Saturday, August 05, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Robot" (October 2, 1976)

This week on Ark II, Robby the Robot of Forbidden Planet (1956) fame guest stars as Alpha 1, or “Alphie,” in “The Robot.” 

Samuel has been working on the construction of this highly-intelligent machine for four months, and he puts the finishing touches on Alphie just as the crew stops lake-side in Sector 9, Area 15 to enjoy a picnic.  Unfortunately, Alphie -- like most young children -- is prone to accidents and clumsiness, and Captain Jonah has a difficult time trusting him.

After Alphie snaps off the knobs of the Ark II’s mapping computer, Jonah orders the machine shut down while the team investigates a strange “sickness” in a nearby village.  Alphie begs not to be de-activated, because he believes he can help resolve the problem.  When Jonah won’t acquiesce, Alphie breaks free of restraints, knocks-out Samuel, and heads out into the wilderness to act on his own.

It turn out that Alphie is right.  As the robot learns from a girl named Nestra, all the villagers are suffering from exposure to a toxic gas, one which turns them into vacant, zombie-like sleep-walkers. Alphie discovers the source of the leak in a nearby crevice, but finally must sacrifice his very life to seal it up and save the humans.

After Alphie’s noble act, Jonah realizes he was wrong to harshly judge the robot.  As Ruth notes at one point, “robots make mistakes…but so do people.”

Along with “The Lottery, “The Robot” is likely one of the best and most enjoyable episodes in the Ark II series catalog.   The writers, Len Janson and Chuck Menville, along with director Ted Post, really bring their best game on. 

There’s a real vibrancy to this installment (at least compared to others), in part because there’s more banter between the characters here than in all the other episodes combined.  They joke, tease, laugh, and show real ease with one another.  Who are these people?

Perhaps even more importantly than the new-found esprit de corps, not everyone is nice all the time in this episode.  Jonah is still the good guy captain, but he reveals impatience and temper with Alphie.  That doesn't make him evil, it makes him human.  

Samuel, meanwhile, displays powerful emotions when he realizes that his creation has died heroically.  These are welcome colors that the characters could have used on other occasions too, so that they wouldn’t always seem so perfect…and cardboard. 

Visually, "The Robot" is well-vetted.  The show opens with some new footage of the Ark II at an idyllic lakeside, for instance.  And Robby himself -- shiny and upgraded for his starring appearance here -- makes a great visual anchor for the proceedings.  It’s entirely possible (with apologies to the late Jonathan Harris…) that Robby is actually the best and most versatile guest star in the Ark II stable.  He gives a command performance hero, and his heroic death is actually pretty touching.

As usual, the weakest part of an Ark II episode involves the obligatory jet jumper, the rocket pack that Jonah wears to conduct reconnaissance in every darn segment.  It was interesting to see the jet jumper in action probably four or five times early on, but now it’s just a momentum breaker.  The jet jumper interludes inevitably slow down the narratives.

Finally, Ruth makes a comment in this episode that obliquely involves one of my curiosities about the show.  I’ve often wondered about the organization that built the grand Ark II, and whether the vehicle is the only one of its kind.  

In “The Robot,” Ruth notes “It’s the only ark we have,” which, on the surface, seems to suggest the Ark II is indeed a one-of-a-kind.  On the other hand, she may simply be referring to the crew.  It’s the only ark this crew has, in other words.  So we almost get clarity, and then we get robbed of clarity...

Next week: “Omega.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Bugaloos: "The Love Bugaloos" (October 10, 1970)

In “The Love Bugaloos,” Sparky (Billy Barty) develops a crush on a pop star firefly, Gina Lola Wattage, and Joy (Caroline Ellis) arranges a meet-up between the lightning bugs.

Unfortunately, Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye) is also hatching a nasty scheme. She realize that if Gina doesn’t show up for her gig on Peter Platter’s show, he will need Benita to replace her. Benita thus captures Gina, and plots to make her TV debut.

Sparky finds his courage by taking on Funky Rat and rescuing Gina.  When it comes time to go on, however, Gina is unable to perform, and the Bugaloos must step in.

This episode of The Bugaloos (1971-1972) sees Sparky finding his courage to romance a firefly pop star who talks like Mae West, but is named Gina Low Wattage (Gina Lollobrigida).  One running theme in the series is about Sparky’s lack of courage/bravery in the face of danger.

Funky Rat also gets a large role in the episode, and he’s a nutty character in both concept and design.  

