What we have here is a sci-fi adventure tale set beneath the unforgiving sea. The plot itself is as timeworn as anything you'll see: a bunch of virtually interchangeable characters encounter a violent and menacing threat while somewhere out of their element and are chopped up one by one until only the prettiest and strongest are left to save the day. Endless Descent was rushed into production to capitalize on the success of Cameron's The Abyss, the underrated Deep Star Six, and the vastly underrated Leviathan, all three of which were high-tech underwater thrillers which came out back-to-back-to-back in 1989. By the looks of it, Endless Descent took about three months to complete, from casting to final editing, hitting theaters quickly enough to ride that wave, so to speak. If you watch this movie (and I don't suggest that at all) you will also see numerous similarities with 1986's Aliens, which is one of those iconic action movies that has been ripped-off a hundred times or more by everything from low-rent Mexican sci-fi movies to high-yen Godzilla films (1995's Godzilla vs Destoroyah is a particularly egregious example).
This was a Spanish movie directed by Juan Piquer Simon, best known for his legendarily bad early 80's efforts like Monster Island, Pieces, and Pod People. He also churned out the surprisingly effective (though very campy) horror film Slugs: The Movie and the Jules Verne-inspired Where Time Began from 1976. In general, Spanish movies are not known for their quality, though Simon was the only Spanish director who could actually pass his work off as a American film (with the help of casting British and American actors). Simon was also totally self-taught and even though his films were all terrible, they showed at least a little progression throughout his career. As awful as it is, Endless Descent is the closest he came to an actual "good" movie made on a limited budget.
What the money certainly wasn't spent on was the script. The dialogue sounds like it was made up on the fly, improvised by the actors as the camera was rolling, and none of it makes any sense. All the technobabble is inept, the actors seem to be either comatose or overacting like banshees, and the whole thing careens along a drunken path littered with truly awful moments of b-movie badness. But this is my bread and butter, after all, so here it goes...
The skinny here is that a deep diving submersible (a small submarine to you landlubbers) called the Siren I was recently lost with all hands in the far North Atlantic. As it was a "military funded" project, its loss caused quite a stir in Washington. To find out what happened, they decide to send the sub's sister boat, the uninventively named Siren II, out to investigate. This boat, however, seems to be owned and operated by a civilian crew, so a US Navy captain is sent to take command for the mission. Let me jump ahead a bit and do some introductions.
When your title card shows a drunken bachelor asleep at three in the afternoon, you know you've started your movie out on the wrong foot.
Our cast is actually quite large, though there are only four main characters that we need worry about. These are Wick, the Captain, Nina and Robbins.
Wick, played by a young Jack Scalia, who has one of the most awesome blow-dried Hasselhoff mullets ever seen on film. He's the "designer" of both submarines, though they tell us that he was replaced before either was launched due to "creative differences". He's along then because of his supposed intimate knowledge of the subs' interworkings, though you'd think someone from the actual finishing design team would be a better choice (indeed, an early scene shows Wick frustrated because he doesn't even know what changes were made to his original design). He's our Designated Hero.
Wick, looking a bit like Patrick Dempsey here.
The Captain, played by grizzled character actor R. Lee Ermey, who has a nice crew-cut and bug eyes. He's a ultra-strict, by-the-book career Navy man who insists on discipline and blind obedience to his orders. Too bad the actor decided to ham it up so bad, over-emoting every line he has and enjoying the salty taste of chewed scenery every chance he gets.
Nina, played by Deborah Adair, who has one of those unflattering mid-1980s short hairdos that television sitcoms of the era told us made women look sexy (they didn't). She's also Wick's ex-wife! Imagine the odds! And yes, that's a direct rip-off of The Abyss (though Ed Harris is a better actor than our entire cast combined).
Nina, oh yeah, she's also a Navy Lieutenant.
Robbins, played by a pre-Reaper Ray Wise, who usually wears a dorky hat and plastic-framed glasses. He serves the same role as the Paul Riser character from Aliens, that of an oily company rep who you just know is up to something fishy. In this case, we early on suspect him of sneaking in and reprogramming lines of code in the sub's computer, though why we don't know yet.
