Thursday, June 28, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #5: The Abyss b/w Reach

Max’s Grade: 78 (B+)
Loren’s Grade: B+

Loren Greenblatt: We just saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Underwater Edition.

MO: That’s a fairly accurate description of The Abyss. Cameron’s films all have Spielberg influences, but this is his most overtly Spielbergy movie.

LG: Spielbergy?

MO: Spielbergy is a word. I’m coining it here.

LG: Alright, Joss Whedon. Let’s talk a little bit about where this film came from: this was a passion project for Cameron. He came up with a short story when he was about 17, kept it on his mind, and after the success of Aliens he finally had a chance to make it. It combines his love of extraterrestrial life and, most of all, his love of the ocean. The man is an aquaphile.

MO: Insert Simpsons-Troy McClure joke here.

LG: He loves the ocean, so this is the perfect film for him. It takes place in an underwater drilling rig run by blue collar oil workers (trope!), and there’s a crashed nuclear submarine (trope!), and the oil workers are hired for salvage and to find survivors.

MO: They’re led by Virgil “Bud” Brigman, played by Ed Harris in a great performance as the blue collar hero, and his wife, chief engineer Lindsay, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, who’s most famous for playing Tony Montana’s sister in Scarface and for her Oscar-nominated role in The Color of Money as Tom Cruise’s girlfriend.

LG: Sadly, I don't think she did much after this.

MO: It’s too bad, she’s very good in everything I’ve seen her in, but like a number of Hollywood actresses she disappeared as she got older.

LG: And she has a Sigourney Weaver-esque edge to her, but not quite as tough.

MO: It’s more overtly cerebral, but she’s also filled with a great deal of humanity and compassion, and there’s a Spielbergian desire to understand our so-called boogeymen in her character. The aliens that they find underwater, which could be scary, aren’t frightening to her. She wants to understand what they are, how they work, and why they’re there. She recognizes a shared intellectual curiosity they have.

LG: I think the key line is “you have to look at the world with the right kind of eyes”.

MO: It’s a corny line, but it does encapsulate the heart of the film very well.

LG: I’m not quite sure if they’re aliens, though. They call them NTIs, or non-terrestrial intelligence.

MO: But we get the idea that they’re not from around here. They could be aliens. I thought they were.

LG: I took it that they were an intelligent race that lived underwater, which is entirely possible.

MO: It is, and it’s left open, which is something I really like about this film.

LG: We see them throughout the film, but we don’t really get to them until the end, and Cameron has a lot to get through before then. There’s a number of Navy SEALS who accompany the oil workers underwater, led by Michae Biehn as Lt. Coffey.

MO: He’s a gung-ho jarhead who, like a number of military men in Cameron’s films, doesn’t have much interest in understanding his foes. He lacks the empathy of the scientists.

LG: And you know he’s the bad guy because he has a moustache and he wears black.

MO: He’s also suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome, where he’s underwater and he starts to shake and lose his grip on reality underwater and grows more paranoid.

LG: In Futurama terms, he’s got ocean madness.

MO: It doesn’t help that we’re at the tail end of the Cold War and he’s already paranoid about Russians. It’s 1989, so this is right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed.

LG: We watched the Special Edition, which is very important to mention, because they’re very different films. In this version, there’s a Cuban Missile Crisis type situation going on. The aliens are underwater, the military is suspicious, so Michael Biehn gets the ominous order to “go to phase 2”, which is never good in a movie. Biehn arms a nuclear warhead from the submarine and brings it back to the base. At the same time, there’s a hurricane that causes an accident, and it traps the rig underwater and cuts them off from the surface.

MO: It’s one of the many Cameron films that establishes a very tight timetable for the characters to work in.

LG: Like in Aliens, which also had them cut off from their ship.

MO: Now Cameron has to establish a lot of characters and make us like them, since we’re going to spend three hours with them. By and large, they’re pretty good. There’s a rough blue collar character named Catfish who’s a lot of fun, there’s an African-American woman named One Night who’s great. Really the only one who doesn’t work is Hippy, the rat guy.

LG: His gimmick is that he has a rat as a pet. I found him, at a screenwriting level, too gimmicky. A lot of these characters have their gimmicks: One Night is a black country-music girl, and that’s pretty good. There’s a fun scene where they sing a country song, “Willing” by Linda Ronstadt, as they travel to the sub, and that’s pretty great. Hippy is too self-conscious though.

MO: It might have worked with a more talented actor, but Tod Graff really overplays the twitchiness. The only other thing I know he ever did was direct this proto-Glee movie called Camp, which, other than an early performance from Anna Kendrick, is completely intolerable.