Today, I don’t think a Nazi rat would likely be considered an appropriate character on a kid’s show, but that’s what Funky Rat is, essentially. Sure, he’s a variation on Max Von Meyerling (Erich Von Streiheim) from Sunset Boulevard (1950), the butler to faded star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). 

But he also assumes the catchphrase of Arte Johnson’s Nazi soldier (from Laugh-In [1966-1973]): “Verrrrry interesting,” and wears a uniform.  I don’t particularly find the costume, or the shtick very funny, but I am amazed the series got away with cribbing Johnson’s catchphrase.

Here’s the song of the week: “It's New to You:”

Next week: “If I Had the Wings of a Bugaloo.”

Friday, August 04, 2017

Beach Week 2017: Shark Night 3-D (2012)

If you recall (the criminally underrated) Back to the Future II (1990), you may remember a “future” scene set in 2015, wherein hero Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) sees the holographic shark for Jaws 19 and declares that it the creature still “looks fake.”

Well, here we are in 2014, and the sharks of Shark Night (2011) still look fake. 

The mechanical shark called “Bruce” who starred in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws way back in 1975 may not have been wholly convincing – which is why the director often kept it hidden or cut to P.O.V. shots  – but when viewers did see the great white beast, he at least operated by the same laws of physics as we do.  When Bruce broke the surface, water would run off his back.  When Bruce bit a victim, blood would run down between his very sharp teeth.  We might not have always believed Bruce was 100% real, but we believed that he showed up for work, at least.

In Shark Night, the sharks phone it in.

They exist in abundant special effects shots that diminish their size and sense of scale.  Seen in the clear light of day, these “animals” look like under-detailed cartoons.  They can’t scare anyone because they actually bear no connection to the environment forces which purportedly work upon them; forces such as gravity

In fact, the sharks of Shark Night not only look incredibly fake – just a step or two up from Jabber Jaw -- they also act in most un-shark-like fashion throughout much of the film, often leaping high out of the water (like…twenty feet out of the water…) to swallow their cowering human prey.  In one of the movie’s least effective kill scenes, a shark intercepts a racing jet-ski …from the front, no less…and leaps several feet out of the water to do so.  On this occasion and several others, director David Ellis lets the shark hold center frame as it leaps towards the screen (for 3-D impact), thereby offering extreme evidence of the animal’s incredible phoniness.

Shark Night earned pretty terrible reviews, and studying these special effects sharks, one can detect why.  That established, I must reluctantly admit I didn’t hate this nearly as much as I thought I might, and that’s because the film unexpectedly plays around in the terrain one of my favorite sub-genres: the savage cinema.  In keeping with that form, the film acknowledges human ugliness as the overriding source of real evil in the world.  In other words, we might escape sharks, but we can’t escape human nature.

In Shark Night, Sara (Sara Paxton) returns to her home on Lake Crosby in Louisiana for the first time in three years along with a group of co-ed friends, including shy Nick (Dustin Milligan), a med-student.  Sara has been away so long because of an accident involving her former boyfriend, local diving expert Dennis (Chris Carmack). 

Back when they were going steady, Sara began to drown on a dive and Dennis wouldn’t share his air with her.  Panicky, she made it back to the surface alive, but when she piloted the boat for home, she accidentally struck Dennis’s face with the boat propeller, permanently scarring him. 

Dennis – who looks no less handsome or buff with that facial scar, by the way -- has never forgotten this traumatic incident, and with the help of a dumb redneck, Red (Joshua Leonard) and the town’s heavy-metal loving sheriff, Sabin (Donal Logue), plans to release several captured sharks upon Sara and her buddies while they frolic on the lake…

You can just tell from the first attack in Shark Night that you’re in a different league here than in Jaws.  Remember that film’s classic prologue, and how a beautiful blonde went for a tranquil midnight swim only to be attacked and killed by a shark?   This introduction to the film remains creepy, unsettling and highly effective, even today.  By point of comparison, Shark Night opens with a blond in a white bikini swimming in the lake and getting attacked almost instantly by a shark.  It’s all thrashing and splashing, and there’s no sense of suspense or even surprise during the attack.  People inclined to use the phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” regarding Hollywood will be sorely tempted to employ it here.

Lacking suspense, Shark Night is abundantly predictable.  If you’ve ever seen a horror movie, you can predict -- down to the last person (and animal) -- the characters destined to survive the film’s bloody events. Also, Joshua Leonard’s character Red is a walking talking cliche, right down to his bad teeth and bad Southern accent.  He’s supposed to be the movie’s comic relief, but again, we’re in cartoon territory here.

