Trier is building up an enviable oeuvre, and I suspect he will be one of a handful of present-day directors still to appear on critics’ lists of best films fifty years from now.

mother_indiaMother India*, Mehboob Khan, (1952, India). There’s melodrama and then there’s meloDRAMA. This definitely falls into the latter category. The title makes it clear that the central role – Radha, played by Nargis – is a stand-in for the nation itself, although apparently the title was also chosen as a direct rebuttal to Ketherine Mayo’s 1927 anti-Indian polemic, also titled Mother India. When Radha marries, her mother borrows money from the local moneylender, who takes advantage of her illiteracy by taking three-quarters of their crop each year as interest – so they can never pay it back (just like those payday loan companies who advertise on television then). This effectively consigns Radha and her new husband to poverty, a situation which only worsens when he loses both his arms after a heavy boulder crushes them. And then her houses burns to the ground. And her eldest son grows up to be a total prat and joins a group of bandits. It’s like a soap opera but with everything dialled up to eleven. Highly entertaining, it has to be said; but it’s not Ritwik Ghatak or Satyajit Ray, and it’s not as fun and fluffy as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (all of which I recommend).

iamafugitiveI am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang*, Mervyn LeRoy (1932, USA). I honestly couldn’t work out if this was a satire of capitalism and the American Dream, or an attempt to show both in a positive and aspirational light. A young man returns to the US after WWI but is dissatisfied with his return to his pre-war job, dreaming of success in engineering. So he leaves and travels the country, taking up unskilled labour jobs to pay his way. Until, that is, he is inadvertently caught up in a bank robbery, arrested and sentenced to ten years on a chain gang. But he manages to escape after a couple of years, makes his way to Chicago, when he begins working in construction and subsequently works his way up to running his own highly successful business. But then his past is revealed, and hs lawyer suggests he owns up to his criminal past and hope that his present position as a pillar of the community will persuade them to reduce his sentence to time served. But they don’t. And he ends up back on the chain gang. For a 1932 film, this was surprisingly modern. Black and white, yes; and the staging was very much of its time, not that far advanced from silent movie days; but the message (a dirty word, I know) of the film very much resonates with the present day. A good film, and it probably does deserve to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

angel_faceAngel Face, Otto Preminger (1952, USA). I have yet to work out if Preminger was primarily a director-for-hire or an auteur since his oeuvre is pretty varied. He made some classic noir films, including Angel Face, but also movies like Carmen Jones and Bonjour Tristesse and The Cardinal. I’ll admit I’ve liked most of his films I’ve seen so far, even the slightly odd ones like Bunny Lake Is Missing or Rosebud, but I still think of him primarily as a director of noir films. In this one, Robert Mitchum, who never seems quite like he fits in, plays an ambulance driver who responds to a gas poisoning at a wealthy writer’s mansion, later ends up in a relationship with the writer’s daughter (Jean Simmons), is employed as her chauffeur… but she murders her parents, he tries to get out of the relationship and it all goes a bit pear-shaped. Throughout the film, Mitchum looks like a man out of his comfort zone, and while that might suit some roles it doesn’t quite apply here. Simmons is good, completely bonkers and totally plausible with it. The problems inherent in the affluent Hollywood set versus working-class probably needed to be highlighted, especially when you consider most noir films involve working class characters. Angel Face had its moments, but it’s neither Preminger’s best nor his best noir film. Still worth seeing, though.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 629