LG: Oh, yeah, he’s a conspiracy theorist and all that. It’s too much. Now, this is a very important film stylistically for Cameron. Apart from having his pet themes, it’s the first of his films with a really hard-edged blue look that he’s known for.

MO: Well, Aliens has a lot of it, but not to this extent. We joked about a part where a frustrated Ed Harris throws his wedding ring into the toilet, changes his mind, and has to delve into the blue goop that’s in the toilet to find it. Throughout the rest of his movie, his hand is still blue. We noticed that forty minutes from the end his hand was still blue. It’s funny.

LG: His hands are blue, his balls are blue, everything’s blue in this movie.

MO: Both above and underwater.

LG: It’s also his first PG-13 film, which he acquits himself well with. There’s a couple of fight scenes between Michael Biehn and Ed Harris, and they’re all great. He manages to keep them fairly brutal with the sound design and lighting, despite the lesser rating. There’s a scene where there’s a swinging light between them that helps keep the scene dynamic when it could have been really standard. Cameron’s really good at taking little scenes and finding a way to pump them up.

MO: The lead-up to that scene is ever better, when Ed Harris has to swim his way into where Michael Biehn is because the doors are locked and Biehn is arming a warhead, and he comes into the pool area (and this is below-freezing water, mind you), and he has to come up to Biehn without making any noise. He’s dripping wet around a pool of water, so this is very difficult.

LG: I love that he messes it up, too. He gets there, and he has a pipe, and all he has to do is swing, but he goes for the man’s gun. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed sometimes, and that’s mentioned throughout.

MO: They manage to do it without making it out-of-character or comically stupid. It’s the kind of mistake we all might make. It’s not painfully boneheaded.

LG: He’s not suddenly dumb for the convenience of the screenplay. What really drives the film is the tension between Harris and Mastrontonio, his estranged wife. She oversees the process, but she’s also in the process of divorcing him. It’s a very standard movie thing, Twister had the same plot going on.

MO: Was probably influenced by it, honestly.

LG: But the caliber of the performances and direction makes it work well enough. We should talk about the set-pieces. You called the crane sequence one of his best set-pieces, so you should talk about it.

MO: There’s an incredible set-piece near the end of the first act. The storm is brewing, it pushes the crane on the oil rig, which is connected to the oxygen, heat, and power for the underwater part of the rig. It collapses during the storm and falls underwater, narrowly misses them, and narrowly misses landing in a the gigantic underwater trench, which would pull them under because they’re attached by a cable. And then it slips into the trench, and everything goes to hell. There are leaks in the ship, several crew members drown in some absolutely horrifying scenes, and there’s a race to survive as several compartments fill with water.

LG: It’s a harrowing scene, and what Cameron does well is establish a mood of desperation. There’s a scene much later in the film where one character almost drowns, and they try to revive her. Cameron milks it for a long time…

MO: It’s like the Toy Story 3 ending, where they milk it as long as possible to give the sense that the worst will happen.

LG: And the film starts off a little slow but gets better and better as it goes along.

MO: It’s one of his most deliberately paced films, without a doubt.

LG: It’s not like Aliens or Terminator 2, where every scene has eight things going on, and everything moves the plot forward. It takes its time, and that’s just fine.

MO: There’s a slow-burning claustrophobic feel.

LG: There was a point in the film where I stopped thinking about the special effects, because it all looked real. In fact, there are submarine chases here, and they weren’t done with models. These are real submarines. They built the world’s biggest water tank and filmed it there, and if you’re into spectacle, it’s really cool.

MO: Better than even Aliens, we get a great sense of how everything works: what this gadget does, what this doohickey does, what the machines can’t do. Cameron is so tapped into technology that we get a sense he’s not fudging any details. There’s too much specificity.

LG: At the end of the film, we have one of the greatest sequences Cameron has ever done where Bud has to use liquid oxygen (which is a real thing for really deep dives). Ed Harris has to dive into the trench to disarm a nuclear bomb, and his descent is a tense sequence that Hitchcock would be proud of.

MO: Earlier scenes are like a warm-up for the drowning scenes in Titanic, but this thing is like a free-floating space bit, but underwater, and if something goes wrong, you’re done. He can’t speak because of the liquid oxygen, he can only communicate with a keyboard, and the pressure is so intense that it causes him to lose it. What’s great is that when he finally reaches the bottom and has to disarm the warhead, he’s told that he has to cut the blue wire with the white stripe, not the black wire with the yellow stripe.

LG: But his only flare is green, and the wires look identical by that light. By the way, it’s the only green light in his films I can think of, it struck me as a del Toro light…although he wasn’t active at the time.