And yet, as I wrote above, I didn’t entirely hate Shark Night.  I don’t generally prefer horror movies this dumb and vapid, but they can occasionally be fun if you’re in the mood for something trashy and light. Plus, Sara Paxton is the star here. She was terrific in The Innkeepers (2012) and is very good here too, despite the thinness of her character.

And Shark Night boasts at least one legitimate inspiration.  It turns men into the film’s villains, and gets at the notion that the sharks – while obviously the tools of mass destruction here – aren’t really the ones with the evil intent.  Instead, Dennis and his mates are the ones to blame.  Interestingly, they view themselves as victims.  They’re victims of women (Sara), victims of a bad economy, and victims of class warfare.  Their plan is to make it rich by creating a shark snuff film for fans of cable television’s “Shark Week.”   In other words, they have something to sell, and they’ve had to put their humanity aside to sell it.  

When one of the would-be victims notes that such a money-making enterprise is sick, the evil conspirator notes, importantly “There’s no such thing as sick anymore.  There’s only moral relativism.”  It’s a biting, caustic commentary on our culture, but one entirely of the times.  If you remember Governor Rick Perry’s comment about “vulture capitalists” who go in and eat up companies for profit, you might also see how the metaphor works with sharks.  These animals (like some capitalists) must keep moving forward -- devouring things, resources and people to live -- and the rest of us are, well…merely chum.

I don’t mean any of this commentary to suggest that Shark Night is deep or especially thoughtful, only that it is “of the moment.”  It’s unique that unlike Jaws (1975), the film portrays man as the real terror in the water, one eager to destroy his fellow man for a leg up the economic ladder of success.

The special effects in Shark Night are bad, the characters are mostly barely two-dimensional appetizers, and there’s precious little in terms of interesting narrative.  Yet to his credit, director Ellis seems to know all this is the case, and at times (like during the road trip to Lake Crosby), literally fast-forwards the film so he can get to the meat of the drama – the shark attacks – quicker.

Some may see this photographic trick as an admission of creative bankruptcy.  But contrarily, it may just be an example of efficiently cutting to the chase.  Who wants to see shallow characters talking and relating to one another when we can watch them getting chewed up and spit out instead?

Shark Night isn’t a good film and it isn’t a scary horror movie.  But it is amusingly trashy and lowbrow.  It features moments of interest, especially whenever Donal Logue is on-screen playing-up the resentment angle of his blue-collar economic climber.  I didn’t hate the movie that much, in part because Shark Night was clearly made in a spirit of dumb fun.

However, if I had been the maker of Shark Night I would have gone one step further with the movie, and offered up as its ad-line the very joke from Jaws 19 in Back to the Future 2.

This time, it’s really, really personal.

Beach Week 2017: Shark Night 3-D (2012) Trailer

Beach Week 2017: Bait (2012)

Bait (2012) is an absolutely absurd horror movie about sharks, and yet, it is also joyously absurd.  Lensed in 3-D, the film is, alas, a wash visually.

The director, Kimball Rendall, stages some truly dynamic shots here. He often comes up with great, scary (and funny) compositions.  But he is undone in his efforts by weak special effects at points. 

To put this another way: sometimes the sharks look real, and sometimes they look like bad CGI. There’s no consistency whatsoever.  I was amazed how well some shots hold up to real scrutiny.  And shocked that other shots could be tagged instantly as phony as hell.

In terms of narrative structure -- Bait, somewhat like Jaws 3-D (1983) -- attempts a blend of disaster movie tropes with Jaws franchise ones.  The great Russell Mulcahy contributes a script with co-writer, John Kim, and the film is set on the coast of Australia when a devastating tsunami hits. 

The tsunami floods several coastal blocks, and brings with it a handful of hungry great white sharks and other sea life.  A group of people -- including two robbers, a life-guard, a police officer and his daughter --are trapped inside a grocery store, Oceania Food Mart, when the tidal wave hits.  

Before long, the terrified survivors are climbing to the top of the aisles, while the sharks prowl the same aisles, just feet below them.  In short order, the sharks have realized they like the taste of live human beings, and won’t settle for the mart’s meat, stored in the freezer.

