Previously, Ian Sales took us on five trips to the Moon - this week, he's returned to help us explore the squishy depths of our own world. Ian's latest book is Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, the third in the series that began with the BSFA-winning Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Ian's blog covers all things science and fiction, and you can suggest your own favourite films (underwater or not) with him on Twitter @ian_sales.
Outer space has always been science fiction’s first choice of setting, but there have been a few sf films set in inner space. In fact, there was a flood of them in 1989. Well, perhaps not a “flood” - there were in fact six. But you don’t often see that many films on the same subject released in a single year - well, not unless they’re about Robin Hood. Or set on Mars. Or something.
Four of the films below I first saw around their time of release. I can’t remember if I watched The Abyss in the cinema, but the others were almost certainly on video (an ancient technology which comprised a moving strip of magnetic tape sealed inside a plastic cassette). Except Sphere, which I must have seen on DVD. And The Neptune Factor, which I only saw for the first time earlier this year.
The Neptune Factor, Daniel Petrie (1973)
There was a small trickle of underwater films and television series during the late 1960s and early 1970s, probably inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s televised exploits. In 1969, Janet Leigh and Tony Randall set up home, with kids, in an underwater habitat in Hello Down There. On television, there was Primus, which ran for a single season in 1971. And in 1973, Ben Gazzara and the submersible Neptune saved the day in The Neptune Factor. The movie starts off well enough - a group of divers are working on a research programme 350 feet beneath the surface, based out of a tiny habitat. Then a seaquake shakes the habitat loose and it falls from the peak of the seamount on which its sited, down its side and into… the abyss! The only vessel capable of finding the missing habitat, and the two divers trapped inside it, is the submersible Neptune, captained by stone-faced grump Gazzara.
As the Neptune descends into the abyss, it apparently turns into a little model and is subsequently menaced by several giant tropical fish, which are all plainly wondering what is this little plastic thing in their tank. Happily, Gazzara and crew find the two divers, who seem to have survived the pressure without getting squished. They bring them inside the submersible, without decompressing them - fortunately, they don’t explode messily - and everyone is happy. This is a remarkably silly film, and about as scientifically accurate as, well, as a science fiction film.
The Abyss, James Cameron (1989)
This was the biggie, a great soggy epic in all ways. You’ve got an underwater oil platform 518 metres (1700 ft) below the ocean surface, a squad of barking mad Navy SEALS (did you see what I did there?) temporarily using it as a base to recover nuclear warheads from a nearby hunter/killer submarine that sank, a storm on the surface which wreaks much havoc above and below, and then, to top it all, a close encounter of the third kind! The only thing this movie is missing is Noah’s Ark and its contents. Famously, it was filmed in an abandoned nuclear power plant, a huge concrete pool, and it’s certainly the most realistic-looking film of its type ever made. The story, on the other hand, is not so much drama as it is... DRAMA! Twitchy Michael Biehn is scary! Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio heart-breakingly drowns herself so she can be rescued and - in one of the film’s most emotional scenes! - only revives after ten minutes of CPR when studly underwater boss Ed Harris yells, “Goddammit, you bitch! You never backed away from anything in your life! Now fight!” They don’t write films like that anymore. If all this weren’t DRAMA! enough, it transpires there are aliens deep in the abyss, and they are curious about this strange creature Humankind. And when it seems all hope is gone and everyone in the oil platform is going to die, then the only place to turn is to the aliens. Deep in the abyss! Which means breathing pink goo! Otherwise Ed Harris would get squished! (Spoiler: he doesn’t.)
Leviathan, George P Cosmatos (1989)
It must have rained a lot in the last couple of years of the 1980s or something. Leviathan was the second underwater film to be released that year. It is entirely possible the producers got wind of The Abyss and decided to beat them at their own game. On the other hand, it could be a complete coincidence… because that happens a lot in Hollywood, yes it does. However, while James Cameron threw everything he could think of into The Abyss (so to speak), the director of Leviathan decided all he needed to do was rip-off Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). A deep sea mining operation stumbles across the wreck of the titular Soviet freighter, and it seems the naughty Reds had been using the ship to perform nasty genetic experiments. And one of these engineered bugs infects a member of the mining base’s crew, and turns him into a monster. And... well, you can see where this is going. The film makes a halfway decent stab at its setting, although the deep sea base is implausibly huge; but the monster is typical of cheap horror films of the time.
DeepStar Six, Sean S Cunningham (1989)
The makers of Leviathan weren’t the only ones watching The Abyss’s progress, but DeepStar Six’s makers were the quickest off the mark, with a release date of January 1989 (Leviathan premiered in March 1989 and The Abyss in August 1989). But that’s about all DeepStar Six got right. The cast are serving in the eponymous experimental deep sea habitat (which makes you wonder what happened to the other five), and are tasked with installing a nuclear missile platform on the ocean floor. Because that’s a really sensible place to site missiles, especially given that you could otherwise make your nuclear missiles really hard to find by moving them around all the time. Like in a submarine. Not static. On the seabed. Anyway, a cavern under the missile site threatens to, er, sink the project, so they collapse it using depth charges… and in the process release a primordial monster - one of those famous abyssal marine dinosaurs, obviously - which promptly kills everyone in the base. Except the telegenic hero and heroine, of course. There were another three underwater films released in 1989, but I’ve yet to track down copies of them. They were The Evil Below, Lords of the Deep and The Rift. By all accounts, they make DeepStar Six and Leviathan look like quality cinema.
Sphere, Barry Levinson (1998)
I’ve always maintained Sphere has all the ingredients necessary to make a good film, but somehow still manages to be crap. Perhaps it’s just that the whole “mysterious spaceship wreck at the bottom of the ocean” thing is just a really neat idea. And that first view of the spacecraft, as the camera swoops across the sea-floor toward it, is pretty damn effective. But Crichton, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, wasn’t really interested in the spacecraft, but in what it carried. Which is a mysterious, well, sphere. Which is why the book - and movie - are called Sphere and not Spacecraft. This is just as well, because when the spacecraft is eventually explained it makes zero sense. It’s from the future! It crashed in the past! It went through a black hole! Its hull is made of lead! Where did it find the sphere? We don’t know! Anyway, it transpires that if you go inside the sphere it gives you magic powers, which you can use to terrorise everyone else and destroy the underwater habitat which is, er, keeping you alive at the bottom of the ocean.Mostly, the film gets the details right - the “descrambler” to lower the high-pitched Heliox-induced voices I’ll accept as a cinematic necessity; you can’t have the cast talking like Donald Duck for ninety minutes, after all. But using tanks to cross from the habitat to the spacecraft is a no-no. At a depth of 1000 feet, the pressure is some 30 atmospheres, so a tank of Heliox is only going to last a matter of minutes, certainly not long enough for the trek to the spacecraft and back. Real saturation divers use umbilicals. Watch the first thirty minutes of Sphere, then go sit in the back garden and watch the grass grow - you’ll have a much more enjoyable time.
So there you have it, perfect viewing material for wet weekend. In more ways than one. All five films are readily available on DVD and/or Blu-Ray, although I suspect most streaming services will only have one or two of them.