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DEEP RISING (1998)

“They drink you. They drink you alive, sucking all the fluid from the body before excreting the skeletal remains....”

Deep RisingDirector:  Stephen Sommers

Starring:  Treat Williams, Famke Janssen, Kevin J. O’Connor, Anthony Heald, Wes Studi, Derrick O’Connor, Jason Flemyng, Cliff Curtis, Clifton Powell, Trevor Goddard, Djimon Hounsou, Una Damon, Clint Curtis

Screenplay:  Stephen Sommers

Synopsis:  A small boat piloted by John Finnegan (Treat Williams) and crewed by Joey Pantucci (Kevin J. O’Connor) and his girlfriend, Leila (Una Damon), carries passengers towards an unidentified location in the South China Sea. As Joey and Leila vigorously protest their working conditions to an amused and unsympathetic Finnegan, Hanover (Wes Studi) comes in to check that everything is on schedule. Finnegan reassures him and, in response to Hanover’s probing of his motives, explains simply that as long as he gets paid, he doesn’t care where they are going, or why. Meanwhile, on the Argonautica, an immense luxury liner on its maiden voyage, the ship’s designer and owner Simon Canton (Anthony Heald) makes a triumphant speech to his partying clientele, while professional thief Trillian St James (Famke Janssen) picks the pocket of Captain Atherton (Derrick O’Connor). Stepping outside to help herself to the Captain’s swipe card, and to dispose of his wallet, Trillian hears a strange cry coming out of the stormy darkness.... On Finnegan’s boat, tempers are beginning to flare amongst the mysterious passengers. As they face off against one another, Joey sneaks by into the area where their gear is stored. To his horror, he finds torpedoes....and then the passengers find him. Joey takes a savage beating until Finnegan intervenes, first trying to talk their way out of the situation and then, when that fails, jamming a weapon into the face of Mamooli (Cliff Curtis). Vivo (Djimon Hounsou) instantly holds a knife to Joey’s throat. The dangerous stand-off ends when, after a measured look at Finnegan, Hanover orders his men to stand down, and Finnegan hauls Joey away. On the Argonautica, Trillian has obtained access to the ship’s vault and is helping herself to some jewellery when she is caught by the Captain and Simon Canton and – for want of a brig – locked up in the pantry. As Leila tends Joey’s injuries, the frantic engineman tells Finnegan about the torpedoes; while below, as Mulligan (Jason Flemyng) arms the torpedoes, Hanover distributes assault weapons amongst his men. Meanwhile, someone has disabled the Argonautica’s navigation and communication systems. As Canton and the Captain react with incredulity, a sonar operator detects something huge approaching the ship from the depths of the ocean at tremendous speed. It strikes the liner, which comes to a violent stop, throwing those on board every which way; many are killed or injured. The survivors stampede in panic. One woman locks herself into a bathroom, crying in fear....then hears something moving deep within the ship’s infrastructure. An instant later, the woman has simply vanished.... Finnegan looks on in disbelief as a torpedo launcher is installed on his deck – and then, just too late, sees that his radar has detected an unexpected object in the waters ahead: a speedboat, knocked free from the Argonautica. The two boats collide, and an explosion rips through Finnegan’s small vessel. As Finnegan and Joey inspect the damage, Leila calls them up to the bridge, pointing out to them a strange sight: a massive ocean liner, sitting motionless on the dark, stormy seas....

Comments:  It occurs to me that Deep Rising is a pretty good metaphor for the directorial career of Stephen Sommers. It starts off a bit shaky; hits its stride to become, if not remotely original, at least entertaining and exciting; and then overplays its hand, becoming progressively bigger, louder and dumber – and finally insufferable. As is so often the case, while its monster makes it nominally science fiction, Deep Rising is really an action film in disguise – or perhaps we should say, several action films in disguise. There’s a film geek game I used to play when visiting my favourite video store, sliding down the Horror or Science Fiction or Cult aisle and going (only to myself: I’m not that much of a dick) “Seen it, seen it, seen it, seen it, seen it, ooh haven’t, seen it, seen it, seen it....” – or sometimes “Good, bad, blah, bad, bad, blah, sucks, good monster, good, blah, really sucks....” Deep Rising ultimately feels like Stephen Sommers’ version of that game. He’s not so much making a movie here as bragging to his fellow geeks about all the films he’s seen. “Aliens? Seen it! The Abyss? Seen it! Terminator 2? Seen it! Tremors? Seen it!”