The diverse nature of the random survivors makes for interpersonal frisson, and our lead character -- the young life-guard, Josh (Xavier Samuel) -- is recovering from an earlier tragedy involving his best friend and a great white shark.  As you might guess, he must finally put the past behind him, and battle the sharks for the sakes not only of the trapped shoppers, but his ex-fiance, Tina (Sharni Vinson), who also happened to be shopping at Oceania when the crisis started.

Periodically, Bait also cuts to the submerged parking deck below the mart, where two entitled rich kids (and their dog) are trapped in a car, and heroic stock-boy, Ryan (Alex Russell of Chronicle [2012]) attempts to rescue them.  The scenes involving the dog and the great white shark manage to build up quite a bit of suspense, at least if you’re an animal lover.

The film also feature some good jump scares. At one point, Oceania’s obnoxious and loud-mouthed manager attempts to climb out of the store. He is hoisted up by a rope over a low-hanging vent pipe.  He removes the grill, and is set to climb in and escape from the danger.  Instead, he is confronted with another aquatic life-form…right at face level. 

For me, this was actually the most effective and disgusting scare in the film.

The one thing that periodically deflects suspense and terror -- and sends Bait into Sharknado territory -- is a focus on action movie tropes, particularly larger-than-life heroics.  At one point, Josh takes a rifle in hand, and -- like John McClane in Die Hard (1987) -- goes underwater to battle a great white shark.  

As he does so, he dives into the water brandishing the gun in perfect athletic form.  Another scene is equally far-fetched in terms of staging, involving the capture of a great white by meat hook.  Finally, in the film’s most absurd sequence, a shark is tasered by Josh. Again, this act requires Josh to perform as the equivalent of a gymnast.

These moments are good fun, and incredibly silly, but they effectively put Bait in another genre all-together from Jaws.

This isn’t a scary, intense shark movie grounded in reality.  It’s a roller-coaster ride instead, as eager to garner a laugh as a scream.  Certainly, I can get into that approach, and I had a lot of fun with Bait.  It may enter the so-bad-it’s-good category, but however you parse it, Bait ceaselessly entertains.

Director Kendall, assisted by a knowing script, keeps three or four plot-lines going at once, and provides some key surprises that involve human nature.  At one point, a shopper dons a make-shift cage suit and goes underwater to turn off the store’s power. This scene is so powerful because of the risks the character takes, and the fate he ultimately meets.  It’s not what you expect, but it goes a long way towards exploring the different ways that various individuals respond to a crisis. 

For every heroic character, like this one, however, there’s another -- like the “secret” robber lodged within the group -- who is the exact opposite.  Kendall makes the most of moments involving these life-and-death choices, and there are times in Bait when you will absolutely be on the edge of your seat.

Goofy as could be, but oddly charming, Bait is no critic’s idea of a great movie, or a horror classic for that matter.  But for a night of terror and laughs – cheap thrills, I guess -- it can’t be beat.  I almost never use the word “cheesy” -- I just don’t like to describe movies with that word -- but this movie is legitimately and knowingly cheesy.

My wife is terrified of sharks and couldn’t stand to be in the room with me while I watched The Reef (2010).  However, she emerged from Bait totally unscathed, if that helps you decide whether or not to screen the film.

Beach Week 2017: Bait

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Beach Week 2017: The Reef (2010)

Movies like The Reef (2010), much like Open Water (2004), remind us that no matter our toys, our technology, our social class or income level, we are all a part of the natural world, and not separate from it. 

That’s a fact it is all-too easy to forget from our modern, air-conditioned cocoons of safety and security.

And because -- on a day-to-day level -- we are so safe and secure, many of us actually start to believe that we will endure forever;  that our days will continue on and on for eternity.

More Facebook posts. More tweets. More summer blockbusters…

But the truth -- which we interface with occasionally -- is that we remain just as susceptible to mortal injury, or sudden death as any other animal that inhabits this beautiful planet. 

When we’re in the ocean, we sometimes feel that mortality more acutely, because the illusion of control is gone. 

In the ocean, we are buffeted on the tide, splashed by waves, pulled and pushed to and fro.  It is here in this realm of infinite mystery, quite fully, that we start to understand that we are connected with nature, not above it or protected from it.

The Reef concerns five young, attractive vacationers who go for a yachting excursion near Indonesia and must reckon with their place in nature.

Before long, these folks are forced to reckon with an unenviable choice: Desperately swim for an island ten miles distant and in shark-infested waters, or stay with the cap-sized, slowly-sinking ship…also in shark-infested waters.

It goes without saying, but all five of these modern, youthful, hopeful humans desire to live. And not one of them could have anticipated that they would die in this fashion. Or on this particular day.

