Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Abyss (1989) (Movie Review)

       Earlier this month, I reviewed two Ocean themed Science Fiction movies … and they were 1961’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and 1973’s “The Neptune Factor: An Undersea Odyssey”. Now, we come to a third film in my own set-trilogy of Ocean Themed Sci-Fi movie reviews … 1989’s “The Abyss”, and subsequently one of my all-time favorite movies of the genera. While it’s easy for me to slip into a fun action movie or a goofy comedy, the Sci-Fi genera has always been my personal favorite category of film. It’s a genera that’s built on fantastical ideas, inspiring visuals, thematic storytelling, and ambitious film-making. 

It’s the kind genera that expands the imagination, and can transport the audience to worlds that fit right in with the wonders of what film can create. However, I feel the Sci-Fi genera has frequently lost its identity over the years, and is far too often tied-in with hi-voltage summer Blockbusters, or special effects driven action flicks. Every once and a while, the combination of action and Sci-Fi can go hand in hand, resulting in classics like “The Matrix” or “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”, but still, I prefer when Sci-Fi takes a step back from flashy action spectacles. “The Abyss” is 100%, true Science Fiction cinema at it’s finest, one that invokes a sense of awe and wonder, without losing itself in a sea of mindless excitement. The film was written and directed by the great James Cameron, who was just coming of the success of both “The Terminator” and “Aliens”, both of which were game changers for the Sci-Fi genera. However, they too dabbled in the fast-moving action genera, while “The Abyss” was Cameron’s first time really creating his own world, and following the simple guide lines of making ... not just a terrific new Sci-Fi, but a genuinely great movie on its own.      

     The movie begins with a US Sub carrying nuclear missiles, mysteriously sinking to the bottom of the Cayman Trench, out in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. With Soviet ships moving in to try salvaging the sub, and a hurricane moving over the area, the U.S. government sends a SEAL team, along with Dr. Lindsey Brigman to team-up with the workers of an underwater ocean facility called “Deep Core”. 
Together, they go diving in search for survivors, as well as safe guard the missiles. While investigating the wreckage, individual team members begin encountering strange oddities, like creatures that seem to glow before them, and manipulate the image of water. It’s soon discovered that an alien race has likewise landed their ship at the bottom of the abyss, and is trying to make contact with the humans. While most of them are determined to peacefully make first contact with this mysterious race, one crew-member is terrified of them, and aims to use the recovered nuclear missiles to wipe them out, even if it means taking out the team in the process. 
This film easily fits in with the classic alien contact movies along the lines of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. H. G. Wells was initially the first to introduce the notion of “sea aliens” in his 1897 short story "In the Abyss". However, the real inspiration for James Cameron’s deep-sea Sci-Fi first took shape back when he was in high school, and attended a science lecture about deep sea diving by Francis J. Falejczyk … who was the first human to breathe fluid through his lungs. This concept likewise carries over into the film, as it features the lead diver breathing through a fluid substance. Cameron was also exposed to a short story focusing on a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean. Thus, Cameron’s ideas for “The Abyss” took shape, and while the basic idea did not change, many of the details evolved over the years.

     It definitely contains all the trademarks of Cameron’s films, including an enormous budget, an ecological message, and cutting-edge technology. It’s also a fascinating concept to come into contact with Aliens at the bottom of the ocean, as the sea itself is just as mysterious, vast and alien to us as outer-space itself. 

The creature designs on display are highly original, as these Aliens almost look like a cross between a star fish and an angel. The effects on display were utterly gorgeous marvels for the time, and they still look stunning all these years later. Before “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” or “Jurassic Park”, this was one of the first big budget Sci-Fi’s to utilize the new tool of CGI to create such lush visuals, the likes of which were never possible before. Sense the visuals revolve around these transparent sea creatures and the manipulation of water, it allows the effect to still look convincing, unlike other movies of the 90’s, which have really dated CGI. Naturally, at the 1990 Academy Awards, “The Abyss” won the Oscar for best visual effects, as well as received three additional nominations for best art direction, best cinematography and best sound design. Of Course, I also have to mention the incredible music score composed by the great Alan Silvestri. This score hits all the right notes, as it gradually transitions from the enchanting discoveries, to the dark and mysterious. Some of his music ques remind me of the score later composed for Disney's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" ... another undersea Sci-Fi venture.    

