Monday, March 25, 2019

"Like a Golf Ball Being Sucked Through a Garden Hose" - The Rift (1989)

It is time to explore the wonders of Juan Piquer Simon's The Rift (1989), one of the finest underwater monster movies released in 1989 along with Leviathan (1989), The Abyss (1989), DeepStar Six (1989), Lords of the Deep (1989), and The Evil Below (1989). Mr. Simon, who had already contributed several classics to world cinema including Pieces (1982) and Slugs (1988), created perhaps the definitive 1989 underwater monster movie in The Rift.

Some in your universe disagree about the film's classic status. For example, reviewer jiangliquings says that the film "has absolutely no redeeming values, whether it's the ridiculously bad acting, the laughably awful special effects, the incompetent direction, the stupid script, or the gratingly annoying musical score." (It must be noted that Joel Goldsmith's musical score is actually very effective.) Reviewer bonesnbraids writes, "Camera shots were pretty dull and honestly it wasn't very hard to stop watching it and walk around the room to get a snack or check email." (I will not comment on my visualization of this reviewer's movie-watching room.) And reviewer vossba-99945 writes, "The acting is so bad you can't get into the movie. Even worse than the acting is the screenplay, it's like it was written by a 10 year old." (It must be noted that some of the best screenplays are written by 10-year-olds.)

Let's avoid the negativity and experience the undersea wonder of J. P. Simon's The Rift...

The film begins at a house off the Pacific Coast Highway where federal agents break into a beach house to wake up a hung-over, big-haired Jack Scalia by pouring Schweppes mineral water over his head. They convince him to travel to Washington, D.C. because there is a problem with the submarine he designed, Siren One. It seems the sub has disappeared.

As the Washington people (including one played by Edmund Purdom, star of J. P. Simon’s Pieces and director of Don’t Open Till Christmas) convince Mr. Scalia to join a rescue team, director J. P. Simon intercuts with scenes of mayhem and murder aboard the actual Siren One. Something sinister is going on, to which we are not privy.

In Norway, a smoking Jack Scalia arrives in port, where he is watched on TV by the agents in charge of the mission, which appears to be driven by Commodore 64 keyboards.

“Oh, who’s this?” asks Ana, intrigued by Mr. Scalia’s charming image.

“Unless I miss my guess,” says her colleague Skeets, “that’s Wick Hayes, the whiz kid who invented this undersea playpen.” When he sees she is interested in Mr. Scalia, he adds offensively, “I bet you had hormones somewhere in that luscious bod.”

It seems Mr. Scalia is to join the rescue mission aboard either Siren Two or a matte painting of Siren Two.

Amusingly, Mr. Scalia is forced to bunk with a young Ray Wise, playing a computer specialist. The multinational crew also includes a young and nicely coiffed R. Lee Ermey as the submarine captain, who expects military respect from a decidedly non-military crew, as does Mr. Scalia’s ex-girlfriend Nina Crowley, now a Navy lieutenant.

The Siren Two launches and is soon in the middle of the ocean (where it somehow appears black with one conning tower, despite its previous appearance as yellow with a large protruding fin in front.

For unknown reasons, the captain decides to navigate between two icebergs. “Imminent collision,” the computer says.

There is a collision.

“What happened?” asks Captain Ermey.

“Design alterations, Captain,” replies Mr. Scalia. “They’ve rehired the sonar system to make way for a to-be-installed missile-tracking system.”

After Captain Ermey throws Mr. Scalia off the command deck, the sub intercepts a black box signal with the intriguing code name David that is coming from Siren One. The boat drops down into a rift to find the black box, but they also find what appears to be seaweed and sunlight.

A crew member gets into a diving suit. Captain Ermey tells him matter-of-factly, “We need two things. First, a seaweed sample for Lt. Crowley. Second, photographs of the Siren One wreckage.”

The crew watches on TV as the diver swims through the seaweed forest. Mr. Scalia, ill-advisedly smoking a cigarette on the submarine, watches particularly closely. Suddenly, in a scene perhaps inspired by Jaws, the diver encounters a waterlogged corpse.

Then the diver is attacked by tentacles.

Tragically, his death is recorded on the Commodore 64 screen monitoring his vital signs.

Oddly, after the diver’s death, his best friend Philippe repeatedly calls him a “son of a bitch” for dying.

The sub continues to have problems. In the biology lab, Lt. Crowley finds that the seaweed sample is starting to toss fish out of its aquarium. Meanwhile, something big and white outside grabs the sub.

The strange white creature pulls the sub downward. And it has a big eyeball.

Of course, our hero Jack Scalia has the answer, which proves that he is familiar with Star Trek. “Captain, tell Robbins to reverse the polarity of the ship’s radar cloaking device. That should allow the outside electrical field to shock it.” The gambit is successful.

Mr. Scalia manages to set the sub down on a narrow ledge in the undersea trench, aided by the sub’s miniature legs (I can only assume all submarines have legs for landing).

In a comedic interlude, as the crew are repairing the vessel, Mr. Skeets uses some kind of magnification goggles to ogle the navigator Ana.

It appears the landing on the narrow ledge was  unnecessary, as the sub immediately navigates into the cave where the black box is located. Skeets says poetically, “This feels like a golf ball being sucked through a garden hose.”

