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WITHIN THE ROCK (1996)
(REVISED)

“We altered something in there. The creature must have been hibernating. And we went in there, and we changed the atmosphere, the pressure, and we woke it up....”

Director: Gary J. Tunnicliffe

Starring: Caroline Barclay, Bradford Tatum, Xander Berkeley, Brian Krause, Michael Zelniker, Barbara Patrick, Duane Whitaker, Calvin Levels

Screenplay: Gary J. Tunnicliffe

Synopsis: In the year 2019, the Earth is under threat from an asteroid called Galileo's Child, which is on a collision course. Insisting that the military’s plan to blow up the asteroid will simply result in a no less dangerous meteorite shower, scientist Dana Shaw (Caroline Barclay) successfully argues for an alternative plan to divert the asteroid’s course by setting off massive explosions deep within it. Drilling teams, already at work at established mining colonies in space, are sent to the asteroid and put to work. Dana, too, travels to Galileo’s Child, and finds that the drilling operation has fallen badly behind schedule. Clashing violently with Ryan (Xander Berkeley), the leader of the drilling teams, Dana insists on longer work periods. Unbeknownst to Dana, the teams have fallen behind schedule because Ryan and his partner, Potter (Duane Whitaker), are taking time out to mine for platinum and other valuable substances. During the drilling, Luke Harrison (Brian Krause) hits something that his drill cannot penetrate. Explosives expert Samantha ‘Nuke-em’ Rogers (Barbara Patrick) blasts through the obstruction, and the team members find themselves within a strange chamber. The fossilised remains of a huge carnivorous animal are discovered inside, along with numerous humanoid bones. The chamber is made of platinum, and Ryan demands that the work be temporarily halted, and the men allowed to salvage the precious metal. Dana objects, and can only listen in horror as Ryan tells his people that their mission is pointless anyway, doomed to failure from the start; and that in the end, the threat of Galileo’s Child will be dealt with by the military blowing the asteroid up. Dana argues her own case passionately, and succeeds in drawing the drill-teams to her side. A compromise is reached, with the salvage operation allowed to proceed in exchange for still longer work periods. While the men set to work collecting the platinum, Dana takes numerous photographs of the fossil. Ryan tries to lure Dana into his own financially-motivated schemes by offering to extend the work-break still further, to give her time to collect the specimen, but she contemptuously rejects the idea. Later, after the chamber has been stripped and the men have retired for their rest period, Potter shuts down the oxygen generator that produces the camp’s artificial atmosphere. The chamber slowly fills with the asteroid’s natural nitrogen-rich atmosphere, and the fossilised remains begin to take on flesh....

Comments:  An asteroid hurtles towards the Earth; a team of drilling experts lands upon it, racing against time to plant explosives within the body of rock; while back home, the military plans to deal with the impending threat by nuking it out of the skies…. Sound familiar? Of course – except that instead of being the inevitable post-blockbuster clone, Within The Rock was released two years before Armageddon. Whether this represents simple coincidence, or another example of a low-budget knock-off beating its big-budget model into release, like Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon (or perhaps more to the point, Carnosaur and Jurassic Park), is unclear, but the fact remains that the resemblance between Within The Rock and Armageddon ends with their plot points. It isn’t the highest praise in the world to say of a film, “I’d rather watch such-and-such than Armageddon any day!”, I guess, so I’ll say this instead: whatever its shortcomings, and it certainly has plenty of them, Within The Rock is finally an inoffensive, even mildly entertaining, piece of science fiction – and it never once makes you feel as if some sadist had tied you to a chair and strapped a jackhammer to your skull. Although many of the film’s choices were undoubtedly dictated by its budgetary restrictions, it repeatedly comes across as simply more sensible than its blockbuster cousin – even aside from such technical details as being able occasionally to hold a camera shot for longer than three seconds. For example, Within The Rock has its killer asteroid detected when it is a good six months from Earth, rather than having it melodramatically “discovered” at a time when by rights it should have been – and would have been – visible to the naked eye weeks earlier. Apart from the plain common sense of this, it also allocates a more realistic time-frame to the story’s action, while still allowing for the inevitable race against the clock as it draws to its conclusion. The question of who might be equipped for dealing with such a threat as that posed by the asteroid is taken care of by shifting the film’s setting to the not-too-distant future (rather too not-too-distant, if we’re honest), a time in which space travel is taken for granted, and large corporations have set up mining platforms off-planet. The people sent to Galileo’s Child to carry out Dana’s plan to divert the asteroid away from the Earth are thus not just qualified for the job, but already out in space earning their livings at it. Within The Rock also wins points for steering clear of a few of the more obvious clichés. We are spared, for instance, having to listen to how the asteroid is [*sigh*] “the size of Texas” – although at one point, Dana does insist that the military’s plan for blowing up Galileo’s Child will result in “a shower of rocks the size of Kansas!” She was probably just upset, though.

