Tuesday, 30 May 2006 00:00
Ever since film cameras were first squeezed into waterproof boxes, cinema-goers have thrilled at the spectacle of divers doing their thing on the silver screen. But which underwater movies do divers enjoy the most?
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) The pitch The film version of the 1870 classic science-fiction novel by Jules Verne about shipwrecked survivors taken captive by the mysterious Captain Nemo. Drifting between genius and madness, Nemo (James Mason), lives in the Nautilus, a gigantic monster-like submarine. Kirk Douglas and his co-stars endeavour to stop Nemo taking revenge on the ‘evils’ of human nature.
Best bits The first time we get a first glimpse of the divers walking across the sea floor and Captain Nemo fighting off the tentacles of a rubbery giant squid on the deck of the Nautilus. This scene was re-shot in a storm to hide the mechanical arms and motors that operated the squid which the director, Richard Fleischer, said made it look fake. The comedy rubber tentacles, however, seemed to escape his attention.
Behind the scenes The actors who played the cannibals who chased Kirk Douglas’ character Ned Land painted funny messages on their foreheads. One actor wrote ‘Eat at Joe’s’, while the actor behind him painted ‘I ate Joe’ on his forehead.
DIVE verdict A ground-breaking fantasy movie of its time, this was Disney’s first departure from animation. The sophisticated underwater shots were a remarkable achievement with such limited equipment. It should, however, come with a warning, as watching two divers tugging at the legs of a turtle makes uncomfortable viewing. But then, this was the 1950s, where stapling horns to reptiles and Kirk Douglas’s singing were somehow acceptable on film.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) The pitch Cult director Wes Anderson presents his idiosyncratic take on the Cousteau tradition. Bill Murray plays aquatic explorer Steve Zissou with deadpan panache in a film that could be described as The Silent World meets Twin Peaks.
Best bits Zissou, a third-rate Cousteau, is down in the dumps after his friend Esteban is eaten by the mythical ‘jaguar shark’. His response is to call a conference and announce a final mission – to track down and kill the beast. Stunned by his announcement, the assembled academics ask what the scientific purpose of the expedition will be. Murray’s weary eyes barely flicker as he offers his matter-of-fact justification: ‘Revenge.’
Behind the scenes Actress Cate Blanchett plays a pregnant journalist charged with documenting the voyage, and found out that she was also pregnant in real life while being fitted for a prosthetic belly (she fainted). For Murray, filming was ‘a penitentiary sentence’. When asked by journalists if he enjoyed filming around water, his laconic reply was: ‘I like to wash’.
DIVE verdict Though it promises much for divers, this is a cultish film with limited broad appeal. There is some gentle satire on the Cousteau oeuvre, but the film is too surreal and its references too obscure for most tastes.
Thunderball (1965) The pitch 007 at his very best. The fourth film in the Bond series finds Sean Connery heading underwater in the Bahamas to battle SPECTRE, which has threatened to plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust unless a huge ransom is paid.
Best bits The climactic fight scene still remains as one of the most ambitious underwater sequences filmed for the big screen. Two underwater armies clash in a bubbling frenzy with spearguns, knives and tiger sharks in an epic battle. A true underwater visual masterpiece.
Behind the scenes There is a rumour that a Royal Navy engineer approached the film-makers to ask how they designed the mini-rebreather. Apparently, the engineer was devastated when he was told the actors were actually holding their breaths.
DIVE verdict Voted by DIVE readers as the top scuba-diving flick, Thunderball is the undisputed champion of diving films. It contributed greatly to the popularisation of scuba diving and set the standard for all of Hollywood’s underwater scenes that followed. The film was remade in 1983 as Never Say Never Again, with Connery returning to the role after a 12-year break, but the remake didn’t come close to the magic of the original.
The Big Blue (1989) The pitch Director Luc Besson’s romantic tale of a free-diver’s obsession with the ocean. Rosanna Arquette’s character falls in love with him, but she cannot understand what draws him to the blue. While inspired by free-diving legends Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca, The Big Blue is really a lavish fantasy.
Best bits Apart from the laughs supplied by the ostentatious Enzo, the most notable parts of the film are the beautifully shot scenes of the handsome Mayol, free-diving both under ice and in the Mediterranean.
Behind the scenes Director Luc Besson makes a cameo appearance in the film as one of the divers. This was his first English-language film (the dialogue was later dubbed to French by its actors). However, The Big Blue was banned in Italy for many years because Enzo Maiorca felt his character in the movie was unfair and distorted.