As prey.

There’s a horrifying simplicity and intelligence underlining The Reef.  There’s almost no artifice in this horror film at all, just five desperate people who would make any deal and take any chance to continue living. 

To some extent, the film’s events -- and perhaps even the order of events -- might be described as predictable right up to and including the final kill sequence.

My wife, a therapist -- who is tortured by films such as this -- often asks me why I enjoy them so much.  According to her, the only “drama” in a movie like The Reef arises in seeing people suffering and, inevitably, dying horribly.

My stock but hopefully well-considered answer is that movies like The Reef remind all of us that life isn’t necessarily about our final destination, which is known, but rather the choices we make in the struggle to avoid that destination as long as possible.

One character here, in the film’s final minutes, makes a choice I totally sympathize with.  I’d like to think I’d do the same thing given the same circumstances, but one never really knows.

Unlike Jaws (1975) The Reef features no real sense of camaraderie among its characters, and it doesn’t reflect any particular social context, like the post-Watergate milieu of Spielberg’s classic. 

Instead, this effective horror film is simply about five unlucky people who go into the water with sharks, and have a very, very bad day.

“You look like a seal in that.  Sharks love seals.”

In The Reef, vacationers Matt (Gyton Grantley) and Suzie (Adrienne Pickering) travel with Matt’s friend Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling), delivering a yacht to a customer near Indonesia. Also along for the ride is Kate (Zoe Naylor), who was once an item with Luke.  Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith), meanwhile, is a sailor on the yacht who knows the local waters well.

After an excursion on a small island, problems occur on the trip.

The yacht’s inflatable raft/motor-boat is punctured and deflated by a coral reef.  The yacht itself suffers catastrophic damage when the coral rips the keel right off.

Luke proposes a simple choice.

Swim for nearby Turtle Island, or stay and sink with the boat. 

Warren -- who has seen sharks in these waters -- refuses to go.  But Kate, Luke, Matt, and Suzie begin their long swim.  Luke estimates it should take them no longer than five hours to reach land…

Before long, however a great white shark catches sight of the group, and begins hunting…

“The boat is fucked.”

The Reef is an absolutely relentless horror film and one that also plays as extremely plausible.  There are no last minute rescues, no miraculous survivals, and, finally, just a reckoning that fate can be remarkably cruel. 

One character notes early in the film that people are more likely to be killed by a bee sting than by a shark attack, but certainly the odds change dramatically in open water.  The film’s terror quotient also rises when the swimmers realize that they are being attacked not by different sharks, but one very determined hunter…who has been pacing them since they first got their feet wet.

The Reef is dark, but not as nihilistic (and perhaps, not as artistically high-minded…) as Open Water was.  So here the idea is not surrendering the inevitable and going through the five stages of death.  Rather, in The Reef our choices can make a difference, if even a small one. 

For instance, Matt -- once bitten by a shark -- begs his fellow swimmers to stay away from, knowing that they will be attacked next.  But Kate is Luke’s sister, and Suzie is his girlfriend.  They can’t stay away, and their survival is jeopardized.  They behave in an irrational manner, and that fact says something important about the human species. 

At another crucial point, Luke makes a choice about his survival, and about Kate’s, and it is brave, for certain. 

The upshot is that we see that, even in a terrible situation, humans remain human.  Even when facing abject fear and in an environment where we are out of our element, we can make a selection that is valuable, and will be remembered. 

So The Reef may be predictable in broad strokes  -- a  shark attacks swimmers in the water -- but in little ways, it forges these little grace note moments, wherein a character responds with heroism, or selflessness. 

This seems a key point.  A shark is a shark is a shark.  It is going to feed on humans when it gets hungry. 

But man is also man and even in the water, he holds certain relationships and concepts dear.  I appreciate how The Reef compares the two species.  Sharks don’t second guess themselves and worry about those who are mortally wounded.  They don’t hesitate.  They meet their needs, and that’s it.

But humans are of a vastly different tribe, and even in a venue as dangerous as the ocean, cultural rules about valor, honor, and decency play a role.

Can a shark understand the concept of self-sacrifice?

Above, I wrote about the idea that man is not separate from nature, despite all the smart phones, social media and so forth that dominates our 21st century existence.  There are two worlds -- the world that is really there, under the surface, and the world that we look at every day, on the surface.  