Rational script choices such as these help to carry Within The Rock over its rough patches – and it cannot be denied that there are a lot of them. Here again, the budget comes into play. The setting of the story in a mining camp does allow Within The Rock to get away with some pretty basic set design – and there’s also this in the film’s favour, unlike many of its low-cost brethren, it at least was not flagrantly filmed in a factory or an oil refinery. An imaginative touch is the “oxygen generator”, which supposedly creates a breathable atmosphere around the camp, and thus negates much of the need for elaborate gear. (Although when the generator breaks down midway through the film, the crew’s pre-generator breathing apparatus is resurrected, and the work continued, without delay.) However, as you may have gathered from my comparatively brief synopsis, a little too much of the film’s running-time is passed first in scenes of underground drilling, and later in sequences of the various characters creeping around in dark tunnels, either hunting for the creature that they inadvertently release, or running away from it. Within The Rock also falters badly at the story level, suffering both from an inevitable sense of over-familiarity, and from never quite being able to make up its mind what kind of film it actually is. It starts off as an Earth-in-peril story, passes briefly through a science-versus-the-military plot, then ends up being an Alien-esque nasty-monster-on-the-loose movie. Then, just when we’d almost forgotten that the Earth was in danger, suddenly we’re worrying about that again.

Within The Rock’s biggest disappointment, however, is its monster. The film opens with an intriguing wordless sequence (set “two million years ago”) depicting the trapping of the creature by the denizens of an alien civilisation, and its launching into space in a solid platinum case. It is this case that the drilling team encounters within Galileo’s Child; later it is realised that the asteroid actually formed around the object. Affixed to the case is a seal covered with regular markings. The crew takes little notice of this until much later, when computer expert Archer sees Dana’s notes of her discoveries within the chamber, and realises that these markings represent a form of binary code. (In a fairly ridiculous moment, these markings left behind by an ancient alien culture are swiftly translated into near perfect English.) It is thus that the humans – their numbers by this time somewhat depleted, thanks to the creature’s activities – discover just what their adversary is. It is the Vorous, the “Reaper”, the “Angel Of Death”, a freak-of-nature carrion-eater that laid waste to the population of its home planet until finally being lured into a trap baited with decomposing corpses and jettisoned into space.

(One of the things left unclear by the screenplay of Within The Rock is whether by the time of the story’s setting we on Earth are already aware of the existence of alien life-forms. If not, everyone’s mighty casual over all these revelations. Although, granted, they do have a few other things on their minds at the time….)

Alas, few movie monsters could live up to such a build-up, and the Vorous certainly does not: the creature is never more impressive than when we first see it, a shadowy, threatening fossil embedded in the chamber wall, its claws and teeth glinting by the light of Dana’s torch and flash-photography. Once it has taken on flesh, director (and special effects man) Gary Tunnicliffe chooses to hide it from us, allowing us only glimpses of a clawed and scaly foot, or an imperfect image on a shaky video feed. But finally there comes a moment when the thing cannot be concealed any longer – and to our dismay we realise that this Angel Of Death, this destroyer of civilisations, looks like nothing so much as the Creature From The Black Lagoon’s land-lubber cousin, who – how shall I put this? – had an accident while wandering through a sewerage treatment plant. The other problem with the Vorous, given its fearsome history, is the question of how our human characters, with their limited resources and still more limited numbers, are going to be able to kill it, considering that a whole other – and fairly advanced, we infer – culture was unable to do it. (There another nice piece of common sense here, when the remaining characters must and do face the fact that it’s not merely a question of evading the creature; that the thing is a hunter and a killer by instinct, and will continue to come after them until they do kill it.) The answer to this puzzle is disappointingly simple, if satisfyingly gross; and we are left to wonder why, if the inhabitants of the Vorous’s home planet were smart enough to build the platinum trap, capture the creature, and fire it into space, they weren’t smart enough to work out that you could kill it by driving something long and pointy through its guts.