DIVE verdict The Big Blue has remained a favourite among those who share the romantic view of life in the ocean. It is beautifully shot and well acted (although the Arquette squeak starts to grate by the end). It is a visual feast and will remain a part of every divers’ film collection, but essentially this is more of a free-diving ‘new age’ movie than a scuba classic.
The Deep (1977) The pitch Director Peter Yates’ film adaptation of Peter (Jaws) Benchley’s best-selling novel. David Sanders (Nick Nolte) and Gail Berke (Jacqueline Bisset) are on a romantic holiday in Bermuda, when they discover a sunken wreck that contains ampoules of morphine and ancient jewels. The pair join forces with wreck expert Romer Treece (Robert Shaw) and become involved in a dangerous conflict with treasure hunters.
Best bits For those unimpressed by Bisset diving in a highly revealing, tight white T-shirt and little else, the scenes shot inside the wreck are the highlight. The underwater fight scene near the end of the film is particularly gripping, with spears, explosives, treasure and a fierce gigantic moray eel upping the action.
Behind the scenes At the start of the film we see Bisset’s character, Gail, reaching into a section of the shipwreck and getting her arm caught. When filming this scene Bisset dislocated her shoulder for real, which is why she screams so loudly.
DIVE verdict Apart from Bisset pointlessly and continuously removing her clothes, this is a grown-up diving movie. The underwater scenes, shot under the supervision of legendary cameraman Stan Waterman, are brilliantly done. Shaw’s character makes this movie. His finest lines include, ‘Anyway, rum’s not drinking, it’s surviving’.
Into The Blue (2005) The pitch The first film produced and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer under the Sony banner, Into The Blue is really a modern day version of The Deep. Paul Walker and Jessica Alba are the beautiful protagonists. The pair discover an ancient wreck in the Bahamas, containing priceless treasures. However, they also end up uncovering a plane full of drugs and find themselves being chased… ah yes, we’ve heard this before.
Best bits While the script and storyline are a bit thin, the underwater footage is well handled, particularly the free-diving scenes. Also, thumbs up for making an intelligent distinction between aggressive and curious sharks. Although, it’s a shame they had to go a bit over the top when a character gets chomped by a tiger shark.
Behind the scenes The US morality brigade forced Sony Pictures to digitally alter the theatrical trailer in order to give Alba a ‘less revealing’ bikini. In the movie, however, the bikini provided a distraction from the numerous continuity errors. You can clearly see a safety diver hiding in the scene where Alba’s character becomes entangled in the plane.
DIVE verdict This is not a film that was aiming to win any Oscars for its writing or acting. In fact, Alba was nominated for a 2005 Golden Raspberry Award for worst actress, for her performance. While everything, including the plot, seems to play second fiddle to Alba’s body parts, it’s quite a good chill-out-on-the-sofa movie.
Jaws (1975) The pitch Screen adaptation of Peter Benchley’s book about a great white shark that terrorizes a small holiday resort. One of the most celebrated movies of all time and an introduction to the brilliance of director Steven Spielberg.
Best bits There are so many iconic moments. One of the greatest is when Chief of Police Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, comes face-to-face with the shark for the first time as he throws chum into the water. In total shock, he walks slowly back into the cabin where Quint, played by Robert Shaw, is sitting and says: ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat’.
Behind the scenes Shark photographers Ron and Valerie Taylor filmed all the live shark shots. They constructed a small version of Hooper’s shark cage, employing a midget to play the diver inside. One shark got caught in the cage’s cables and tore it apart trying to escape. The footage was so good, they changed the script to reflect the destroyed cage and Hooper escaping. The midget refused to ever go back in the cage.
DIVE verdict While widely regarded as the biggest public relations disaster for shark conservation, Jaws still earned its place among underwater classic movies. It captured the imagination and fear of a massive worldwide audience in the 1970s and still enthralls movie fans 31 years later. The three films that followed deserve to be forgotten, but this original masterpiece will remain a favourite for generations to come.
Men of Honor (2000) The pitch Men of Honor is based on the true story of Carl Brashear, played by Cuba Gooding Junior. Brashear joins the US Navy where he is determined to overcome racism and become the first black navy diver. The film follows his uneasy relationship with his diving instructor played by De Niro.
Best bits Most of the underwater scenes unrealistically depict aquarium-clear visibility, with the exception of the moment when Brashear is faced with his final exam task. His tool bag is slashed when it is sent down to him and tiny parts fly across the silty seafloor. He eventually surfaces after an eight-hour dive, near-dead from the cold, but triumphant.