    Equally as important as the effects … are the characters, who are all excellent in this movie. While some of the cast members are recognizable, I never once feel like I’m watching actors on a set. 
They all feel like real workers, with distinct personalities on display, and the performances all-around are solid. Ed Harris stars as “Bud”, the leader of the Deep Core team, and he delivers a driving performance with natural tension and rough emotion. His ex-wife Dr. Lindsey Brigman is played with equal emotional commitment by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who I’ve always associated with Maid Marian from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”. Had this ocean crew been less interesting, or believable in their respected roles, they wouldn’t have carried the slow build-up of the films first act. Just like “Blade Runner”, this is a major studio sci-fi movie that doesn’t rely on poppy hooks, and instead slowly submerges the viewer with some big concepts and methodical pacing. Make no mistake, “The Abyss” has a lengthy run time, and it takes a little while before any big events happen. For me, this works in the films favor, as it makes the setting feel real, and lived in. Then when all the exciting Sci-Fi elements take shape, I feel completely submersed in both the experience, and the genuine suspense of a growing situation in the movies third act. 

      The film is actually quite suspenseful, gripping, and quiet claustrophobic. The action on display during the third act is subtle, and doesn’t go for fast-excitement. Yet, it still feels thrilling, as it’s all very “in-the-moment”, and it’s the emotions conveyed that really drive the excitement. The whole climax focuses on our lead, as he descends deeper in the abyss by himself in an effort to deactivate a nuclear bomb that slipped to the bottom of the cavern. 
It’s a very emotional and suspenseful sequence, as he frequently looses consciousness, and the only thing keeping him going is a texted conversation he’s maintaining with his wife. Eventually, he’s rescued by the aliens, taken aboard the space ship, and we get a relevant anti-war message. At this point in the film, I’d recommend watching the extended directors cut. In this version, all previous events were played against a backdrop of a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the potential for all-out war, and the sinking of the sub additionally fuels the aggression. When Bud is taken to the alien ship, they start showing him images of war and aggression from news sources around the globe. The aliens then create massive megatsunamis that threaten the world's coasts, but the aliens stop them short before hitting any towns. Bud asks why they spared the humans, and they show Bud his previous message to his wife Lindsey. Personally, I feel the directors-cut has the stronger ending, and I feel the message just leaves the bigger impact. The ending sequence with the alien ship rising out of the ocean is one of my favorite visuals in all of Sci-Fi cinema, and it just leaves this impact on me every time I watch it.   

     In my view, “The Abyss” stands as an important testament to both Science Fiction cinema, and original movie material in general. It’s something we’ve lost sight of over the years, as we’re so caught-up in fast paced escapes, or familiar franchises. All these years later, “The Abyss” is still an aw-inspiring motion picture, and one that can potentially inspire filmmakers for years to come. It’s visuals are still breathtaking, the characters are engaging, the claustrophobic suspense is downright thrilling, and the themes are still timely. It’s an excellent film on all grounds, yet I fear it’s lost its popularity over the years. I’m sure people still remember this film, but not enough people really talk about it, or celebrate it. While certain Sci-Fi classics like “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” are still regarded as the best of it’s respected genera, let’s not forget to include “The Abyss” as one of those greats. It’s the kind of film I want Hollywood to challenge itself to make more of, and maybe one day, my favorite movie genera can once again be viewed as more than just escapist entertainment.      

I give the 1989 Sci-Fi classic “The Abyss” … a strong 4 ½ stars out of 5.

The Neptune Factor: An Undersea Odyssey (1973) (Movie Review)

     Following after 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, countless movies through the 70’s tried to re-capture its unique and mysterious out-off-body atmosphere. One of the most obvious, and subsequently most disappointing was the 1973 Sci-Fi titled “The Neptune Factor: An Undersea Odyssey”. Usually when I review older Sci-Fi movies, I try to bring awareness to overlooked or underrated gems that may go unnoticed by general audiences, but this is an exception. This review will serve as a counter point to my previous Ocean themed Sci-Fi review of 1961’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. I described that movie as a dated spectacle for modern viewers, but still a great movie on its own, and one that I recommended modern viewers to look into. “The Neptune Factor: An Undersea Odyssey” by contrast is an example of what happens when a movie tries to emulate two previous classics, and turns into a disaster. Literally, this film tries to merge the underwater excitement of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” with the slow-moving atmosphere of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, resulting in … well, a really bad movie.