This very notion is played out in the film through a composition that often appears: Luke dons his goggles, peers under the water, and looks about to see if there are any sharks nearby, threatening the group. But above the water, on the surface...everything is calm.

I believe that horror movies like The Reef (and 2010’s Frozen to a similar extent) hold a place of value in the society because they serve as reminders of this fact.  Watching a movie like The Reef, you can’t help but put yourself in the position of Luke, or Matt, or Kate and wonder what you would do.

So The Reef isn’t really just about seeing people die. That idea is sort of built into the concept, and the genre itself.  Instead, it’s about seeing people survive, and people making choices about how they want to leave this mortal coil.

Every now and then it’s good to look up from the monitor or phone screen and consider such things, and that’s why I always argue for the validity and legitimacy of horror movies.  On the surface we might describe them with terms like “torture porn” or “graphically violent,” but horror films are really the only movies in our culture right now that remind us that life doesn’t last forever.

Beach Week 2017: The Reef (2010) Movie Trailer

Beach Week 2017: Open Water (2004)

Shot on digital video, Open Water is a fictionalized account of a harrowing real-life incident. In 1998, an American couple was accidentally abandoned at sea by a commercial scuba diving boat following an incorrect head count.

Directed by Chris Kentis, Open Water depicts the routine of a very modern, very professional, very youthful American couple, Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan). They've ceded too much of their lives to all-consuming careers. When the couple needs a respite from incessantly ringing cell phones and e-mail, Daniel and Susan steal away on vacation to the Caribbean.

Ironically, when the exhausted Dan and Susan get to the islands, they don't relax. Instead, they fill every iota of free time planning expensive, colorful excursions, including a scuba diving trip. But once on the dive, a simple mistake results in the heretofore unimaginable: Daniel and Susan are left behind by their diving boat!

Adrift together in a turbulent, endless sea -- with night falling and sharks circling ever closer -- Daniel and Susan start countenancing the incomprehensible truth. No cell phones are available to call for help. No e-mail can type out a distress message. No rescue infrastructure, bureaucracy or "mommy" government will pluck them from the immediate and mortal danger. The easy, automatic, nay thoughtless technological connection of their daily lives proves an illusion in nature. And out here -- in the swallowing, hungry sea -- they have only each other to hold onto.

The majority of Open Water's scant seventy-nine minute running time is indeed spent at sea, featuring endless, vertigo-producing ocean-level shots of the couple coping with their horrible circumstance. Dan and Susan grow hungry. Fish nip at their legs. They vomit. They urinate. They fall asleep. They clutch at life, and, finally, to each other. It's a chronicle of unceasing agony...a hell on Earth.

The authentic location, the naturalism of the nearby threat (no CGI or mechanical sharks here...just the real thing...) and the capable hand-held camera work weave a more-than-sufficient tapestry of dread. This isn't a movie to watch dispassionately, it's one to experience almost literally as a participant. Those eye-level shots put you in the water too; so that you can almost feel the endless, merciless lapping of the waves.

Yet Open Water also remains an effective horror film because of the template that forms the bedrock of its simple narrative. This movie -- with such spare aesthetics and a blunt depiction of the worst no-win scenario imaginable -- intriguingly mimics Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's famous "five stages of death and dying."

Basically, Kubler-Ross's theory is that in facing mortality, human beings transition through a series of developments or stages. Open Water walks the audience through these five stages, as our protagonists attempt to come to terms with their fate in the pounding, eternal ocean. In other words, the movie -- once it hits the water -- is about preparing for the inevitable.

In accordance with the first stage of death and dying, at first, there is complete denial on the part of these tech-savvy, over-scheduled Americans. Daniel stubbornly clings to the hope that they will be miraculously rescued. In fact, he doesn't even swim towards another boat that is visible on the horizon because he believes so fervently that their diving vessel will recognize the mistake and return to the exact spot where it left them. Needless to say, that doesn't occur.

After a time, anger swallows-up denial. Splashing his hands in the water like a petulant child, Daniel bellows at the top of his lungs and throws a temper tantrum. He is bitter that they "paid" for this experience, the opportunity, essentially, to die at the mercy of the sharks. This too is a subtly funny comment on modern Americans, I suspect. Daniel seems more upset that the company took his money than that he is going to die. Soon.

Daniel and Susan then argue a lot, and she blames him for their crisis. This is her encounter with anger. He remained underwater looking at fish for too long, she complains, and that's why the boat left. It's always nice to be able to blame someone else, isn't it?