But playing “Spot The Reference” is only one of the ways in which you can watch Deep Rising. You can also play Count The Cliché; or make a mental list of every film you’ve seen in which these exact same characters appear; or test your courage by enduring the script’s attempts at humour. You can raise your eyebrows at the film’s body count – and really, Deep Rising’s gore quotient is the one truly surprising thing about it – or politely avert your eyes from some of its less successful ventures into the realm of CGI effects. Watching a film like Deep Rising is, in fact, rather like eating at Macca’s: doing it all the time might be very, very bad for you, but as a means of satisfying the occasional craving for junk, it sure gets the job done.

Deep Rising opens with a team of Extremely Suspicious Characters being piloted in a small boat across the South China Sea, destination unspecified, by one John Finnegan, hired for his “reputation” and boasting the professional motto “If the cash is there, we do not care”. The film and its problems thus begin almost simultaneously, as we understand that we are expected to accept Treat Williams in the role of a hard-nosed, bad-ass, unscrupulous adventurer. Williams himself seems to battling disbelief at this piece of casting, if the incredulous smirk that decorates his pleasantly lived-in countenance for the entire film is anything to go by. Never one to try anything that hasn’t been done before, Stephen Sommers seems to be going for a Han Solo kind of vibe here: heart of gold under cynical exterior, yada-yada. Trouble is, whereas we could accept Han as the result of a career spent landing in one pile of deep doo-doo while trying to extricate himself from another, we’re never given any way of understanding Finnegan’s career choice: he certainly wasn’t forced into it. We’re therefore left to assume that he’s either (a) far stupider than he appears, or (b) much more amoral than we’re subsequently given any reason to believe. (Considering Finnegan’s aghast reaction upon discovering that the Extremely Suspicious Characters are Up To No Good, my vote is for (a).) Finnegan’s bad-ass-ism is, therefore, somewhat of an Informed Attribute©, with which the script deals by having Wes Studi’s Hanover, an obviously genuine bad-ass, treat Finnegan with respect. Finnegan’s two person crew consists of Leila, an all-purpose boat-hand whose lack of a surname indicates that she is heading swiftly for a gruesome end (Una Damon is entirely wasted in this throwaway supporting role), and Joey Pantucci, Finnegan’s sidekick and engineer and (I’m sure you’ll be astonished to learn) Deep Rising’s Odious Comic Relief. Opinions on Kevin J. O’Connor’s performance here seem widely various. A lot of people seem to find his Joey – gasp! shock! – funny. Others just want to kill him. Personally, while conceding that Joey does have a few amusing moments, most of the time I find his whininess fingernails-on-blackboard annoying; so much so, that I am entirely in sympathy with Hanover when he first tries to turn Joey into monster bait, and then later on when, faced with the choice of a quick death for himself, or of a slow, agonising death that takes Joey out with him, he chooses the latter. However--- If the movies teach us anything, it is that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot kill the OCR; and Deep Rising’s late-stage inference that it actually has is---well, it’s cruel, that’s all. Films have no right to toy with their viewers’ emotions like that.


Let's see: life with Joey Pantucci, or....

So much for our ostensible heroes. Stacked up against them are (I’m sure you’ll be even more astonished to learn) the usual multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic gathering of which, or so the movies assure us, teams of professional mercenaries are always comprised. (Why, oh, why can’t the rest of the world learn to get along the way that criminals and gang-members do?) Our introduction to this motley crew comes charmingly with a protracted shot of one of them puking his guts from sea-sickness....and mercy on us if he isn’t played by poor, dear Trevor Goddard, may he rest in peace. Not content with on-screen vomiting, Goddard proceeds to embarrass himself even more by speaking in an outrageously exaggerated ORRRR-STRAAAHHHL-YAN accent – which, thankfully, he progressively tones down over the course of his admittedly brief performance. (I always like to amuse myself by picturing the horror of Hollywood casting agents when they find out that we don’t actually sound like that. “But – but – ! You can do that accent, right? Right??”) His stomach briefly settling, Goddard – aka “T-Ray Jones” (!?) – is then subjected to ridicule from his fellow mercenaries for coming from ORR-STRAHL-YA in the first place. Ha, ha! Countries that aren’t America are hilarious, aren’t they? (Considering that it’s later implied that these guys have been working together for some time, shouldn’t they have already gotten over their mutual cultural differences?) A merciful interruption occurs when Joey sneaks into the cargo area and discovers that the mercenaries are packing both heavy weaponry and torpedoes (!!). He in turn is discovered himself, and has the crap kicked out of him. Yay! In response to some angry prodding from Leila (who is – ick! – Joey’s girlfriend), Finnegan intervenes, and after a tense stand-off, succeeds in rescuing his sidekick before any permanent damage can be done to him. Boo!

