Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Soppy Cinema: ENDLESS DESCENT (aka THE RIFT; 1990)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water.  For reasons only known to coke-addled Hollywood execs, underwater monster movies became a craze in the late 80s.  “It’s like JAWS but totally underwater,” I can hear them saying.  Studios flooded (ah, boo yourself) the market and within the first six months of 1989 audiences got big-budget titles like THE ABYSS, DEEPSTAR SIX and LEVIATHAN.  That’s enough to give you a bad case of the bends.  The indies tried to stay afloat and gave us titles such as THE EVIL BELOW and LORDS OF THE DEEP (both 1989 as well).  Naturally, an enterprising exploiter like Juan Piquer Simon was more than happy to sail in their wake and gave us ENDLESS DESCENT (aka THE RIFT) the following year.

E.D. (hey, that don’t sound right) opens with sub designer Wick Hayes (Jack Scalia, in Kip Winger hair) being told by Steensland (Edmund Purdom, in a one-scene role) that Siren-1, his pet project the Government took out of his hands, has gone missing 35,000ft under the sea.  They ask him to help a NATO rescue team, but Wick wants none of it until he is told that “Mark Massey was on board.”  Damn, we all know how important Mark Massey is, right?  So he reluctantly agrees to join the team.

"This sub's only seventeeeeeen!"
Leading this rescue operation on Siren-2 is Capt. Phillips (R. Lee Ermey, radically cast against type as a gruff military guy).  Other crew members includes some Swedish divers with French accents, a Trapper John look-a-like M.D., a cook (yes, they have a mess hall), token black guy “Skeets” (who says “Aw, man” or “Damn” every other line), computer geek Robbins (Ray Wise) and – wouldn’t you know it – Wick’s soon to be ex-wife Nina (Deborah Adair).  Heading to Siren-1’s last known location, the crew gets a SOS signal and dives to the region.  Once there they discover unheard of plant growth in the area (“I could open a sushi bar and retire a millionaire,” chimes the cook).  Sven goes diving (in the film’s only underwater scene; more on that later) and is killed by something.  The sub is then attacked by some big ass octopus (I think that is what it was), which Wick is smart enough to shock off the damaged vessel before he lands it on shelf.

Such terror would send me for the surface, but these are dedicated movie characters so they continue to the SOS signal.  In one of underwater moviedom’s biggest cheats ever, they discover a “naturally pressurized subterraneous cavern” and the expendable crew members get off the sub here to explore the cheap sets, er, caves.  To their surprise, they find some labs set up and the SOS sender long dead.  Wick grabs some data discs just before everyone is attacked by some slimy mutant creatures that stand no match for the crew’s highly pressurized special guns.  Back on Siren-2, they watch the discs and find out the Government was conducting genetic experiments down here.  Yeah, you read that right.  The U.S. Government decided the best place to set up their huge DNA mutating machine was in a cave 35,000ft deep in the ocean.  So what was the real reason the crew was sent here and who set them up?

Running a scant 79 minutes, you can’t ever fault ENDLESS DESCENT with being boring.  In fact, this plays like THE ABYSS mixed with ALIENS on fast forward; the sub drama comes from the former with the monster chase and slimy double crosser guy from the latter.  Of course, Simon knows he can’t possibly compete with these Cameron big budgets so he does the next best thing – he makes it goofy and gory.  Any monster that get blow’d up with be done in gooey fashion and there is plenty of that in that last half hour.  The same goes for humans.  When one guy gets infected, he asks a crew member to kill him and she complies by blowing his entire head off.  Uh, thanks?  The film is definitely cheap (ever see a sub interior with ceiling tiles?), but that lends a certain charm.  The leads (Scalia, Ermey, Wise) are all good in their roles, even if Simon completely refuses to get imaginative in the camera department (point and shoot territory here).  While not the worst waterlogged feature from that era (that would be LORDS OF THE DEEP), it is definitely worth a view if you are in the right mood.  You know, the kind of mood where you accept a person will see mutated seaweed and automatically touch it or where Jack Scalia – feathered hair and all – designing submarines for a living isn’t that farfetched.  Just make sure you don’t get the bends on your way back to the surface.

Ray Wise reacts to the script.

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