Gary Tunnicliffe has had a long and fairly distinguished career in the field of special effects. Within The Rock represents his debut in both writing and directing – the irony being that the film is ultimately more praiseworthy for its direction and screenplay than it is for its effects. This shouldn’t be regarded as too strong a criticism: with, patently, such restricted resources at hand, there is a limit to what anyone could have done. On the other hand, the film’s direction is solid enough, although with all that running around in dark tunnels, the opportunities for artistic flourishes were rather limited. It is, however, in the writing that Within The Rock manages to surprise the viewer; not at the story level, certainly, but with its characters. This is where writing a review of a movie like this gets a little bit tricky. When you are as rapacious – and omnivorous – a devourer of movies as I am, inevitably you watch a lot of crap; so that when you stumble across something that quite unexpectedly qualifies as not-crap, the temptation is to get carried away and oversell it. I don’t want to do that here. I’m certainly not claiming that there is anything brilliant about the characterisations in Within The Rock, merely that its script manages to offer up something that painfully few films do these days: a surprising, and very welcome, absence of irritating jerks. You all know what I’m talking about, right? Lord knows I’ve complained about it often enough, the apparent inability of genre writers to create characters who aren’t comprised wholly of the most unattractive human qualities: annoying at best, and intolerable at worst. How many times have you spent a film’s running-time just begging the monster or the psycho-killer or the natural disaster to kill off the entire cast as quickly as possible? And sure, sometimes that’s the point; but very often, sadly, it isn’t. Within The Rock wins a place in my affections simply by serving up a cast of believable, fairly likeable people. How pathetic that this should make it stand out from the pack!

But any film like this needs a bad guy, of course, and in this case it’s Ryan, who’s a bastard. Yet even here Within The Rock eschews the obvious. Ryan’s bastardry is not assigned to the usual movie reason – namely, just coz – but to understandable if not exactly admirable causes. Ryan’s motives are, in the end, fairly mixed. Certainly he enjoys having the drill-crews utterly subordinate to himself, and even more certainly he does not like having to take orders from a young woman; but as it turns out, his willingness to hinder Dana’s critical mission is due not any homicidal or suicidal impulse on his part, or to a desire to line his own pockets so extreme that he is prepared to risk the very future of the world to feed it, but to misinformation received from back home. When Within The Rock opens, Dana has succeeded – just – in convincing the government to employ her strategy for diverting Galileo’s Child away from the Earth, rather than following the military’s plan of just blowing it up. In this, she is backed by the corporation for whom the miners work. However, unbeknownst to Dana, in her absence the corporation has been argued over by the military strategists and has given up on Dana’s scheme, seeing the drilling operation as an opportunity for profit instead. Ryan, reassured that the drilling operation is doomed to failure anyway, immediately, and with the blessing of his employers, sets about making as much out of it financially as possible. And he’s not alone in this. One of the nicer touches in this film is that it declines to make an interest in earning a buck a sign of eee-vil-ness, or to consign anyone displaying such an interest to an automatic death. All of the characters, except Dana, are in it for a buck; it is made fairly clear that no-one in their right mind would take on such dangerous, dirty, exhausting work for any other reason. When the platinum cage is discovered, the other crewmembers no less than Ryan want the opportunity to salvage it for profit; and since all their information regarding their mission comes from Ryan alone, they see no reason why they shouldn’t stop the work and do just that.

