Acclaimed editor and sound designer Walter Murch recently penned an open letter to Roger Ebert on the done-to-the-death subject of 3D and the cinema. His eventual conclusion – that the technology is “dark, small, stroby, headache inducing, [and] alienating” – may as well as have been describing this new claustrophobic, unintentionally hilarious film from executive producer James "Piranha II: The Spawning" Cameron, which blunders onto to the screen with all the subtlety of a harpoon to the face.
You can almost imagine Cameron ringing cash through the till, cackling maniacally, as his latest barely-competent excursion into narrative banality chokes up cinema screens, as we await the Great Leap Forward in three-dimensional technology. Much in the way Tobe Hooper’s work on Poltergeist was overshadowed by that of Steven Spielberg, expect the actual director – newbie Alister Grierson – to get nary a look-in. The fact that Grierson has been airbrushed from the publicity materials is all more galling when you consider Cameron himself has covered this ground anyway, once better (The Abyss) and a second time in the guise of dull aqua-docs Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. A third underwater adventure, even it does feature laugh-out-loud funny misreadings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is an unwelcome addition to Cameron’s worryingly expansive water-cannon.
Roxburgh stars as Frank McGuire, apparently the world’s angriest cave diver, who’d sooner drown you than engage you in conversation. We’re told his travails underwater rival that of Christopher Columbus and Neil Armstrong, though I don’t recall them ever launching expletive-laden tirades at their companions for refusing to wear a wetsuit or deadpanning lines like: “You just made my shit list.” Goading his pixie-faced son, Josh (Wakefield, clearly a little, ahem, out of his depth), down from the surface and forcing him to pierce his inner "sanctum", McGuire’s wacky cave exploration is rudely interrupted by the onset of a tropical storm that traps father and son deep beneath the surface, and threatens the lives of the rest of his team and investors.
Roxburgh – a riot in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! – is in this instance reduced to a one-note, hammy performance that requires to him bark inhuman orders at a gaggle of half-wits, and then commit manslaughter for the survival of a group he appears to wish were dead from the outset anyway. “It was her choice to come down here!” he trills, moments after a woman has fallen to her death. The audience looks up at the ceiling; realising we’re equally as complicit in choosing to pay to sit through this, pray the roof will fall in, and a similar accident will befall us.
Still, there’s some pleasure to be had in seeing our witless companions get picked off one by one in increasingly ludicrous situations, while Gruffudd gives an embarrassingly compelling performance as an American cad degenerating into a Gollum-like figure in a desperate bid for survival. But once you’ve become inured to the loss of human life after the third or fourth inadvertent diving mishap, which are invariably solved by drowning the injured parties, a mordant sense of sub-Deep Blue Sea black comedy begins to pervade the entire affair. Who’s going to get their hand jammed in a rock next? Will Roxburgh snap, cover himself in literal bat shit (it’s a plot point in the film) and go full-tilt Colonel Kurtz? Or will the film be resolved via an absurdist deus ex machina that is so clearly telegraphed at the beginning the film there may as well have been cattle-prods inserted into the cinema seats to announce to us its significance?
This is the folly of Avatar writ large – an intriguing, if threadbare, premise used to prop up the technology the filmmakers are interested in to the detriment of all else. At one memorable juncture McGuire swims out with one of his faceless cohorts into a darkened cathedral of seawater. They both coo: “This is somewhere no man has ever seen before!”. What they neglect to add, given that the whole cave is shrouded in darkness, that we can’t see a damn thing either. The only person who escapes unscathed from this is Cameron himself, who might do better in the future to simply host private screenings of his new films that double up as pyjama parties with himself and his four ex-wives, lighting cigars with $50 bills, gorging on foie gras, swigging on chalices of unicorn blood, and keeping his hair-brained cocktail-napkin scrawls to himself. I would say he’s exploited water enough, but then again Avatar 2 threatens to take us deep into Pandora’s oceans, which is enough to make anyone hurl a bottle of lightly-chilled Evian in his face.