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by Kathi Maio

Deep Space, Right Here at Home

In his classic of science non-fiction, The Immense Journey, Loren Eiseley called it "the sole world on the planet which we can enter only by a great act of the imagination." He also called it "a night world that few men have entered and from whose greatest depths none have returned alive."

That world is the deep space right here on Mother Earth: the abyss of the ocean.

It's been more than forty years since Eiseley's book was published. In that time, technology has developed at a prodigious rate. And what we know about our world--and others--has expanded mightily. Still, Eiseley's words remain true. We know shockingly little about 99% of earth's living space--the two-thirds of our planet's surface that is covered by water. And as for the abyssal depths, still no person has visited that realm....and lived to tell the tale.

The depths of the ocean is, of course, a hostile environment for people--and even for our machines. At its deepest point (over 35,800 feet) the pressure is over eight tons per square inch. Which, I hear tell, is the equivalent of one person trying to support fifty jumbo jets.

This challenge continues to thwart oceanographers, marine biologists, not to mention mining and petroleum interests, who would love to explore this home-grown alien world. Small passenger submersibles aren't even close to making it all the way down. And tethered ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) can make it to some of the ocean floor, but not to its deepest points. Current research is focusing on small AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles) that can use the latest in artificial intelligence and telecommunication networking, along with an array of data-collecting sensors, to explore deeper and deeper.

But, who knows when we'll get there? And who knows how many species of swimming things exist that we still don't know about? This past February, a National Geographic special, entitled "Sea Monsters: Search for the Giant Squid," illustrated the problem. One of the marine biologists profiled on the show, Dr. Clyde Roper, has devoted his entire career to the study of the Architeuthis and the other largest cephalopods. Only trouble is, although he's seen a few corpses --the largest ever recovered was sixty feet in length--Roper has never seen a living giant squid. And neither has anyone else.

To remedy this, an international team of scientists are searching for the giant squid in a deep-sea ecosystem off New Zealand. There, they are employing the latest technologies, like a "crittercam" (developed by Greg Marshall) which can be attached to the back of the giant squid's known predator, the sperm whale. If humans can't get down to the right depths, they figure they'll let something that can dive really deep take the video for them. Maybe they'll get lucky. Only, so far, they haven't.

In an anticlimactic conclusion--which captures the reality of scientific field work more truthfully than your average National Geographic broadcast--the "search" for the "sea monster" comes up empty. After a lifetime of trying, Dr. Roper still hasn't seen a living giant squid. And he still doesn't, he freely admits, have any idea "exactly where they live, how they live...whether they live in pairs, alone, in schools, or what they eat." In other words, although he's a world-renown expert, who's spent years studying and researching The Beast (as Peter Benchley called it when he had it gobble up folks off the coast of Bermuda), Roper still knows diddly-squat.

I must admit to being astounded by the show. I had no idea that we were still so ignorant about the giant squid. After all, our sea tales and mythology, and scores of deep-sea adventure movies, are filled with battles between humans and the giant "kraken."

But that's the point. Our mythologies have always been a potent brew of the known and unknown, the fearsome and the familiar. We know the giant squid exists. We just don't know what it's up to. And that's what makes it crackerjack inspiration for a nightmarish fantasy.

Likewise, because the sea is a "great unknown" that we can all stick our toes into, it is the perfect subject for speculative writers. And for SF filmmakers, since the earliest days of the motion picture.

Although his landmark film fantasy A Trip to the Moon (1902) is much better known, Georges Melies also did one of the first adaptations of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in 1907. I say "one of" because it is believed that another screen adaptation of Verne's classic, now lost, predated Melies by two years.

But for most of us, the 1954 Disney version, directed by Richard Fleischer, and written by Earl Felton, is the one we recall--whether we saw in on the big screen, television or videotape. With it's struggle between the complex, embittered genius (James Mason's Captain Nemo) and the uncomplicated manly man (Kirk Douglas's Ned Land), this adaptation can be looked upon as an intriguing rumination upon masculinity in modern times. But few people bother to seek the film's sociological significance, with all those exciting underwater shots to goggle over. As well as the thrilling hand to tentacle battle with--you guessed it--a giant squid.