Ross's third stage of death and dying is bargaining. So Susan and Daniel talk about how -- if only they could just return to their comfortable life in front of the television and the Discovery Channel -- they wouldn't be so foolish as to entertain a venture like this again. They stepped out of their natural habitat (a technological one, interestingly), and have paid the price.

Shortly, the fourth stage, depression, sets in on our unlucky protagonists.. The doomed couple realizes that no one is coming to rescue them and that this is, indeed, how they are going to die. Here. Today. Now. No TV, Hollywood bullshit. No last minute cavalry coming over the hill.

Ross's fifth and final stage -- acceptance -- is at last broached. In one of the most coldly realistic, unflinching and horrifying scenes I've ever seen in a horror movie, Susan analytically accepts the reality of her situation. This protagonist makes a choice that is carefully weighed as a better option than being eaten by sharks. Our final survivor dips below the sea on purpose...and willingly drowns. With Daniel gone (eaten), Susan lets the ocean take her under...and away from life.

Open Water follows the Ross-style transition from one stage of death and dying to the next stage, from denial all the way through acceptance. The movie climaxes only when all five stages have been adequately vetted, and this structure grants the horror film a kind of artistic completeness and intellect that is all too rare in the American cinema today. It rings scarily true.

I still recall leaving the theater after Open Water feeling discomforted and troubled. The movie doesn't blink, doesn't retreat from the reality of the horrifying scenario, and there is no sunlight to part the dark clouds. Instead, the film reminds us that we don't control our fate. Something as simple and ultimately as meaningless as a mistake — a frigging arithmetic error — could impact our very lives. It's a horrifying thought, and one that we have all considered, no matter how briefly, after the terror we saw on 9/11. And this thematic terrain makes Open Water a profound statement about the human condition today.

Da Vinci once stated that water is the driver of nature. In Open Water, water is the medium that drives our human nature. How do we face inevitable death? Denial? Anger? Bargaining? Depression? Acceptance? Open Water is a brilliant horror film and a great character piece because there's something universal in Susan and Daniel's progression through Kubler-Ross's gauntlet of mortality. We recognize the steps.

And we fear them. For after acceptance...oblivion.

Beach Week 2017: Open Water (2004) Movie Trailer

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Beach Week 2017: Deep Blue Sea (1999)

It’s always amusing to me when reviewers or audiences label Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea (1999) a rip-off of the 1970s shark hit, Jaws (1975).


A close examination of the film makes it absolutely clear that Deep Blue Sea rips-off a different Steven Spielberg mega-hit: Jurassic Park (1993).

Deep Blue Sea, is -- in very real terms -- a wet Jurassic Park.

Think about it for a minute.

Both films involve genetically engineered animals in pens who prove far smarter and far more resourceful than their god-playing human scientist-parents imagine.

Both films -- released in the 1990s -- also draw their creative energy from the Pandora’s Box of the Clinton Age: Genetic Science.

In 1990, for example, the Human Genome Project began in earnest, unlocking the secrets of our biological make-up, and horror movies responded…with fear and worry. 

Over the next ten years at least, the horror genre gave us cinematic visions such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1997), and Mimic (1998), films wherein ambitious scientists make…monsters.

Deep Blue Sea is decidedly a part of that mad scientist “school” (forgive the fish pun), not of the “revenge of nature” pack that Jaws more legitimately seems representative of.

Beyond matters of categorization, Deep Blue Sea is a fun, well-paced horror romp. Not all the CGI effects hold up very well today.  And the Scream (1996)-like material that sees L.L. Cool J lamenting that “brothers” never survive situations like the one in Oceania is risible at best.  Today, it feels horribly clichéd.

But sharks -- genetically engineered or not -- are terrifying nemeses.

On their terrain, we are just…appetizers.  Deep Blue Sea effectively taps into that universal fear of being in alien territory, hunted by a life-form that better understands the geography.  So there’s suspense and action here to go along with the goofy self-referential humor and don’t-tamper-in-God’s-domain lesson.

I don’t entirely respect myself for feeling this way -- especially since I hold movies to a high standard in terms of what they achieve and how they achieve it -- but Deep Blue Sea is a lot of dumb fun.

“If they eat you, it’s because they think you’re a fat little seal.”

Following the escape of a test shark from the facility, corporate mogul and disaster survivor Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) wants to check up on one of his controversial investments: a sea-going laboratory called Aquatica.

There, Dr. Susan McAlester (Burrows) has created genetically-enhanced sharks so she can extract from their over-sized brains a hormone that will cure Alzheimer’s in humans. 