MO: Well, del Toro has cited Cameron as an influence.

LG: I think any action director would be wise to cite Cameron: del Toro, Nolan, Jackson…

MO: While the film is slower than his other films, his big set-pieces have that feeling of kinetecism to them: the oil-rig collapse, the fight, the submarine chase. But that last one is just a slow, dragged out bit of tension.

LG: We should talk a bit about how the film works tonally. It’s a little bit all over the place. There’s this bit where you see these aliens every once in a while. They’re these big, shiny, bioluminescent sea creatures, and they’re absolutely gorgeous…

MO: Early Industrial Light and Magic work that’s a precursor to Terminator 2.

LG: Including a water-tentacle that’s a prototype for the liquid metal android. But we see these aliens, and Alan Silvestri’s score is doing this very John Williams-esque thing that makes it all feel like it’s a bit like Close Encounters, what with the wonder and awe.

MO: It’s warm and fuzzy.

LG: But we get some other dark, desperate scenes for the nuclear war bits, and we feel like we’re being tugged back and forth between two extremes. It’s not bad, but it’s sometimes a little unbalanced. It’s a total 180.

MO: He handles both tones well, but the transitions are a little shaky.

LG: But it’s still a relentlessly fascinating film, even if it isn’t an edge-of-your-seat classic.

MO: It’s also the first film of his with a large amount of clunker lines. “Do you hear me, Roger Ram Jet?”

LG: Oh, yeah...

MO: What the hell was that?

LG: Lindsay calls Biehn that for some reason, I don’t know why…

MO: Well she’s making fun of him…

LG: But it’s a “yippie-kay-yay Mr. Falcon” moment. It is his first PG-13 film, maybe he tried to censor himself.

MO: It might be. And there’s some great funny lines: “Raise your hands if you think that was a Russian water-tentacle”, because they keep mocking Biehn for thinking the Russians are responsible for the alien activity.

LG: And Ed Harris keeps repeating “keep your pantyhose on”…

MO: That one didn’t work for me.

LG: Eh, I think it works OK, but it’s overused.

MO: And there’s a corny line when Harris goes down. Mastrontonio tells this story to keep him lucid…

LG: It’s a good story. You get the feeling it might have actually happened to Cameron.

MO: It’s a good story that was unfortunately cut from the theatrical version, although it absolutely should be there, but one line, “there are two candles in the dark”, that’s corny, but Mastontonio sells it.

LG: Also the juxtaposition of him going down into the darkness is a wonderful mental image with it.

MO: If Cameron didn’t direct it and Mastontonio didn’t act it as well, it’d thud. But it works overall…what did you think of Ed Harris screaming “NOOOOOOO!” into the camera?

LG: Uh…

MO: It’s fun…

LG: It’s like Avatar, where the tree is destroyed, Cameron milks the tragedy a little too much. A little in Titanic as well. He does this, it’s one of his more emotional movies ,and he gets carried away sometimes.

MO: In some way, though, it’s his most ambitious movie. The way he’s juxtaposing earnest messages with bigger than life emotion and technology and action sequences and his love for underwater stuff...it’s not an ordinary blockbuster. By all accounts, this should not have been made in Hollywood. I really appreciate it.

LG: You needed Cameron to make something successful first before he could get away with this. We’ve got Christopher Nolan for that now, though much as I love Nolan I don’t think his films are as dense as Cameron’s.

MO: I think he’ll get there, but yes.

LG: More stylistic tropes: we’ve got more slow-motion…

MO: And his love of using smoke and fire in some sequences. He makes great use of bright lights and shadows. He frames a lot of these alien creatures like he did with the alien queen or terminator, where they overwhelm the frame, only now it’s filled with wonder and awe rather than terror.

LG: It’s a benevolent creature. It’s the darker version of Close Encounters…though not as good.

MO: Well how could it be. Like a lot of Spielberg and Cameron films, there’s a sense of untrustworthy authority in Biehn’s character. Biehn really nails this. I think it’s his best performance. They do a good job of making his villain’s motivations clearer than, say, Stephen Lang’s character in Avatar.

LG: They’re both a little cartoonishly evil, but there’s a line that almost justifies his behavior. When the water tentacle sees the nuclear warhead, he notes that “it went straight for the warhead, and they think it’s cute!” Obviously he’s wrong, but you can understand his argument.

MO: It’s handled pretty well.

