Dead Calm (1989)


After the tragic death of their child, a Royal Australian Navy officer (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) and his wife (Nicole Kidman, The Hours) decide to take an extended trip on their yacht. One day, the couple bumps into a sinking ship and rescues the boat’s only survivor (Billy Zane, James Cameron’s Titanic). The couple slowly begins to suspect that the marooned man isn’t telling the whole truth about the shipwreck.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“You are very aggressive. That can be a real problem on a small boat!”

On the surface, Phillip Noyce’s Aussie thriller Dead Calm feels like a remake of Roman Polanski’s 1962 thriller Knife in the Water. However, I quickly realized that there is really no comparison: despite many plot similarities, Polanski’s thriller is a complex study of marital discord, while Noyce’s movie is nothing but empty-headed escapism.

Based on a novel by pulp fiction author Charles Williams, Dead Calm won’t stimulate your brain cells. It’s the kind of “popcorn movie” that is perfectly content with enthralling the viewers with a series of thrilling sequences.

I tend to believe that there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to entertain the audience at all costs. I do think that the movie missed a perfect chance to explore substantive social issues. But if you are looking for a straightforward, unpretentious and fun edge-of-your-seat suspenser, this is the movie for you.

As I said before, Terry Hayes’s (Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior) screenplay lacks substance. I was particularly peeved by the fact that the movie never delves into the emotional trauma suffered by the grieving couple. Thankfully, the film’s undeniable technical finesse more than makes up for a weak script.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the work of Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves) and/or editor Richard Francis-Bruce (The Shawshank Redemption). Dead Calm, mostly shot near the gorgeous Whitsunday Islands located off the east coast of Australia, looks stunningly beautiful, and the story’s pace is exemplary — it’s hard to resist such a visually appealing movie.

Dead Calm is essentially a chamber piece at sea, and the three main actors meet the challenge with flying colors. This was my introduction to Nicole Kidman. I had seen both Sam Neill and Billy Zane perform in other movies (I’ve always liked them) but Kidman was a new face. I instantly fell in love with her.

Kidman couldn’t have found a better vehicle to introduce herself to American audiences if she had tried. The role of the heart-broken wife requires her to be both vulnerable and strong, and Kidman conveys those characteristics and then some. It doesn’t hurt that she looks fabulous with or without makeup. Neill and Zane are excellent too.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Dead Calm did just okay at the box office. It’s one of those movies that found its audience at the video rental store. The script may not be as snazzy as its visuals, but this highly entertaining thriller has many intense and suspenseful situations. One interesting side note: In the 1960s, Orson Welles attempted to adapt the Charles Williams book, but never finished the film due to lack of money. Color, 95 minutes, Rated R.


19 responses to “Dead Calm (1989)

  1. Great review. I’m a big fan of this film: it doesn’t get very psychological as you point out, just dives right into the deep end of the boat, as we discover…a terrific “B” movie with a great cast!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve seen this film more times then I can count. Yes, I agree that maybe some elements could have been worked out better, but overall this is one heck of a tense thriller with some very memorable scenes. Billy Zane is great in this one! 😀

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  3. Saw this one at the theater, and thought it was fun, for the very reasons you explain above. Also my intro to Nicole, AND Sam Neill…but I’d already seen Billy Zane before, in…Back to the Future!

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  4. ‘Dead Calm’ is widely considered the best adaptation of a Charles Williams novel. Williams is an entertaining, strictly pulp writer. Recently read his novella “Flight to Nowhere” that was adapted into the movie ‘The Deep’ starring Nick Nolte.
    Williams specialized in the sub-sub genre of blue water noir, taking noir story elements and placing them out in the blazing sun of the sea. For another classic film in the blue water noir category definitely check out ‘The Breaking Point’ starring John Garfield. An adaptation of Hemingway’s novel that is superior to the starring vehicle for Bogart-Bacall, ‘To Have and Have Not’, which is most notable for being Bacall’s film debut.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh! I didn’t know about Williams, Dead Calm and The Deep (it makes perfect sense that the same person wrote both books). And I agree with you about Breaking Point being better than To Have and Have Not, and this is coming from a huge Bogie fan!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Dead Calm is the kind of thriller that I don’t think too much of nowadays. But I remember being very impressed with it when I first saw it in the cinema (I was 19 at the time) and with how that final demise scene for Billy Zane’s Hughie was so incredibly done.

    Liked by 2 people

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