Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Rift (1990)

I’ve never been diagnosed as such, but I maintain that I’m actually quite claustrophobic.  I mean, I can stand in something the size of a closet or somesuch for an amount of time (the reasons for doing so don’t matter here), but once the boundaries of a space actually touch my body, I tend to panic.  I’ve been at the bottom of dog piles and felt the overwhelming urge to get out from underneath them (I think that one is more from the feeling of being crushed than anything else).  But there’s something about the idea of being stuck in a confined area in which you can’t move that sends my mind into the stratosphere.  I don’t hyperventilate or have an emotional breakdown in such situations (and let me be clear, it’s not a situation I’ve been in often).  I do, however, slip into desperation mode, and will do damned near anything short of chopping off a limb to extricate myself (of course, I’ve also never been given the option of chopping off a limb, so I can’t honestly say whether I’d give it consideration).  This is why I couldn’t work and/or live on a submarine.  I’ve toured a couple of decommissioned ones, and seeing the amount of space in which people had to exist, the reality of literally living on top of your shipmates, put the nail in the coffin of that career path for me.  Were I given the chance to go on a sub like the Siren II from Juan Piquer Simón’s The Rift (aka Endless Descent), my attitude might change.  Might.  Slightly.  The Siren II is one of the most spacious submarines I’ve ever seen this side of The Seaview from Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s still an underwater casket (in more ways than one).

Submarine designer Wick Hayes (Jack Scalia) is carted off to Norway, because his baby, the Siren I, experienced a problem, leaving it at the bottom of an undersea rift.  Joining the crew of the Siren II, which includes Captain Phillips (R. Lee Ermey), biologist (and Wick’s ex-wife, coincidentally enough) Lieutenant Nina Crawley (Deborah Adair), and PC specialist Robbins (Ray Wise), Wick heads down into the abyss (get it?) and encounters far more than just a busted submarine.

I have to believe that the filmmakers behind this opus are big fans of John Carpenter.  How else do you explain a shady federal agent named Plissken?  There’s also Skeets (John Toles-Bey), the sassy black crew member who reminded me of Nauls from The Thing.  Speaking of that film, there’s also the idea of a lifeform infecting and transforming its victims (though here simply to kill them rather than duplicate them), and it all happens with a small crew of professional people in a remote location from which there is no escape.  Carpenter isn’t the only source from which Simón borrows.  There is the reconciliation subplot between Wick and Nina (shades of James Cameron’s The Abyss).  There is the undersea beastie aspect of films like Deepstar Six and Leviathan.  There is the giant jellyfish-thing enveloping the submarine, and the crew electrifying the hull to turn it away that was used in so very many episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (not to mention the multitude of other creatures the crew encounter throughout the film).  Also from that series is the element of a secret saboteur in the service of some unscrupulous government (in this case American rather than Soviet) aboard the craft (but if you don’t realize that it’s Wise from the minute you lay eyes on him and/or just see his name in the cast, then you’ve likely never seen a film featuring Ray Wise).  It’s been said, and I believe it to be true, that all filmmakers, artists, and so on borrow and/or lift wholesale things from other filmmakers, artists, and so on.  This is nothing new, but usually there is some stamp from the borrower making such references their own.  Simón’s film wears its references right on its sleeve, and they largely play solely at face value.  There’s nothing to distinguish these citations from the originals outside of the production values and the actors involved.  Still, they come close to forming a whole, and like watching an amateur impressionist whip out his Christopher Walken imitation, they’re moderately entertaining as much for what they get wrong as what they get right.

The rift of the title refers to a few things in the film, outside of the obvious underwater crevasse.  There is the rift between Wick and the government for which he once designed.  Wick is anti-war, and, naturally, the government installed all manner of nuclear weapons systems on his precious submarine.  Plus, they’re duplicitous, lying bastards, as they always are (“He bought it”).  There is the rift between Wick and Nina.  She only wants contact with Wick through their lawyers.  He tells her to stop acting like “a spoiled schoolgirl.”  At no point does any of this relationship develop or evolve until it’s necessary to give the audience a happy ending.  This shocked me a little, because the situation is readymade for dramatic tension (just add water, so to speak).  Alas…  There is the rift between the Siren II’s crew and Wick.  Most of them blame him for the incident on the Siren I, though Wick blames the ill-advised (and bellicose, more importantly) modifications made to his design.  Phillips doesn’t like Wick overmuch, because Wick is independent and non-regulation military.  None of this goes anywhere either, until it’s time for Wick to think outside the box and save everyone’s bacon with his individualistic actions.  

Notice how all of these revolve around Wick.  Every character, every plot point, every scene exists solely to serve Wick, the independent everyman.  Sure, he designs and builds state of the art watercraft, but he has long hair, he lives in a modest home, and he’s a slob (more or less).  We’re supposed to identify with him on some level.  I suppose you can up to a point, but that point is pretty far down on the spectrum of audience identification.  Wick is more than an everyman hero (think Doug McClure in something like Humanoids from the Deep as a point of reference).  He is a super-everyman.  Despite the scant aspects of his character that an audience recognizes in themselves, there is far more that elevates him above mere mortals, and it’s not as if Scalia does modesty all that well, regardless.  As a result, I feel that The Rift works better on its exploitable elements (in this instance, some gore/gross-out effects and monsters) than it does on its human elements.  So, if you can make it through the clichés, the non-drama, and the banality enwrapping the characters, you’ll at least be rewarded a tiny amount with some icky, goopy, sanguinary moments.

MVT:  The effects shine as much as they can on a $1.3-million-dollar budget.  I was also surprised at how graphic some of them were.

Make or Break:  With the above being said, the Make is the first scene of the crew exploring the cavern where the monsters dwell.  It’s tough to not like it, especially if monsters are your bag.

Score:  6/10

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