Three Dimensional Threat Space

Movement 1A in the Notebook's critical exquisite corpse project analyzing films by Tony Scott. This entry focuses on _Crimson Tide_ (1995).
Daniel Kasman


This article is part of the critical project Tony Scott: A Moving Target in which an analysis of a scene from a Tony Scott film is passed anonymously to the next participant in the project to respond to with an analysis of his or her own.

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In front of me is my laptop screen; beyond, outside the windows of the bus I'm traveling on, is the scrolling landscape. Already I'm approaching Tony Scott territory—I just need a crisis to precipitate outside that only my computer could explain. The wifi on the bus is down, however, so I cross my fingers nothing terrible out there will happen. But such an occurrence would be in a later Scott film, the Scott who preposterously, ingeniously included a wifi-connected laptop on a subway car stuck in the New York underground...and let a passenger secretly video chat with those on the surface. The film I just viewed on this bus ride, 1995's Simpson/Bruckheimer production Crimson Tide, was made before Scott became so enamored with time-space fragmentation and the tenuous connecting handhold of technology—a break made in 1998 with Enemy of the State and a subject which freed the director's form to move faster, overlap spaces and time, redistribute perspective, intensify the separation and attempted unification between what's happening in the world and what's happening in that same world as seen from elsewhere. Yet in Crimson Tide, made during the last high octane, high concept spurts of the slick, comprehensible 1980s action-blockbuster cinema model (cf: Robocop, Die Hard, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), we can see the Scott who emerges later into a world of post-modern paranoia and techno-schizophrenia. And all it takes is the setting and the genre of the submarine movie to bring it out of him.

The sequence that most crystallized Scott's later conceptual interests in Crimson Tide’s comprehensive catalog of all the things that can go wrong on a submarine—a checklist it is the duty of every submarine movie to complete, like a drill—occurs just after Lt. Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington, beginning his first of five collaborations with Scott), the second in command of the ship, has relieved the Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman) of his command due to a heated disagreement in nuclear launch protocol. The film's opening has set up the world's crisis, but one notably told as a television report using stock footage: a renegade Russian rebel inspires a civil war which threatens the world with uncontrolled nuclear strikes. The sub goes underwater as this is happening, freezing the world situation and transposing its hysteria to the submerged, isolated chamber drama on the ship. The outside world has faded to the foggy murk of the water encasing the craft, and all radio links to the outside world are severed. The two men in charge of the ship—Hunter and Ramsey—are thereby placed in a situation whose precariousness literally involves nuclear holocaust, yet their access to the world in which that situation exists has been shrunk down to a collection of isolated chambers of men connected through cramped passages and the limitations of communications technology on board the ship.

The mise-en-scène entirely reflects this perceptual isolation: master-shots of the “conn,” where the Captain and later his replacement issue orders, is essentially equipped only with a microphone to communicate to the rest of the vessel, CCTV monitors showing other sections of the ship, and a few dials related to the steering and depth of the vessel. This is not a boat or a spacecraft; there are no windows to the outside world, no big screens showing those inside what's going on outside. To find out what's going on, the Captain in the conn has to talk, through the radio, to his sonar and weapon sections, which are in different parts of the ship. Scott delineates these spaces through color-codes and lighting: the conn is ostensibly lit realistically with clear high-key lighting; the sonar room is coated in hyper-stylized, hyper-saturated blue-red with a powerful, sickly green emanating from the sonar screens themselves; and the weapons room is denoted through a giallo-friendly blood red. The activities in both of these “side” rooms, whose actual spatial connection to the conn and the rest of the ship is not clear, are always of heightened drama: detecting enemies or engaging weapons systems. As such, their mise-en-scène without gradation is always in an expressionist key, extrapolating inner states of anxiety and tension to outer qualities of the image. The conn, a location of the cool collection, order and rationale of the ship's leader, is thereby painted in the clarity of comparative “realism.”

However, following Hunter’s taking control of the ship, a series of events bring to a head the ominous, pervasive sense of danger surrounding the submarine. Through these events, the disparate, disconnected spaces of the sub are made to be unified through the simultaneous efforts in the drama of the crew and outside the diegesis by Scott’s image-making and editing. In short order an enemy sub is detected, it fires torpedoes, Ramsay/Hunter’s vessel evades and returns fire, destroying the enemy, but not before its final shot from that ship damages Ramsay/Hunter’s sub enough for it to start flooding, lose propulsion and begin to sink to “crushing depth.” In this sequence, as throughout the film, Scott emphasizes the way the crew perceives events happening outside of their actual biological range of perception, and the distance between those events and the responses to them.