Surprisingly, the Siren Two surfaces inside an underwater cavern.

While Captain Ermey and Mr. Wise (who is prone to breaking out in sinister grins) remain onboard, most of the crew (including the doctor) dresses in white suits and climbs out of the sub. They take a raft over the water to the cave floor.

After they split up, one of the crew members unwisely looks into a hole in the rocks, only to be attacked by some kind of brain creature. Fortunately, everyone is armed with big guns, and they shoot the creatures. They infect the navigator, so Ana shoots him in the head. More monsters attack the others.

Shockingly, after making their way through the monsters, Mr. Scalia and crew find a biology lab in the undersea cavern! “Captain, they’ve got a long-term food supply in here. Lots of computer equipment. This doesn’t figure.” The lab is also populated with...skeletons!

Meanwhile, on Siren Two, the engineer discovers that the sample seaweed has expanded to take over the biology lab, a fact he verifies by unwisely gripping (and, it must be said, stroking) a strand of the seaweed and having has hand burnt by its excretions.

In a matter of minutes, the captain and Lt. Crowley walk downstairs (our first indication that there are two stories to the Siren Two) to find the engineer all Jordy Verill-ed up.

Mr. Scalia and Skeets return to the sub, but we find out that Ana is still in the cavern system with her oxygen running out. Instead of immediately trying to rescue her, the crew watches videos stored on floppy disks that Mr. Scalia obtained from the underwater lab—videos in which a mustachioed scientist talks about transgenetics. Lt. Crowley explains what a DNA accelerator is: “Theoretically, it’s designed to decrease the time necessary for genetic evolution. But with transgenetics—that’s the splicing of genes of different species and then submitting them to the DNA accelerator—who knows what could happen?”

With the undersea lab producing genetic monsters left and right, the crew plans to blow up the lab and rescue Ana, who breaks in on their communication system to say she is trapped in a storeroom, under attack by little monsters. Mr. Scalia asks, “Ana, is there any way you can buy yourself some time?”

“Yeah, I think so,” she replies, “but let’s not wait until Christmas.” She shoots some of the monsters, then says, “Come on, Wick! I think I hear Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells!”

Ana stumbles upon a secret passage, which leads to a large cavern inside which a big machine has been constructed.

When Skeets arrives in the room, he says, “Aw, man, this place is bigger than the Astrodome!” They also find a pile of bubbles with embryos inside. “Damn thing looks almost human,” says the captain, after the crew has killed one of the embryos.

The crew next confronts a giant reptilian plant monster that hangs, inconveniently, from the ceiling.

They blow up the chamber.

In the end, we find out that one of the crew is a traitor. It is Ray Wise! (Spoiler.) He attempts to submerge without the others, but they quite easily open the hatch and return to the sub. Mr. Wise, however, has a gun, so he locks Mr. Scalia, Captain Ermey, and Lt. Crowley in the biology lab. Of course, Mr. Scalia designed the sub, so he knows how to get to the “brain” of the Siren Two.

Mr. Scalia contacts Mr. Wise over the ship’s video monitors. He holds up a device about the size of a flash drive. “You see this? It’s a circuit microchip, and not another one like it anywhere else on the ship.” He adds, “Funny, huh? A multimillion dollar vessel, helpless without a 50-cent microchip.” (Presumably, microchips were cheaper in the 1980s than they are in the 21st century.)

Mr. Scalia holds up his lighter to the chip, taking it hostage.

Of course, Mr. Wise has no choice but to let them out of the biology lab. No sooner does he open the door than Mr. Scalia and Captain Ermey attack him, but Mr. Wise is an effective enough fighter to hold them at bay until Captain Ermey mercilessly exposes him to the Jordy Verrill plant menace.

After Mr. Wise is viciously murdered, Mr. Scalia reveals that the chip he was holding was just a piece of junk.

The heroes set the self-destruct sequence, then escape in the aptly named escape pod.

But there is one more surprise—tragically, another of the heroes is Jordy Verrill-ized.

The Siren Two explodes, sealing the rift, allowing only the escape pod to escape.

The End

It is refreshing to see a film like The Rift that is not so stylish that it confuses the viewer with quick cuts and irrelevant information. As in most of his other films, J. P. Simon's directorial style consists mainly of showing something fantastic, such as a monster or someone dying, and then cutting to the reactions of every actor present. This is quite helpful to the viewer, and highly appreciated. Also appreciated is the distinction in the dialogue of the different phrases "Yes, sir" and "Aye, aye, sir," which are sometimes confused in films with watery settings. In The Rift, most of the time, "Yes, sir" is used to answer a yes or no question and "Aye, aye, sir" is used to acknowledge an order or request. Refreshing indeed!

The Rift is also well above its competition in the number of monsters it features. New monsters are introduced every few minutes, and the variety is quite impressive (though, of course, variety is not as important as quantity in a movie of this sort). The monsters are explained as the results of genetic experiments gone wrong, but whatever their source, they are fascinating to watch as they kill most of the crew of the Siren Two. Compared with the paucity of monsters in The Abyss or The Evil Below, it must be admitted that The Rift is without a doubt the highest quality underwater film of 1989. High praise indeed!