Quicksand used to be one of the most ubiquitous adventure-movie danger scenes, but in the past 25 years or so that innocent-looking-but-deadly patch of quivering sand has largely disappeared from the movies. An interesting story in Slate examines why.
For now, quicksand has all but evaporated from American entertainment˜rejected even by the genre directors who once found it indispensable. There isn’t any in this summer’s fantasy blockbuster Prince of Persia: Sands of Time or in last year’s animated jungle romp Up. You won’t find quicksand in The Last Airbender or Avatar, either.
Giant scorpions emerge from the sand in Clash of the Titans_, but no one gets sucked under. And what about “Lost˜a tropical-island adventure series replete with mud ponds and dangling vines? That show, which ended in May, spanned six seasons and roughly 85 hours of television airtime˜all without a single step into quicksand. “We were a little bit concerned that it would just be cheesy,” says the show’s Emmy-winning writer and executive producer, Carlton Cuse. “It felt too cliched. It felt old-fashioned.”_
Quicksand once offered filmmakers a simple recipe for excitement: A pool of water, thickened with oatmeal, sprinkled over the top with wine corks. It was, in its purest form, a plot device unburdened by character, motivation, or story: My god, we’re sinking! Will we escape this life-threatening situation before time runs out? Those who weren’t rescued simply vanished from the script: It’s too late˜he’s gone. The alternative was no less random: Surviving quicksand has always required more serendipity than skill. Is that a lasso over there? A tendril from a banyan tree? Cuse throws up his hands at the thought. “Adventure storytelling has to evolve,” he says. “People use up gags. If you’re working in an old genre, you have to figure out ways to make it fresh.” He cites the trash compactor scene in Star Wars as the last major innovation in quicksand cinema: The heroes are standing in muck, but the danger has been transposed from the vertical to the horizontal˜it’s not sinking; it’s crushing. A full generation has elapsed since that evolutionary step was taken in 1977. “I love love love adventure gags,” Cuse assures me, “but the best years of quicksand are in the past.”
So that got me to thinking: obviously hunters and anglers are out in the woods more frequently than most. So has anyone ever, even once, encountered anything as remotely insidious as movie quicksand? I don’t mean losing a shoe in the mud, I mean “up-to-my-chin-I’m-gonna-die-where’s-the-dude-with-a-rope?” type quicksand. I sure haven’t. A huge chunk of my childhood was spent roaming the sandy banks of the South Canadian river, and despite my best (and probably stupid) efforts to actually make quicksand, I don’t think I never sank past my knees. So perhaps the reason movie quicksand slowly sank from the cultural consciousness is because it was never based on reality to begin with. Your thoughts?