The discovery of the chamber, and the fossil that it encloses, forces a showdown between Ryan and Dana. Like Ryan, Dana is more of a shaded character than she initially appears to be. She is terribly self-righteous, of course, as young female scientists in the movies tend to be; but in her defence, she has both science and logic on her side – and in the end, none of the story’s deaths can be laid at her feet, not even indirectly; which is certainly not always the case. It is not long before it becomes clear that much of what we see of Dana is a façade: be she ever so right about the Earth’s ultimate fate, she is in over her head on Galileo’s Child, and all too aware of it. Having, in theory, all possible authority, in practice she has none whatsoever. When she clashes with Ryan over the suspension of work for the salvaging of the platinum, the head driller takes the opportunity to reveal that Dana has been sold out back on Earth. She, in turn, appalled and terrified by the danger to the Earth that she perceives so clearly, launches into a passionate speech intended to recruit the other drillers to her cause. This scene is the pivotal moment of the film, as it forces the other characters to take sides, and to reveal themselves as characters in the process. Ryan himself is the first to do so, exposing himself as the kind of cynic so very cynical, he is unable to believe that everyone else isn’t secretly just as bad as himself. One of the film’s funnier moments comes when, after having suffered another scornful tongue-lashing from the indignant Dana when he offers her the time to claim the fossil within the chamber, he returns to the chamber to find the thing missing. Delighted to discover that, as he supposes, Dana is just as venal as he is himself, and a much bigger hypocrite, Ryan proceeds to mystify the young woman with oblique allusions to her secret activities, and then – she being obviously his kind of woman after all – to make a pass at her. After this, well, if Ryan’s death is the one obvious event of the film, it at least has the distinction of following on from an absolutely classic Scenes We’d Like To See moment when, having already established that the Vorous is totally impervious to bullets, an hysterical Ryan continues to blaze away like an idiot….and gets hit by a ricochet. YES!!

Amongst the others, there are two real surprises in store. The first comes in the form of driller Cody Harrison. Until midway through the film perhaps the most faceless of all the characters, Cody suddenly comes into focus when he dares to take Ryan to task for his manner towards Dana. Subsequently, he reveals himself to be a fount of quiet courage. There is a hint here of Cody having something to prove, even if it costs him his life – Ryan retaliates against Cody’s expressions of disgust with a sneering reference to some past blunder, and to Cody’s consequent demotion to be, as he puts it, “just a grunt” – but the screenplay thankfully refrains from any heavy-handed exposition on the subject. More unexpected still are the sudden revelations made by the team’s explosives expert, Samantha Rogers – more usually known as “Nuke-’em”. Making a friend of Dana from the moment of the scientist’s arrival – and indeed, the sense of relief with which the two young women gravitate towards one another in the testosterone-soaked environment of the mining camp is quite palpable – Nuke-’em, too, chooses to take exception to Ryan’s treatment of Dana, but expresses herself more directly than Cody: she jams her gun into Ryan’s crotch. Tough as nails, and almost frighteningly good at her job – “I got compression charges, molecule charges, shape charges, primacord, toluidine discs, a buttload of plastic, radio dets, vibration dets – and a little cocktail of my own concoction,” she memorably recites at one point, a most alarming gleam in her eyes – Nuke-’em abruptly collapses after Dana’s emphatic speech about the possible fate of planet Earth, unexpectedly revealing “Nuke-’em” to be a mere fabrication, a persona manufactured to “keep the jocks at bay”, and to hide a deep and crippling fear. Unfortunately, this emotional vulnerability tags Nuke-’em – Samantha – as Within The Rock’s Lambert substitute; and it is she who earns the film’s only truly stupid death, when she puts a little too much faith in her own firepower and instead of, say, staying at a safe distance and poking the supposedly dead Vorous with a stick, she walks up and bends ri-ii-ight over it….

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about Within The Rock is that it is, ultimately, a film without a hero. While there are survivors at the end, you won’t necessarily be able to pick them on the way through. There is a satisfying absence of contrivance here. Instead of the usual post-Alien – and post-slasher film – kill ’em one-by-one mentality, Within The Rock disposes of most of its characters in two swift flurries of bloodshed. The first takes place before anyone is aware of the Vorous’s resurrection and are thus unprepared and vulnerable; the second, when those not falling in the first round of slaughter underestimate the creature’s powers. The individuals who are left standing are simply the ones who were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. (Okay, as the battle with the Vorous continues, there is a hint or two of Death Battle Exemption©, but it’s not too flagrant.) With so much at stake, those remaining do not hesitate for a moment to put their own lives on the line. When the creature has finally been defeated; when the charges have been set off, and Galileo’s Child diverted from its path of destruction; when the survivors, adrift in space, allow themselves to celebrate their victory and to mourn for those who didn’t make it, there is a pleasing sense that this time at least, the honour of saving the Earth from the threat of a killer asteroid fell to some people who actually deserved it.

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