Now, the sub's civilian crew has about eight other members besides the ones I listed. Who these background characters are is not important. As in all of these sorts of movies, they are just tasty snack-sized morsels for whatever baddie is featured, appetizers for the monsters as they prepare for the epic final showdown with the Designated Hero and his girlfriend in the last reel.
Random crewmen, don't get too attached to any of them, ok?
The sub model is actually quite well-realized, looking like what a sub should be, not some spacey, sci-fi thing like the Atragon or even the Sea View. It's also painted a logical bright yellow, which is what you see with civilian research submersibles.
The Siren II at dock, a nice matte job, by the way.
As good as the sub model is, the onscreen computer graphics for the sub's control room displays are horribly bad, just little squiggly lines and blinking dots on fuzzy monitors. The Motorola Razr that I'm using to text my underage girlfriend has more processing power than the all the computers they used to make this movie put together, and the end result reflects that. But this was 1989, after all, and the budget was certainly less than a half million dollars, so I guess I can't complain (well, I can, but I won't).
Typical computer display, looking like Asteroids.
I know you're going to ask why, oh, why would they not send down a full military crew for this mission. You'd think something of such a sensitive national security nature would have contingency plans for catastrophic failure like this. The US Navy has deep submersibles of their own, why not task one of them for this mission, backed up by a few lurking 688s to keep any curiosity seekers away. The use of the civilian crew here is just another rip-off of The Abyss, and even in that movie it made no sense to me (though Michael Beihn's twitchy SEAL with nitrogen sickness was frackin' awesome).
Out to the open sea now. Note the quick insert stock footage shot of a sub on the surface that looks nothing like the Siren II (appears to be an Oberon), a clear sign of the shabbiness of the post-production editing process on this movie.
Friends don't let friends use stock footage in their movies.
To build our character set we get a scene of them running between icebergs, a dangerous ploy that nearly gets them all killed. Hey, here's an idea, why not dive beneath them? Even your lame computer displays show that the bottoms of the bergs are not too far down, so why risk death by trying to pass between higher sections? Sure, it makes for dramatic tension, sweaty palms, and lots of close-ups of grimacing faces, but it also makes no sense. In the end, they get through ok, though they scrape along the side of one berg. Note that while they "check for damages" on the inside, they never consider surfacing to check for external damage, which would seem the logical thing to do in a submarine where even a tiny little stress fracture crack could widen into a hull-crushing breach as you dive down to higher pressures. But what do I know.
Aye, beware Captain Smith!
Wick and the Captain clash over differing opinions on everything from who should be in charge to the value of system checks. The real conflict between them, of course, is a pissing contest between two massive egomaniacs to see who gets the glory and the adulation of the crew. As he's the military man on site, the Captain has all the power, but he still feels the need to smack down Wick publicly to keep any thoughts of dissent out of his head.
Wick and the Captain talk about how bad the Knicks sucked this season and how Hillary looks like the anti-christ.
At some point they reach the general location of the lost Siren I. Their detectors register a "black box signal" from the sub, like from a crashed airliner, proving that something horrible has happened to it. The signal originates (as a Joust-quality display shows us) deep down in a trench. The display shows us that they have to descend down past 30,000 feet, which is probably beyond the crush depth of even an Alfa, but what do I know.
Display of the trench and the colored dot thingies.
They send out a diver named Sven (in a drysuit at 30,000 feet, mind you) to check things out. The first thing he finds is a patch of seaweed growing down deep where no seaweed should be growing. He then finds the wreckage of the Siren I and takes some pictures. He then finds a bloated corpse hung up in the seaweed, but doesn't report it (huh?). He then cuts off a seaweed sample and attaches it to a line which is then pulled back aboard the sub to be examined. The diver is lastly attacked by the (now mobile) seaweed! Wrapped up and choked to death, the diver's plaintive cries for help are broadcast all through the sub as everyone freaks out. No one knows what happened, but they assume that he got a suit tear and decompressed.
The diver in the seaweed.
Tensions aboard simmer as the crew begins to openly question the Captain's leadership skills. Opinions differ, but the general sentiment is that he should have done more to try and save the diver, though in all actuality very little could have been done. Even the Captain, who refuses to give an inch, seems conflicted and the scene ends with him retiring to his cabin to brood. This is the single most realistic character moment in the entire movie and it lasts all of five seconds before we return to stupidity.
