Billy Zane's Sinking Ship Tetralogy: Part One (1989) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Also known as Dead Calm.

In Dead Calm, Zane's schooner is sinking. In Cleopatra, he and his flagship are sunk in a famous naval battle. In Three, he plays a rich yachtsman who sinks. And I think we all know the general plot of Titanic. 

The plot of Dead Calm:

Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman are sailing the Pacific, trying to heal after the death of their toddler. Somewhere in the middle of the ocean, they come upon a sinking schooner and the aforementioned Zane. Turns out Zane is a psychotic who turned the sinking ship into a bloodbath. Zane kidnaps Kidman in the good boat while Neill is checking out the evil boat. Neill, an expert sailor, has no choice but to pursue them in a sinking ship full of dead bodies.  

There you have it. The execution is just OK, and the story has many flaws. Examples:

(1) The film goes on five minutes too long by creating one of those "surprise ending after the ending" moments. When Kidman finally gets the upper hand, she leaves Zane floating in the ocean on a little raft. Hours later, Neill and Kidman return, because they are guilty about abandoning a human being in such a manner. They found the free-floating raft in the open sea (Hey, it's a small ocean), but Zane was no longer on it. Life must go on, so they sink the raft and sail off. That probably should have been the end of the movie, but the scriptwriter just couldn't resist a final switcheroo. The next morning at breakfast, Zane somehow appears on the ship, and no explanation is offered. Apparently he is immortal, like that Friday the 13th guy.

(2) There is absolutely no reason for the first 10-15 minutes of the film, which shows Neill arriving somewhere by train, not being met by an expected Kidman. It then shows her in the hospital, and flashes back to an accident in which Kidman is injured and her toddler killed. This setup had no bearing at all on the rest of the movie, and really should have been axed. Yes, it was back story, but it could have been covered with a brief flashback or even, in a truly economical mode, about one line of dialogue.

Take out the beginning and ending, and the rest of the movie is pretty good. Everything in the plot is pretty much what you expect, but it does have a good cast, taut direction, good sailing scenes, and a good atmospheric use of silence, music, and sea noises in the proper proportions to lend drama to the scenes.  



  • widescreen anamorphic 2.35:1

  • excellent transfer

  • but no special features


Nicole Kidman shows her butt and her right breast in a daylight sex scene. It's interesting to see Kidman as she looked a decade ago. In some scenes you can't believe that Kidman used to look like that. In other scenes she looks like the Kidman of today. She probably looks younger in Eyes Wide Shut, after having discovered the value of fitness.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Maltin 3/4

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.9 
  • With their dollars ... domestic gross: $8 million
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. Not a bad thriller, with the exception of a few items cited above.

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