LG: Funny you mention Spielberg, since he worked with Michael Crichton on Jurassic Park. If Cameron were ever to adapt a book, I think it would be a Crichton-esque thing. I’m surprised he and Crichton never did anything together, because Crichton actually wrote a book called Sphere that’s similar to this from what I remember. There’s a deep underwater dive as a spaceship crashes in the ocean. It was adapted into a very little-loved movie in the 90s. But Cameron and Crichton have a shared love of technology and adventure. When you read a Crichton book, it’s like watching a Cameron movie where everything feels well-researched and thought out.

MO: It’s like with Cameron, even if it’s gobbledygook and mumbo jumbo, it’s really intricate and detailed.

LG: It’s real mumbo jumbo.

MO: Some other influences: Cameron has that same Kubrick/Ridley Scott interest in what makes us human. In this case it’s the ability to feel empathy and form emotional connections with each other.

LG: Which Cameron doesn’t handle as well at the end.

MO: But the relationship between Harris and Mastrontonio is great before that.

LG: Now, SPOILER ALERT, at the end it looks like Ed Harris is going to drown, and these underwater creatures rescue him.

MO: In the theatrical version, they rescue him, basically say “hi”, and note the final words he gave to his wife before it looked like he was going to die (“I love you”, basically). Then they bring them back together. It’s a bit anticlimactic, but it works better than what we get in the Special Edition. All of the other additions are great, but the ending in this version…well…it hits with a thud.

LG: In the extended version…it’s very sci-fi cliché…

MO: It’s like The Day the Earth Stood Still, but terrible.

LG: They’ve been watching us for years, it’s in our nature to destroy ourselves, and they’re going to use they’re ability to control water to send thousand-foot tidal waves to destroy humanity. They stop them at the edge. Cameron’s solution to the Cold War is another Cold War. Humans will behave because they’re scared the aliens will destroy them. We’re asked to believe that the creatures are benevolent, and then they almost commit genocide.

MO: For the rest of the movie, there’s an idea of tolerance, shared intellectual curiosity, and understanding our ostensible “boogeymen”. It’s very Close Encounters/E.T., and then they turn into monsters…and it’s handled in the preachiest way possible.

LG: There’s actually a line that says “I guess we have some growing up to do”. And then an oil rig guy turns to the military man and says “guess you’re out of a job now”.

MO: Oh, it’s bad. It’s painful.

LG: It’s one of those things where, as a critic, you really like the film, and then you feel your letter grade dropping.

MO: I feel this is one of the most flawed great (or near-great) movies ever made. It’s stunningly ambitious, you’ll never see anything quite like it again, it’s intensely personal, and it shows Cameron’s interest in putting social awareness in his films in a more pronounced way. He does that best when he filters it through a genre movie like the Terminator movies, and worse when it’s over like the ending of The Abyss and all of Avatar, where it’s painfully earnest and simplistic. Terminator 2 straddles the line of being preachy and being OK, but it does it better than this.

LG: War is bad, people!

MO: It works better here than in Avatar because the characters are better fleshed-out, but the ending hits with a real thud.

LG: Now I’d recommend this. You’ll never see another movie like this with real submarine chases again. It’s too easy to do it with CGI, and it wasn’t practical for Cameron to do it at all. People almost died, actually.

MO: Ed Harris almost drowned, he broke down sobbing at one point, Mastontonio walked off the set in anger after Cameron told the cast to relieve themselves in their wetsuits rather than change in order to save time. The great Orson Scott Card of Ender’s Game fame did the novelization, and while he said he worked with Cameron just fine, the way he treated the cast was inexcusable. This was, except maybe for Titanic, his most arduous shoot.

LG: When you almost kill your star, that’s not good.

MO: And his producer at the time, Gale Anne Hurd, who had worked with him on The Terminator, Aliens, and was also married to him at the time, but this film ended their marriage and their professional relationship. This is where we first hear how much of a tyrant he was on set, more than his “I disagreed with the crew” bits on Aliens.

LG: He is known as a demanding, strict man. That’s not entirely bad, you should be dedicated to your craft. I don’t think you reach this level without being dedicated. But some people get here without this cost.

MO: He based Mastrontonio character off of Hurd, and yet it ended their marriage.

LG: Worth noting that the heroes are about to get divorced in the film.

LG: I recommend this film: it’s three hours long, and it’s flawed, but it’s worth it. I give it a B+.

MO: That’s what I give it as well. The theatrical would get a B. It’s not bad, but the relationships aren’t as fleshed out, and while the ending isn’t a total thud, it’s anticlimactic. The Special Edition, while flawed, is so fascinating and ambitious that I highly recommend it.

LG: Visual spectacle more than anything else, good as the character relationships are. No one does it like Cameron, and we’ll never see anything like this again.