The decision to film two-thirds of this movie with a "blue filter" over the lens was a bad one, even if it is technically accurate.
And now the sub is attacked by a mutant Squid Monster! This huge thing (maybe three times the size of the sub) rushes up out of the trench at them (as seen on a dorky Tank-like computer display) and wraps its fleshy "arms" around it. With the danger real, it's Wick who adamantly insists that they "reverse the polarity on the sonar cloaking device" to give the Squid Monster a nasty electric shock. This works and the beastie slinks off, though the sub is damaged. Power consoles begin to spark and smoke, a fire breaks out in Engineering, the holodeck security protocols go down, and the main thrusters are jammed.
The Squid Monster!
With the engines out and the sub freefalling into the trench, it's Wick who yet again takes over. Overriding the Captain's nonsensical orders, he takes the steering wheel in his own hands and guides the crippled sub to a pretty soft landing on a ledge in the trench wall. We see here that the sub has these little Apollo capsule landing legs that lower from the hull, which really looks dumb. The Captain berates Wick for usurping his authority, but then admits that he "did a great job". From this point on, the relationship between the two men brightens, as this moment of shared terror has showed them both that they need each other if they are to survive.
Remember that old stand-up game, Moon Lander, was it?
Wick fixes the sub's turbines, restoring full power. With the sub back in operation, they continue to search for that black box signal. It seems to now be coming from far inside a tunnel that goes deep into the rock face of the cliff (though before their fancy Stargate Defender-ish computer display showed it clearly on the bottom of the trench, not in a tunnel). Casting aside logic for drama, the Captain decides to steer the sub into the tunnel. More sweating and gnashing of teeth ensues as the sub navigates the narrow passage, dodging intermittent "steam jets" or something while charting their route on what looks like a Castle Wolfenstein level generator.
Traveling in the tunnel, which is suitably murky.
Having made it through the tunnel, they surface in an underground cavern! This is "pressurized" and has oxygen, and the sub bobs in what is essentially an underground lake. The geologic possibility of this existing at 33,000 feet below the surface is dubious, but it's in the script.
Surfacing in the lake.
A six-man away team is formed, led by Wick, to investigate all the sensor readings of power surges coming from the area. Everyone dons white Tyvek suits with gas masks (the air is toxic). The Captain then passes out to everyone some high-tech guns! These are said to be super-powerful experimental weapons, though everyone seems to know how to use them without any training. They've made all this stink about these being "just civilians", but now they become soldiers in the blink of an eye (that annoys me, a lot). It will, however, allow us some Aliens-ish scenes of them creeping along with guns up and all tip-toey like they've seen, well, seen Aliens.
The guns look like props from another movie.
They let down a rubber Zodiac boat and row out to shore. On the "banks" of the cavern they find evidence of human habitation (storage crates and empty structures and the like), which pique their interest. It's clear to them that someone has been down here for a long time, though they don't know why (they initially presume that it's survivors from the lost sub). A series of tunnels lead off from the main cavern and they make to follow one.
Following standard horror movie conventions, the group splits up when reaching a forking tunnel. Three each take a tunnel and follow it, staying in touch with each other and the sub via radio. They also have these handheld "radar scopes" (yes, like in Aliens) but they don't have the budget to make them do more than beep and blink. I must say, however, that the cave sets are very well done, and I wonder if they are actual natural caves or just reuses of sets that were originally built for a much better movie than this one.
Walking along, lights stabbing the gloomy darkness.
Back aboard the sub, their progress is monitored on several Galaxia-esque computer displays, which also record each person's vital stats (yes, just like in Aliens) so they can see who is healthy and who is not so healthy (dead). The Captain and the ever-so-twitchy Robbins run the show from the sub's control room. Robbins is really looking like Harry from Cyber Chase here, but that might just be me.
Wick's team stumbles upon a laboratory! It's a smallish lab, but filled with dusty computer terminals and desks and the like (clearly then, this place has nothing to do with the lost sub, but was an established base). It's been long abandoned, and there's a desiccated corpse here, one bony finger planted on an automated SOS button, though no one asks what happened to the man. Poking around the computers, Wick finds two 3.5inch floppy disks and sticks them inside his suit to take back to the sub to analyze.