     The, um … “adventure”, begins with a research facility out in the Ocean, who are studying marine life. Things take a disastrous turn when a freak earthquake sinks an underwater lab, and takes three divers with it. Fearing for the lives of their missing crewmen, a team assembles in an untested navy vessel called The Neptune, and the mission is on to dive into unexplored ocean depths in an effort to rescue the three-missing people. Along the way, they discover a cavern full of seemingly ordinary fish … except their giant size. So, it’s a mater of driving this small test model sub around super-sized fish before the stranded divers run out of oxygen. Right off the bat, this movie’s first big problem is an emotional disconnect with the driving goal of our main characters. We see a small glimpse of the missing divers in the opening of the film, but not enough to connect to them, and when they go missing, it’s impossible to remember either their names, or even what their faces look like. The movie never even bothers to cut to a scene of the divers trying to survive, and instead they’re just kept off screen until the very end. It’s kind of hard to care about the end goal when you don’t really care about the people that need rescuing. Things get even more mediocre with the rescue team, as everyone is one-note, not very interesting, and they don’t even have much to say for themselves. They literally spend the majority of the film looking out the window of the sub and stair in frightened aw at the fish. The closest we get to a character is a business man who’s aiming to cover the insurance of the missing ship, and at some point, learns to put the safety of the people first, but it’s very underplayed.   

       So, with stakes that aren’t very engaging, and wooden leads, all we have left to rely on are the creatures and the effects … oh boy. I first saw this movie years ago when I was a young teenager, who was really getting into classic Sci-Fi movies. The first thing that drew my attention to this film was the art work on the poster, illustrating encounters with these awesome looking killer beasts and giant worms. Unfortunately, nothing ever lived up to the excitement of the art work on the cover. Things are off to a rocky start as it takes over an hour before any giant sea creatures appear on screen, and the longer it takes for them to arrive, the more disappointing their reveal is. In an attempt to make the giant fish seem more genuine, and less like traditional stop-motion or puppets, this movie utilized footage of real marine life, and tries to pass that off for amazing creatures. It doesn’t take long for the films “spectacle” to get boring. It literally looks like footage of a toy sub passing by ordinary fish from a pet store aquarium. The whole beat of the film goes like this, cut to group shot of people looking out a window, cut to stock footage of generic looking fish, lather, rinse, repeat. Here’s an example of what passes for an action sequence, cut to shot of diver swimming through sea-weed, cut to unrelated shot of a lion fish, and keep cutting back and forth between the two shots until diver finds a safe place. There’s also a hilariously unexciting sequence in which we watch a crab (or lobster) of some sort playing with a toy sub, which is supposed to pass for an exciting creature attack. I’d say the movie is recommendable to someone that enjoys looking at marine life, but even that novelty wears off, as shots linger on individual fish for way to long. Even the variety of fish on display are way to ordinary for the films own good.

      The biggest issue of all, beyond the flat characters, and average ocean creatures … this movie is relentlessly slow moving, and I mean SSSLLLOOOWWW MOOOVVVING!!!!! I’m not going to pretend that I was a fan of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but it did at least create a unique atmosphere, and was all around an absorbing out-of-body experience. This movie fails to create any atmosphere, or generate any kind of psychedelic intrigue. It’s just a tediously long series of events, and without either the excitement or atmosphere to make the experience worthwhile. Let me put it this way, the movie has run time of only an hour and a half, yet it feels like five hours are drained from you. Even the rescue at the end doesn’t amount to much, we find the survivors trapped by stock-footage of eels, which are supposed to be attacking them, but they’re clearly different pieces of film integrated with the divers. One of them gets “eaten”, while the others get rescued. Hugs all around, they don’t exchange anything else beyond that, close with a big pull-out shot of the surface, and the whole thing just stops.   

     There’s very little else to say about this one … boring characters, boring stakes, boring fish obstacles, it’s just a plain boring and uneventful experience. When compared to previous Sci-Fi Ocean adventures like “20’000 Leagues Under the Sea” or my previously reviewed “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, this is just an embarrassing attempt to follow-up on the ground work they started. What’s really sad is that the film is competently made, the direction and character performances are all passable, and their feels like genuine effort. I’d even argue that once in a while there’s a unique looking aquatic creature on screen. Still, it’s just not enough to recommend this snooze fest of an under-water adventure.    