With its impressive special effects and production values, Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, is certainly one of the great classic abyssal adventure flicks. And there are a few other memorable entries like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961--with another giant squid attack). But, lets face it, most deep-sea SF/fantasy films have always been low-budget creature features with few oceanic scenes--too expensive. Instead, pals like Godzilla rose up from the sea and came to us. Those old horror movies include, among many others, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954), and Gorgo (1961).

Oddly, it was the success of Alien (1979) that seemed to generate new interest in making science fiction-horror films that would bring the humans into the sea-monster's underwater environment. Alien clones like DeepStar Six (1988) and Leviathan (1989) represent this phenomenon, which was clustered at the end of the eighties.

But to see a really impressive science fiction film, that makes full use of its deep-sea environment without relying on creature feature cheap scares, I'd have to say that The Abyss, James Cameron's 1989 "failure," still leads the way.

I am hoping that the regrettable cultural event and box-office bonanza that is Titanic will encourage some of the film's swooning, tear-stained, and exhausted viewers to hunt down Cameron's earlier sea tale. As you can tell, I was personally not thrilled by Titanic's overlong schmaltzy story. But I did like the framing device that Cameron used, including eery real (and some restaged) shots of the decaying luxury liner in its watery grave.

Many a soul is asleep in the deep, but Cameron's characters took a little too long to get there. I much preferred the adult love story of The Abyss. And those inquisitive sea "worms" and those nifty stingray alien "angels" held my imagination much more than the formally-attired Mr. Guggenheim's watery fate.

So, I missed the boat when it comes to loving Titanic. (And I'm definitely not looking forward to the second coming of the Irwin Allen-style disaster movie which will, no doubt, be ushered in by Cameron's ill-fated Ship's success.) But that doesn't mean that I wouldn't be happy to see a revitalized interest in deep-sea SF film.

Unfortunately, the two seafaring SF/Fantasy movies that followed Titanic into theaters do not bode well for such a trend. The first up was Deep Rising, which is actually the better of the two, if only because of its exceedingly modest ambitions.

Deep Rising is a unabashed creature feature, not unlike those dubious '50s classics like It Came From Beneath the Sea or The Attack of the Crab Monsters. Only difference is, this monster doesn't bother to come to shore. It attacks a no-name cast out over the South China Sea, on board an ultra-luxurious ocean liner on its maiden voyage.

Yes, it's chomp-the-Titanic-time. (An iceberg is way too passive.) For this flick, however, poor Architeuthis doesn't get the nod as the demon from the deep. Writer/Director Stephen Sommers instead created a hybrid fantasy monster, based, in part, on the Bell jellyfish, the vampire squid, and giant sea anemones. His grab-bag bogy is, indeed, mighty impressive. Computer animation has gotten so good, and so affordable, that even a relatively economical movie like this one can create one scary critter.

But that's about all this movie has going for it. The cast, lead by Treat Williams are game (in both senses of the word). But they don't have that much to do except for cracking an occasional wisecrack, running hither and thither, shooting off ineffectual machine-gun fire, and eventually getting gobbled by gigantic tentacle mouths that "drink" their human victims. (And this monster, like most, doesn't know when to push away from the table. It's capable of eating the entire populace of a packed cruise ship in a single sitting.)

You might wonder why a sea creature would have such a voracious and exclusive appetite for human flesh. But if you ask that kind of question of this kind of movie, you shouldn't be watching it.

Deep Rising is a dumb, old-fashioned monster movie. Silly fun for thems that like blood and gore on every wall, crunching skulls underfoot, and a relentless parade of terrified people turned into lunch by a very hungry sea-fiend. For me, that fear-flight-relief-die rhythm that this type of movie falls into, becomes tedious very quickly, indeed. Unless there are some interesting themes or challenging characters--neither of which are to be found in Deep Rising--I become bored. (Tense, grossed-out, but bored.)

I had much higher hopes for Sphere. Here was a movie that had not only name people, but quality name people attached to it. The cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson. And the director is the talented Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Rain Man). But the writers, there's where the warning lights went off. There were just too many of them. Stephen Hauser (before this big break, Levinson's assistant) and the more experienced Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco) are credited with the screenplay. And another newcomer, Kurt Wimmer, is credited with the adaptation. And they were all fiddling with one of Michael Crichton's least-impressive novels. (And that's saying a lot.)

