The fourth-graders were unanimous: Quicksand doesn’t scare them, not one bit. If you’re a 9- or 10-year-old at the P.S. 29 elementary school in Brooklyn, N.Y., you’ve got more pressing concerns: Dragons. Monsters. Big waves at the beach that might separate a girl from her mother. Thirty years ago, quicksand might have sprung up at recess, in pools of discolored asphalt or the dusty corners of the sandbox step in the wrong place, and you’d die. But not anymore, a boy named Zayd tells me. "I think people used to be afraid of it," he says. His classmates nod. "It was before we were born," explains Owen. "Maybe it will come back one day."
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 clichéd. 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."
August 25, 2010