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Max’s  Reach Grade: 59 (B-)
Loren’s Reach Grade: B-

LG: Now between Aliens and The Abyss, James Cameron directed a little music video…

MO: REACH!

LG: Yes, it’s a music video for a song called “Reach” by Martini Ranch, which was a musical collaboration between Bill Paxton and some other guy (Andrew Todd Rosenthal, but neither of us has ever heard of him).

MO: Yeah, it’s Bill Paxton’s band. That’s the only reason Cameron directed this thing, I think. He agreed to do it so long as he had no contact with the record label. It has a budget of $90,000, which sounds like a sizable budget for an 8-minute video.

LG: There’s a lot of sets and whatnot…

MO: It looks great, and you can tell Cameron directed it. The song itself is pretty mediocre, though. Wikipedia compared Martini Ranch to something Devo might do, which…

LG: No.

MO: Yeah, no.

LG: Devo’s too intricate, self-aware and intelligent to do a song like this.

MO: Yeah, no offense, Bill Paxton. We like you.

LG: But don’t quit your day job.

MO: Yeah, this is not very good. But the video is interesting. It has a very long introduction.

LG: Longest I’ve ever seen.

MO: Bill Paxton is an outlaw biker in a post-apocalyptic western future.

LG: Basically, James Cameron invented Firefly.

MO: Though…Joss Whedon’s a Cameron fan, but I can’t imagine he actually saw this.

LG: No, probably not.

MO: I don’t think anyone saw this. I had never heard of it before Loren brought it up. We found it on DailyMotion, and I had never heard of the band or anything about this. The design of the video is very interesting: Paxton is clad in biker gear that looks like a cross between the way he looked in Near Dark and the way Arnold looked in Terminator 2.

LG: There’s a lot of leather in this film. There’s a brothel with women wearing leather…which is an odd thing. He’s usually a feminist director, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect this from him, this objectification.

MO: Well, he might just be portraying a time period or something. It seems like an oppressive environment. Plus, the hero is a woman. In fact…

LG: The hero is Cameron’s future-wife Kathryn Bigelow, who is gorgeous.

MO: Who’s still gorgeous. She’s sixty years old and you’d never guess it. She looks forty.

LG: But in this she’s much younger.

MO: But aside from that, she’s a great filmmaker. The year before Reach, she made Near Dark, which is the quintessential vampire movie as far as I’m concerned. She made Point Break, the goofy/wonderful action movie with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze…

LG: Which was produced by James Cameron…

MO: She made Strange Days, a sci-fi film we both like a lot…

LG: Which was written by James Cameron, though we’re not going to cover it here.

MO: And most recently she became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director when she won for The Hurt Locker. It’s funny cause she actually beat her now ex-husband Cameron when he was nominated for Avatar. She also has a new film this year, Zero Dark Thirty, the “killing Osama bin Laden” movie.

LG: Perfect timing on that: bin Laden was killed days before she announced she was making it, so it got plenty of momentum.

MO: But as for Reach…

LG: Long intro, Paxton comes up to the town and terrorizes it, and a gang of women trying to catch him (led by Bigelow) that come into town wearing Sergio Leone dusters. And as if there was any doubt that Leone influenced this, the song liberally samples The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’s score.

MO: Plus there’s images that look like they’re straight out of A Fistful of Dollars, what with the people building coffins. The film’s look is very distinctive and interesting. I wish it were just an 8-minute short, because the song is not very good.

LG: Whoever Bill Paxton’s bandmate is, I’m sure he’s behind a fast-food counter telling everyone “I once had a band with Bill Paxton, and we had a video directed by James Cameron”.

MO: And everyone responds: “…sure….”

LG: That may not be true, he might be doing something else very successfully.

MO: But we can’t remember the song ten minutes after the fact, other than them yelling “REACH!”

LG: And it always cuts to close-up of Bill Paxton, wide-angle lens, yelling it.

MO: Right out of something like Near Dark, where he’s that very imposing figure.

LG: And there’s some Near Dark actors and Cameron regulars in here.

MO: Well, there’s Lance Henrikson and Jeannette Goldstein.

LG: There’s not a lot to talk about with this film, so let’s just name some shots we liked. I like the shot of a mariachi band being dragged behind a truck, and they’re all playing.

MO: I like the close-ups on Paxton snarling “Guess this ain’t your lucky day!”

LG: So, I suppose I give this thing a general B-.

MO: B+ for the video, C for the song, B- overall.

LG: Basically: it’s a thing, it’s on the internet, it’s free. If you want to check it out…fine. We’re not gonna stop you.

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