I give “The Neptune Factor: An Undersea Odyssey” ... 1 ½ stars out of 5.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) (Movie Review)

   When it comes to Science Fiction Cinema, some of the most recognizable visuals are space ships, aliens, robots, or general adventures among the stars. However, the Sci-Fi genera actually has a wider range of subjects and settings. The ocean for example is just as wondrous and alien to us as outer space itself, and as such, it lends itself to a number of different Sci-Fi stories. For this whole month, I’ll be reviewing three distinct Sci-Fi films all set in the ocean, each from different decades, and each puts a different face on the genera then what one would commonly associate with Science Fiction. To kick things off, lets review an overlooked classic from 1961 titled “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. This is one of those films that’s a clear product of its decade, would never be made in such a fashion today, but it adds to the films delightfully cheesy appeal. The opening theme song especially sets to mood for a corny 1960’s production. Despite being dated, if find the film holds up overall, and dose more with its underwater premise then that simplistic title would suggest.  

      So, what’s the premise … maybe an exploration of uncharted plains at the bottom of the sea … or maybe a search for buried treasure … nope, nothing that basic. Our venture begins with the unveiling of a new nuclear submarine called “Seaview”, which is about to take it’s madden Voyage. The grand unveiling is cut-short on account of bad weather … like fire in the sky. Turns out a freak meteor shower has burnt-up in the earth’s atmosphere, and has created a giant, fiery belt, which is slowly killing all life on the planet. One Admiral Nelson, who’s commanding the sub makes a bold suggestion … take his new submarine to a certain point in the ocean, at a certain time, and fire their nuclear war heads at the belt. From their specific calculations, the blast will disperse the fiery belt out into space. Unfortunately, if he’s off by a hair, they could end up nuking the planet. Without approval from either the UN or the president, the admiral assembles a small team, steal the sub, get branded as enemies of the USA, and venture out into the ocean in their effort to save the world. Along their journey they face numerous obstacles, including giant squids, enemy subs, and a mysterious killer who’s stowed away on the sub.  

    The characters really aren’t great, but their played very well by the cast. Walter Pidgeon is fully committed to his role as Adm. Nelson, and he makes for a worthy lead. Barbara Eden, famous for her leading role in “I Dream of Jeannie” is also very dignified as a First Lt. on board the sub. The most notable actor of all is Peter Lorre as Comm. Lucius Emery. It’s just cool to see him in yet another Ocean themed Sci-Fi adventure, after he already stared in Disney’s “20’000 Leagues Under the Sea”. Again, strong characters aren’t the films strength, but there is at least some conflict that builds between the varying crew members. Some think the admiral is too caught up in his ambition, and is taking too great a risk, while others believe they should spend their final days with their loved ones as opposed to committing to his full hearty plan. They may not be the most thought-provoking arguments, but at least there’s something there.

      In truth, it’s not about layered characters or deep questions, it’s simply a straight forward adventure, with our hero’s facing numerous obstacles on their quest to save the world. It’s admittedly kind of slow by today’s standards, but great excitement for the time, and I love how the situation keeps building along the way. They need to navigate through a mine field, there’s also melting ice burgs from the surface crashing down on the sub, the heat gets worse up-above, an enemy sub fires missiles at them, the assassin sets a fire in the Admirals Quarters, and what would an underwater adventure be without a battle with a giant squid ... actually, two giant squid attacks for the price of one. The first squid attacks the divers, and is admittedly a cheap looking puppet when compared to the squid from “20’000 Leagues Under the Sea”. The second squid is a real octopus that attaches itself to a model sub, and this actually makes for an exciting action sequence in the film. There’s also a shark tank on board … because of course the sub would need a shark tank. Besides, it would make things more exciting when the sub gets rocky, and people accidentally falling into the shark tank. The mysterious killer is revealed to be a Religious fanatic who believes the admiral is interfering with Gods will ... to which the admiral responds with … “If God wants us to die, why would he give us a fighting chance”?   

   In the end, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” is a dated spectacle, but a lot of fun if you go in with the right mind-set. I personally find it a delightful product of its time … with its silly Sci-Fi plot, goofy effects, and campy charm. It’s not one of the great classics of the genera, but a good one, and worth checking out if you’re a fan of such films. Truthfully, back when I was just a kid, I always preferred this movie over Disney’s “20’000 Leagues Under the Sea”, as it just felt more exciting, and had higher stakes. Sure, it’s a completely illogical premise, and Disney’s under water venture is certainly the smarter film by comparison, but it just doesn’t have the same appeal for me. So, if you’re a Sci-Fi fan in need of a break from flying saucers and outer space, this is a terrific little underwater themed venture to check out.

I give 1961’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” … 3 ½ stars out of 5.