Check that state-of-the-art desktop!
Meanwhile, the other team of three runs into trouble. They enter a section of the caverns where the walls are dotted with manhole-sized cavities. From out of these emerge mutant Killer Worms! They cut loose with their guns, blasting the emerging worms in bloody puffs, but there are too many of them. One guy takes a bite to the head and has to be put out of his misery by another (a particularly gory exploding-head shot). Another dude looses a leg to a worm's teeth and then dies from blood loss and shock. The last survivor (a tough abrasive chick named Ana, who is clearly modeled on Vasquez from Aliens) is also presumed dead when her radio signal is lost.
Firefight! Where is Hicks and his shotgun? Wait, "Hicks" "Wick", is there a connection? Why did I just now notice this?
Wick's team makes it back to the cavern with the sub, running like madmen through the darkly-lit tunnels as they hear the last dying moments of the other team on their radios. They jump in the boat and row across to the sub. At the last moment one guy is lost to a mutant Killer Eel, which swoops out of the water to wrap itself around the guy and munch on him until blood taints the water.
More running and shooting, good thing they have these handy computer displays.
The Mutant Eel!
Ok, now, while all that was going on, back on the sub itself, strange stuff has been happening. Remember that seaweed sample that the diver sent aboard before he died? Well, Nina examined it and determined that it was genetically modified to grow and kill and stuff (all bad things). While everyone was focused on the plight of the two away teams, the seaweed is left alone in the lab and mutates into Killer Seaweed! The stuff kills one hapless guy who comes to investigate (and stupidly touches the tentacles) and then infects the water supply. Another guy (the cook) unknowing drinks this water and starts to "feel funny inside". The Captain, thinking quickly, quarantines this man in a locked room (he later dies).
The seaweed takes over the ship's science bay and this guy wants to feel it.
The poor quarantined cook (but he's French, so he deserves it).
Robbins examines the data disks which Wick retrieved. On one of them is a grainy video clip with a man in a white lab coat explaining the Darma Initiative, er, I mean the government's super-secret lab for genetic testing. Why build a secret military lab down here at the bottom of the ocean? Why not somewhere more easily resupplied and monitored, like Pasadena or Long Island or beneath Alkali Lake in Canada? I'm all for cool locations and exciting job opportunities, but it just seems like a waste of money when there are perfectly good stretches of Nevada desert that this sort of thing could be done in.
The man on the tape, looks a bit like Vincent Price.
The disks further reveal the existence of a "DNA Accelerator", which the scientists were using to meld two different species together into one by forcing mutations to accelerate artificially in a process called "trans-genetics" (nothing good can come from that). Clearly something went horribly wrong down there (ala Leviathan). The scientists were all killed by out-of-control mutants and the Siren I was destroyed in the process (the sub was being used to resupply the base apparently). The machine is still producing mutants, they determine, hence the menagerie of beasties down there. As the risk to the surface world is great if these mutants evolve and become worse, our heroes have no choice but to put a stop to it. The Captain intones gravely, "The only way to be sure is blow the place ourselves" (or to nuke it from orbit...)
Talking about stuff like cars and chicks and Mutant King Crabs and Radiohead and, you know, stuff.
The more immediate problem is that they have just two hours of oxygen left to get back to the surface, so they must hurry. Wick, the Captain, Nina and the last living random crewman (who might as well be wearing a red Ensign's uniform) suit up and head back into the caverns to find and destroy the DNA Accelerator. Robbins stays behind to monitor the systems (watch him, he's sneaky!).
Return to the cave.
While they run along, they hear on their radios the voice of Ana! She's not dead after all! Actually, all this time she's been hiding out in the bowels of the lab, fighting off Mutant Lice and Mutant Worms and trying very hard not to get eaten. Why her radio calls were not heard before is a mystery, but perhaps she was in a part of the lab/cave system that blocked signals.
Ana fights the good fight.