Following a storm at sea, the next-gen sharks -- all three of them -- stage a life-threatening break-out of the facility.

McAlester, Franklin, shark wrangler Carter Blake (Jane) and others are trapped inside the sinking laboratory, and the sharks are on the prowl.

But what do the sharks want?  Just another meal, or something else?

“Beneath this glassy surface, a world of gliding monsters.”

Beneath this shark-y-surface…a world of Jurassic Park tropes.

Both Jurassic Park and Deep Blue Sea commence with an accident.  In Spielberg’s film, a work is killed at night on Isla Nublar when a Velociraptor is transferred from one cage to another.  In Deep Blue Sea, a shark escapes Aquatica, and nearly kills a group of horny teenagers before being caught. 

The scene and set-up in the latter is derivative of the former, but still I like how Harlin executes it; particularly the moment when red wine spills into the ocean water, right above the camera’s eye. 

This is isn’t the only time in the film that the water will run red, so the moment is portentous, to say the least.

After the accident, both Jurassic Park and Deep Blue Sea share another similarity.  They each feature a flight to a far-flung facility that involves a visitor who is in a position to assess that facility and its work. 

In Jurassic Park, Alan (Sam Neil), Ellen (Laura Dern) and Ian (Jeff Goldblum) fly to Isla Nublar to determine if the facility is safe to be opened to the public.  In Deep Blue Sea, Samuel L. Jackson’s Franklin flies to Aquatica to make the same assessment.

In both films, a sense of wonder comes next.  Alan and Ellen see real living dinosaurs, and also see how they are created in a lab.  They even witness a velociraptor emerging from an egg.  In Deep Blue Sea, Franklin witnesses shark wrangler Carter (Thomas Jane) riding a shark in the tank.  Then, he sees the operation to aspirate shark brain juice for Alzheimer’s treatment.

But of course, something goes wrong in both cases. 

And that something is universally preceded by a storm’s arrival.  In Jurassic Park, a storm wreaks havoc when Nedry leaves his post with the security systems down.  He then drives his car into the mud, and is killed by a Dilophosaurus. But the storm also sends away the park’s main personnel, for reasons of safety.  

In Deep Blue Sea, a storm rolls in, while most of Aquatica’s staff is off for the weekend, resulting in a helicopter crash, and an explosion. 

In both cases, the subtext is all about Mother Nature.  Man (John Hammond) -- or woman (Dr. Susan McAlester) -- attempts to play God, to re-write nature.  So Forces of Nature respond.  Aggressively.
Man proposes and God disposes.

The primary boogeymen in both films -- the velociraptors and sharks, respectively -- are also defined by the dialogue as “hunting in packs.”  Similarly, the beasts are under-estimated vis-à-vis their intelligence.  The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park figure out how to mate, even in the absence of males. 

And the sharks of Deep Blue Sea figure out to how to sink Aquatica so they can swim through the above sea gates.

Both the raptors and the sharks escape their cages, too, to wreak havoc.

And finally, just for fun, Samuel L. Jackson’s character dies in both films.  We see his severed arm in Jurassic Park. We see a severed leg in the water in Deep Blue Sea.

Near the finale of both films, too, survival depends on characters being able to turn the power back on in the respective facilities.

I could go on and on here, I suspect, but you get the point. Deep Blue Sea is, more aptly, Jurassic Sea World, or some such thing. 

Yet, the wholesale aping of Jurassic Park doesn’t automatically render Deep Blue Sea a disaster. Harlin adds his own over-the-top stylistic touches to the material, slathering the film with whirling pans and zooms, and thus a real sense of visual kineticism.  The movie itself may not be as deep as the ocean, but it’s a ore-than adequate roller-coaster ride experience. 

Intriguingly, the film also gives us a lesson in mechanical sharks vs. CGI sharks. In Deep Blue Sea, the scenes involving the mechanical shark interacting with the actors still hold up.  The scene in which one scientist, Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgard) gets his arm bitten off by a shark is terrifying, and more than that, terrifyingly real.  The CGI shark scenes, by contrast, look like living cartoons, no more real today than Jabberjaw.

Over the years, I have watched Deep Blue Sea probably six or seven times.  Not because it is a great film, but because it is a gory, fast-paced horror film with plenty of action, and a few laughs.  

Just like Dr. Susan McAlester (our primary transgressor and tamperer in God’s domain…), the film goes down the gullet pretty easily.