As opposed to Scott’s later baroque expressionism where the heightened perceptions evoked by a film’s images don’t necessarily have any root in the real world, the strangeness of the events during the sub’s crisis and the crew’s perception of them are completely rationalized through the expectations of how submarines and the submarine genre work. One moment everything will seem fine, and in the next a man in looking at an abstract, glowing screen will see an oblong red shape which instigates near-panic. His perception of his screen is communicated to the Lt. Commander through the radio, who then tells the men in front of him to change the ship's course, and then radios sonar back for updates. At no point does anyone actually see a real, material threat their ship, to their lives. All they see are abstract representations, and the engagement to defend and later take action against these abstract representations are carried through via remote communication over disparate spaces—remote and disparate despite the fact that everyone is sharing the same overall space and sense of danger. (It should be noted that the audience does indeed get to see some of the underwater action, namely the two subs moving, exchanging fire, explosions. All are notably ensconced in the opaque, near-abstract no-man’s land of the ocean. Here space essentially has no meaning.)

As the sense of danger on the ship increases, Crimson Tide begins to cinematically unify these remote, isolated and disparate spaces and people. Scott lets the expressionism of the sonar and weapons rooms bleeds into the central conn space by utilizing flashing/rotating yellow warning lights to push the psychological anxiety of the crew and of the situation into the aesthetics of the film. The lights are flashing across all three spaces: conn, sonar and weapons (and later, the hold, which starts flooding), which, while remaining spatially isolated from one another, become aesthetically unified through rhyming/repeated textures of light on the screen. The sequence increasingly uses close-ups of crew members to increase the claustrophobia of the situation and emphasize the human, psychological pressure, but the effect is to create a collage of heads bathed in strobing, exaggerated lighting. Later in his career Scott became known for literally overlapping images on top of one another for a combination impressionistic-expressionistic collage effect, and while the editing and assembly of Crimson Tide remains conventionally representational and legible, Scott is approaching the post-production effects he will later create on top of the image by here increasing the visual density in his compositions, ratcheting up the lighting and color, and then rapidly editing them together regardless of discernible spatial arrangement. Later developments in the sequence similarly increase the abstraction of the images: a large leak in another section of the ship, presumably the hold, but whose actual location we are not aware of, fills the frame with showering water, which graphically functions like the green of the sonar room and the red of the weapons room to both delineate a space for the viewer at the same time it abstracts it into textured imagery of anxiety. Flashing yellow lights on top of the water spray complete the painting: we get at least four spaces that are all visually different yet swathed with similar psychological-emotional tones and image patterns. Danger combines with communications technology to unite fragmented spaces together, sharing anxiety over abstraction.

The final sense of the scene is of a three dimensional threat space: these men are living in a world where danger is unseen and can literally come from anywhere. In fact, space is so undefined outside the ship, and sections of the ship are so unconnected inside it, that the “direction” danger can come from isn't even under consideration. Something might happen at any place and at any time, which is why the external threat to the boat is global nuclear holocaust, totally encompassing. (A notable, smaller scale example: right after the ship leaves dock and submerges there is a random, unmotivated kitchen fire which kills one crew member.) This pervasive potential for danger explains the isolation of each room: a safety measure. It's the same reason the ship itself is submerged, to get out of the constant threat of nuclear attack above water. Yet the cost of personal isolation is debilitating perception, a reliance on technology to detect, access and interpret the world—think about the satellite tracking technology and recording devices of Enemy of the State, the apparatus of storytelling in Domino, the past-viewing screen and goggles of Déjà Vu, the MTA's subway monitor in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and the helicopter news coverage in Unstoppable.

The techno-sophistication level of Crimson Tide, despite operating on a nuclear submarine, is much more old fashioned—essentially walkie-talkies and primitive radars—as befits the genre, but is no less crucial. To purportedly be safe, a submarine must remove itself from the world; to purportedly be safe, its crew must disperse themselves across separate, disconnected spaces on the ship, effectively removing themselves from a spatially present community. What allows these removes to be possible is technology that makes up for the multi-layered disconnect from the real, physical world: radio to “talk” to those above water to understand what’s happening, sonar to “see” what’s happening in the water around them, the CCTV cameras/monitors and inner-ship radio communications to both see and hear about what’s happening inside the ship. The technology inside the diegesis is analogous to Scott’s filmmaking: it ties the world together. The film’s editing and image-making unify fragmented spaces and psyches—artificially, it should be pointed out—just as sonar blips and status updates screamed over a radio give the crew a sense of successfully stitching together a discernible reality. The sense of unification increases with the sense of danger and threat, because it is in these moments that the technology which effectively simulates this reality is relied upon, and used, the most. Thus as the plot’s perils increase, so does Scott’s stylization heightened in tandem—and the men on the ship, and the film itself, attempt a synthetic union of reality that will be necessary to overcome grave danger.

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