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Send All of Hollywood to the Bottom of the Sea

Movies set below the surface can be just as awe-inspiring as those based in space. One writer’s plea: set more films underwater.

20th Century Fox/Entertainment Studios/Hollywood Pictures/Ringer illustration

Can I confide in you, reader of my blogs? I have spent an unhealthy amount of time thinking and reading about The Abyss. This probably strikes you as odd, seeing as it’s hardly the first film that comes to mind from director James Cameron, whose career highlights include mammoth hits like Titanic, Aliens, The Terminator, and Avatar. But having learned what happened on the set of The Abyss, I’ve gotten sucked into a rip current of schadenfreude. Dive in with me.

First, there’s the strange series of events when Cameron and then-wife Gale Anne Hurd, a producer on the film, separated and later divorced during the movie’s production process. This is worth noting because the film’s two main characters, played by Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, are going through a divorce of their own; Cameron says he wrote the script years before his divorce and the whole situation was a bizarre case of life imitating art. Still: weird.

Second: Cameron insisted that all the movie’s underwater scenes be shot in giant tanks—to save time and avoid leaving the water, everyone was encouraged to urinate in their wetsuits. Harris almost drowned, and it’s rumored that he punched Cameron in the face for filming through his near-death experience. Chlorine burned some of the divers’ skin. At one point, Mastrantonio reportedly shouted, “We are not animals!” at Cameron before storming off the set, and Harris considered refusing to promote the movie. (He ultimately did support the film.) Michael Biehn, who played a Navy SEAL experiencing high-pressure nervous syndrome, described a harrowing moment when the underwater set lost power and he was floating around in a pitch-black tank. “It took 90 seconds of panic before I realized I was carrying a prop flashlight and turned it on and everybody gathered around the light,” he told The New York Times in 1989.

Jesus. I can only assume Cameron has manifested in the cast and crew’s dreams looking like Colonel Kurtz in a wetsuit. A heightened, dramatized version of The Abyss’s production would itself be a really inspired horror movie: a diabolical director putting his actors’ lives at risk at the cost of making great art. (Can I copyright this?)

But the irony is that Cameron didn’t set out to make a horror movie—the mysterious alien creatures our protagonists encounter in The Abyss are revealed to be benevolent. It’s less Jaws, more Close Encounters of the Third Kind under the sea; the closest thing to a villain is Biehn’s unstable Navy SEAL. Cameron has claimed that his filmmaking career is just a way to make money to fund his true passion: deep-sea expeditions. So it’d make sense that his movies would also aim to present his admiration of our oceans’ scope and beauty. Now, that’s this real-life Ocean Master’s prerogative. But almost everyone else would surmise that the ocean is absolutely terrifying, for all the reasons Cameron seems obsessed with it.

The rest of Hollywood has been on the “open water = scary AF” wavelength. The same year The Abyss came out, we got Leviathan and DeepStar Six—two films that also contend with underwater creatures that, instead of wanting to become Ed Harris’s oceanic Lyft, are hell-bent on having a human buffet. Both of these films contain some gnarly deaths, but neither of them is very good, and they didn’t perform well at the box office. The Abyss grossed less than $100 million—a rare Cameron commercial misfire—and within the calendar year, the underwater subgenre was dead in the water. (Please, dunk my head in a bathtub for that pun.)

Thankfully, we’ve been getting a bit of an underwater-horror renaissance in the past few years. 47 Meters Down—and to a lesser extent, its cave-centric sequel Uncaged—was a deliciously simple premise/anti-shark-cage-diving PSA that made flashing a light at a bunch of pitch-black water where great white sharks are definitely lurking as nerve-wracking as any slasher flick. Crawl turned the inconvenience of a house flooding during a hurricane into an alligator-infested nightmare. (That’s very shallow water, sure, but we’ll allow it!) And now, on Friday, there’s the very literally titled Underwater, in which Kristen Stewart is—are you ready for this?—a mechanical engineer on a deep-sea drilling operation in the Mariana Trench under attack by aquatic monsters that look like they came out of an H.R. Giger sketchbook.

Underwater is incredible. At no point in the film is there a scene that isn’t set 7 miles below the surface. It is peak underwater content and a blatant Ridley Scott pastiche; the only way the production must’ve avoided Alien copyright infringement was by resisting the urge to name Stewart’s character Ripley. To be clear, I can’t, in good conscience, say that Underwater is a great movie, but I’d tend to grade anything released in Dumpuary on a curve, anyway. And given my affinity for any project that chooses to get wet, even “Alien but it’s the ocean” gets the stamp of approval. Underwater might not be Rotten Tomatoes fresh, but it’s scuba-certified in my heart.

Ideally, this type of film could revitalize the public’s interest in a niche kind of aquatic horror: the creature feature under the sea. Hollywood is nothing if not a sucker for trends—and we could do much worse than seeing what comes of having more movies set underwater. Unfortunately, as the movie’s January release date implies, Underwater is being—sorry—tossed out to sea. The film’s been in stasis ever since production finished in 2017 (this also might explain why disgraced comedian T.J. Miller has such a prominent role: Underwater was filmed before December 2017, when a woman said that Miller punched and sexually assaulted her while the two were in college). The film is projected to gross less than $10 million in its opening weekend—such is the plight of sharing the weekend with the wide release of a film (1917) that just won a couple of Golden Globes.

But the financial failures of a movie like Underwater shouldn’t take away from what’s enticing about the basic conceits of underwater movies. To quote my colleague Chris Ryan, the sea is dope! We know more about what’s lurking in outer space than we do about what is within our oceans—this is the sort of intrigue that should spawn a cottage industry of creepy underwater movies. Give me more submarines in distress. Let’s see more deep-sea research facilities funded by mysterious billionaires with questionable motives. Green-light The Meg 2 and let Jason Statham fight a horde of megalodons on the seafloor with only a pocket knife and his arsenal of roundhouse kicks. It’s time we reevaluate Deep Rising as a piece of misunderstood genius. And can I get an ETA on that Aquaman spinoff, The Trench? Aquatic cinema doesn’t have to peak at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The bar is so low for underwater movies that by simply taking place underwater—and every goddamn second of Underwater sure lives up to its name—they’re already coasting (er, diving?) on good vibes. Ideally, we can eventually get to a point when underwater-set films are commonplace enough that we can raise our standards a bit. Surely not every film green-lit by a studio needs to be part of an [insert superhero movie/cinematic universe]? The Abyss, for its flaws and all-time chaotic production process, is a genuinely breathtaking film—in no small part because Cameron was feeding his own curiosities. You can feel his passion on the screen; it’s contagious, and at its best, creates a Spielbergian sense of awe.

Perhaps the scarcity of underwater cinema is merely from a lack of artists that have Cameron’s singular ocean-centric zeal. He’s a strange dude, after all, and boasts about building his own submarine. I know, I’m probably asking for too much and being overly optimistic—in lieu of Captain Ahab presiding over Warner Bros., a flood of underwater movies probably isn’t on the horizon. So until the Aquaman sequels arrive, I’ll take my Underwaters when I can get them. (And really, the movie isn’t all that bad: Stewart is such a versatile actor that she’s a believable deep-sea mechanic, and the creature designs are awesome.) But if Hollywood’s ever in need of fresh ideas, they know where to look. Provided they aren’t afraid of jumping into the deep end.