Behind the scenes In the climactic scene, Brashear is called to a tribunal to prove he can still work as a Navy diver after losing his leg. He is asked to don a 131kg helmet and suit, and walk unaided. Gooding looks like he is about to collapse, but the reality was rather different. ‘It was easy enough for me, but they had to make a big thing of it for the movie,’ said Brashear.
DIVE verdict Brashear is the only living diver to have a major Hollywood film based on his career. His is a fascinating story and a worthy subject for the big screen. This film is inspirational and keeps Hollywood cheese to a minimum, thankfully. The movie, however, could do with a few more realistic underwater sequences.
Finding Nemo (2003) The pitch Finding Nemo is one of the world’s highest grossing animated films of all time. The adventure begins on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where Nemo, a young clownfish, is taken by a diver and ends up in a dentist’s fish tank in Sydney. His father, Marlin, teams up with a friendly but forgetful surgeonfish to find his son.
Best bits The greatest thing about this movie is the characterisation. Marlin and Dory’s encounter with the surf-dude turtles down the Eastern Australian Current is pure genius. A special mention also has to go to Australian stars: the in-therapy vegetarian sharks and the seagulls that continuously crow ‘Mate, mate’.
Behind the scenes The development team dived in Hawaii and California; sketched and observed fish in Pixar’s 25-gallon tank; and watched countless underwater documentaries. Marine biologists were also called in to give lectures about the swimming movements of each character. More than 43,500 storyboards were created.
DIVE verdict Finding Nemo is a children’s film, which can be enjoyed with or without the kids. The underwater animation is fantastic and it’s great to see the loveable clownfish celebrated on the big screen. Not only has Finding Nemo delivered on the animation, humour, writing, characters and voice cast, it also carries a positive message for the marine environment.
The Abyss (1989) The pitch A thrilling underwater science-fiction adventure, written and directed by James Cameron, starring Ed Harris as Virgil ‘Bud’ Brigman. An oil rig diving team is enlisted on a US Navy mission to search for a lost nuclear submarine. With the hurricane-bashed surface three-week’s worth of decompression away, the divers are all alone in the deep, facing extreme danger and bizarre encounters of the aquatic alien kind.
Best bits Diver Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) comes face-to-face with a gargantuan manta-like alien. The other notable moment is when Bud goes on a bone-crushing 5,000m dive, made possible by a highly developed diving suit and a fictional liquid breathing mix.
Behind the scenes The majority of the underwater scenes were shot in a half-completed nuclear reactor facility, filled with seven million gallons of water. The depth was only about 10m, so a giant tarpaulin and black plastic beads were floated on the surface to block out surface light. However, filming had to switch to night-time after a violent storm ripped up the tarpaulin.
DIVE verdict A great offering from Cameron. However, it lets itself down when Lindsey Brigman says, ‘We should be dead. We didn’t compress.’ Okay, the team didn’t suffer decompression problems, but why no questions about the fact that a gigantic alien ship has just lifted your giant deep-sea oil rig out of the water? An anti-climax to an otherwise thrilling underwater sci-fi flick.
DIVE readers’ favourites Thunderball
Hundreds of you logged on to www.divemagazine.co.uk to vote for your favourite scuba movie. Here are your movie picks:
2nd The Big Blue
3rd The Deep
4. Into The Blue
5. Finding Nemo
6. Men of Honor
7. The Abyss
8. The Life Aquatic
10. 20,000 Leagues
Underwater drama: five great scenes that didn’t make the top 10
1 Trainspotting (1996): Junkie Ewan McGregor dives into ‘the worst toilet in Scotland’ in pursuit of a lost suppository, and swims into an underwater idyll of his own heroin-induced making.
2 What Lies Beneath (2003): Harrison Ford’s murderous academic gets his come-uppance when the corpse of his murdered lover re-animates to drag him into the depths of a lake.
3 Saving Private Ryan (2002): As Spielberg’s soldiers carry out the D-Day landings filmed by hand-held cameras, the paths of bullets are shown fizzing though the green water.
4 Sexy Beast (2003): Ray Winston and his gang of Cockney wise guys tunnel into a bank vault via a Turkish bath, wearing full-face masks and little else as they empty the deposit boxes of their treasures – including a surprise box of ashes!
5 Castaway (1988): Cameraman Mike Valentine had the pleasure of shooting a naked Amanda Donohoe revelling in the beauty of a Seychelles reef, while co-star Oliver Reed and his bits were mercifully excluded from any underwater scenes.