We follow the desperate Ana as she finds a room full of empty animal cages (ah, which held animals that the scientists were experimenting on, no doubt). She then finds the DNA Accelerator (in a cavern that's "as big as the Super Dome")! The machine is about the size of a Ford F-150 and pretty goofy looking, with a lot of blinking lights, a glowing dome, and tubes running here and there. Ana doesn't have a lot of time to think about all this, as she's quickly killed by some Mutant Vines which wrap around her legs and drag her into the machine (to be used as genetic feedstock, certainly).
The DNA Accelerator.
Back with our heroes, they are searching for Ana when they come across a room full of "embryonic sacks"! These basketball-sized translucent eggs contain what looks like human/fish mutants, which are "fully evolved for surface life". The little hellspawns have airbreathing gills and opposable thumbs and all. It's clear that if not stopped, all these mutants will one day come to your hometown and fuck you up real good.
They then find the cavern with the DNA Accelerator and check it out. Up on the ceiling of the cavern is the Boss Mutant, a giant starfish-looking thingie with a toothy mouth on a long extendable neck. This beastie eats the last of the random crewmen (an incredibly annoying black man who is channeling Eddie Murphy right up until the jaws close around him) before the others can kill it with their guns. They then blow up the machine by shooting some nearby fuel tanks, causing a cascading explosion that forces them to flee the cavern as the walls begin to collapse.
Starfish Boss, which takes four hits from the BFG-9000 to bring down.
Blowing up the machine, every movie needs explosions.
Meanwhile, Robbins preps the sub's "escape pod" for his own use (yes, like in Deep Star Six). Robbins has proven to be a mole for the company that built the secret lab and he was sent down here to make sure it and all evidence of it is destroyed and all witnesses are eliminated (yes, like in Aliens). I told you to watch him, but you never listen to me.
The escape pod, which is a full-sized set, by the way.
The problem with his plan is that he didn't count on Wick being so resourceful. Even though Robbins thought he locked all the external hatches, Wick, with his knowledge of the sub he himself designed, is able to find a way inside. They open a hatch with a manual override, which causes the computers to deny Robbins the ability to submerge the sub.
Opening the hatch.
They make it to the control room, but are jumped by Robbins, who holds them hostage with a revolver. He's pissed that his plan is being delayed, but still has the upper hand. He sticks the three of them in a locked room and goes back to the escape pod, planning on abandoning them here while he escapes (they'll run out of oxygen soon). He also takes the time to explain to them what his nefarious scheme is and why he's down here, which is helpful to the ten people on the planet who haven't by now seen either Aliens or The Abyss.
Robbins with his pistol gives it all away like a Bond villain.
Wick, being a MacGuyverish sorta guy (hell, he's been able to somehow keep his hair perfect throughout all this), manages to break open an access panel and remove a circuit board, causing the sub's electrical system to crash. He then taunts Robbins over the intercom that if he wants the circuit board back then he has to come get it (shades of Die Hard).
Wick on the monitor there, being all badass.
Robbins, not showing a lot of smarts, takes the bait and opens the door. And of course they jump him and there's a wicked fist fight between Robbins and the Captain in the corridor. It ends when the Captain holds Robbins down against the corpse of an infected crewman (the cook), thus giving Robbins a taste of the mutant death strain. In an odd Graveyard Tramps-esque shot, Robbins' face melts off as he screams through the window at Wick.
Anybody see Gray Lady Down? A scene just like this gave me nightmares when I was a kid.
OK, the clock is ticking. They have no choice now but to blow up the sub to seal "the rift", which is to say block off access to the destroyed secret lab to keep any surviving mutants from escaping. Once they set the self-destruct timer on the sub's nuclear reactor, then they will use the escape pod to reach the surface. The problem is that the Captain can't go with them! You see, he was infected by the mutant virus during the fight with Robbins, and he knows that he has to stay behind in an act of redemptive noble self-sacrifice to assure that Wick and Nina live.
The Captain's infected arm, which is all pulsating and furry and icky.
So, the two of them race off in the escape pod, the Captain pushes the button and the sub blows up and seals the rift, and all is better now. In the pod, Wick and Nina reconnect their love, brought together again by the events of the last day. Of course, whatever problems caused them to divorce before will undoubtedly return once things settle down, and then she will take even more of his money away.