Nonetheless, Sphere, the movie, starts out very strong. Psychologist Norman Goodman is asked to counsel some plane-crash victims. But when he arrives at the supposed crash-site, he finds that it is in the middle of the Pacific, and there is nary a "victim" in sight. Just lots of fancy military ships and closed-mouthed men.

Norman soon learns that the pursuit of a quick academic buck can come back to haunt you. An intelligence agent named Barnes (Peter Coyote) is using a report of Norman's as a "bible" for establishing contact protocols with alien lifeforms. It's flattering, but foolhardy. For Norman wrote the report solely for the promised honorarium. It is filled with fiction (borrowed from the Twilight Zone and Isaac Asimov), speculation, and a "welcome-wagon" personnel list drawn from Norman's friends and colleagues.

They include Beth Halperin (Stone), a biochemist, Harry Adams (Jackson), a mathematician, and Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber), an astrophysicist. The four scientists and Barnes are soon on their way to the depths of a Pacific, to take up temporary residence in an underwater habitat. Their mission: to enter and investigate a giant spacecraft that appears, from the coral grown up upon it, to have been on the ocean floor for almost 300 years.

Up to the point that the crew enters the mysterious craft, Sphere is a first-class movie. There is suspense, humor, and a talented cast making the most of their underwritten roles. But as soon as the crew enters the downed spaceship, the movie starts to slip away.

Levinson is good with actors and dialogue. And Sphere has plenty of chatter in it, but little of it illuminates the characters or the plot. Needless to say, inside the ship the crew finds a large sphere, gold and shimmering, that seems to have an odd effect on those who've touched (or entered) it. And, for that matter, anyone in the general neighborhood.

The concept is that this big alien bauble somehow causes the human mind to manifest its deepest fears. Sound familiar? It ought to. Think the id-amok of Forbidden Planet (1956), or the ominous ocean of Solaris (1972).

But those two superior movies recognize something that Sphere doesn't seem to get, and that is that people's greatest fears have to do with our relationships with other people. It's interpersonal angst--regret, jealousy, longing, love--that haunt our dreams, and dominate our lives. And that's with or without supernatural manifestations.

Forget about lost loves who committed suicide (as in Solaris), the crew of Sphere seems to manifest sea creatures (and other calamities) that mostly kill people they don't even know. For example, early on, a school of jellyfish--unlike any on earth--attack and kill one of the habitat's two person crew, played by Queen Latifah. Exactly who manifested these creatures, and why they sicced them on a perfectly nice crewwoman, is never explained. And neither is much of anything else.

In a scene like the jellyfish swarming, Sphere acts like an unimaginative horror film. (You know, the kind where if you're a racial or ethnic minority, and not a big star, the monster is sure to dispatch you in the first reel.) But Levinson isn't particularly good at standard horror. In another terror scene, the traditional giant squid comes to call. But we never even see this particular killer calimari, except as some grainy blips on a sonar screen. Big terror, that.

And, as crucial as the sphere itself is supposed to be, a big shiny ball doesn't have much personality as a demon force. It doesn't help that we never get to see inside of it, or get a clue as to what it is, or why it is here. It's lonely, we learn. (It's been buried in the ocean for almost 300 years.) And it's overjoyed at the chance to chat, via a habitat monitor, with new friends. But if it's so happy to have new playmates, why does it do a cheap impersonation of HAL and send messages like "I Will Kill You All" to the crew? And, since it flies away in the end, why did it passively stay in the deep, all alone, for so long?

I was utterly confused by the end of Sphere. And equally dispirited. Sphere should have been so much better. It's production design is excellent. It's special effects are impressive without being showy. This project had all the resources to make a fine film, and it squandered them all, for want of a cogent screenplay.

At the end of Sphere the surviving leads hold hands in a little energy circle, and will themselves into forgetting what they had just seen. I wish those of us in the audience could have done the same. And while we were at it, we could have used our powers to summon forth a fantasy/SF film that honors the mystery and majesty of kraken's world.

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