Finnegan’s bad-ass credentials thus established [*snicker*], it’s time to step on board the Argonautica and meet our other two main characters. (Well – three if you want to count Derrick O’Connor’s Captain Atherton, but he makes a pretty early exit.) The first is Simon Canton, designer and owner of the Argonautica – and also (I’m sure you’ll be STILL MORE astonished to learn) the mole who sabotaged the liner in the first place. (Canton is played by Anthony Heald: you were expecting maybe honesty and trustworthiness?) As Finnegan quickly deducts, Canton is in league with Hanover and his team: they empty out the liner’s vault and sink the boat with their torpedoes, he collects the insurance. (How obliging of the monster, by the way, to stop the communication-disabled Argonautica in the exact spot in the South China Sea where Hanover et al. were supposed to rendezvous with it. I wonder what they would have done if the liner had come to a dead halt, say, fifty miles east?) Our final character – using the term loosely – is professional thief Trillian St James (I’m going to give the screenplay the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that name is her nom de guerre, and that she’s really called Esther Blodgett or something), who is recognised and apprehended early on by Canton and the Captain and locked up in the pantry, and who in this way survives the monster’s mass slaughter of the liner’s passengers and crew. There’s really no need for Trillian to be in this film at all, but while we’re dishing out all the other Tokens, why should we pass up the Token Romantic Interest? Still – I guess she’s not entirely useless, and also not annoying, which in a film of this kind is probably the best we can hope for. And to give credit where it’s due, Trillian does pass my patented Heroine’s Intelligence Test, when she takes the first opportunity to change from her sexy party dress and heels into some sensible clothing – and yes, I am still glaring at you, Penelope Ann Miller! (It is also noticeable – and it must be very noticeable, because believe me, this isn’t the kind of thing I usually notice – that despite spending most of the film running around in cold water, Famke Janssen never once, um, does a Jennifer Love Hewitt. I’d love to know where she buys her bras.)


Catherine wheels....flame-juggling....hundreds of drunken party-guests....
What could possibly go wrong?

So that’s our cast, and before long they’re all wandering around the water-logged corridors of the sinking ship, arguing, wise-cracking, and getting picked off one by one roughly in the reverse order of their listing in the credits. The only thing here that is in any way original is the extreme nature of some of the gore scenes. Particularly memorable is one in which a half-digested – and only half-dead – mercenary spills out of a shot-open monster gut – which, come to think of it, means we can add Anaconda to the list of films Stephen Sommers saw before shooting Deep Rising. (Discuss: the digested-but-still-living human being – more or less stupid than the articulate severed head?) Otherwise, the best I can say is that a few of the film’s gags are, believe it or not, actually funny – the one universal reaction to Deep Rising seems to be that everyone who watches it goes away humming “The Girl From Ipanema” – and that a single glimmer of originality shows itself in the fact that the mercenary who finally, inevitably, cracks under pressure and turns into a sweaty, panicky mess is played by the very white and very English Jason Flemyng (last seen on this site dressed as Santa and getting stabbed to death by an animatronic Chucky, and thus earning himself a place, alongside Charles S. Dutton and Bridgette Wilson, on my list of People Who Invariably Die In The Films I Watch). However, even these very minor virtues are undermined by the fact that most of Deep Rising’s dialogue is just awful, even by the unambitious standards of the action movie. About half of it seems to consist of variations on “What the hell was that?’ and “Let’s get the hell out of here!”, the other of repetitions of Finnegan’s trademark action hero utterance, “Now what?” (No, it’s not much of a trademark; but then, he’s not much of an action hero.)


What do you mean, I'm next lowest billed?

But then, not even Stephen Sommers at his most delusional could ever imagine that anyone would watch Deep Rising for its dialogue. They watch it, I am sure, for the same reason that I do every time that it’s on, complain about it afterwards as much as I might.

Because it has a monster.

Naturally.

The best part of Deep Rising comes early on, when the mercenaries, with Finnegan and Joey in tow, make their way surreptitiously onto the Argonautica. Grunting and snorting and waving their weapons and generally stinking the place up with testosterone, the mercenaries burst into the liner’s casino, intending to intimidate the passengers into abject surrender....only to find it totally deserted and a complete wreck. Understandably freaked out, the intruders go hunting for an explanation, and slowly begin to realise that even if the passengers are no longer on board the liner, something is....

In truth, Deep Rising’s monster is never more convincing that when it operates as an unseen menace: as an unearthly noise, or something stirring menacingly deep within the bowels of the ship. (And they even manage to spoil this effective section of the film with one of my least favourite effects, the series of floorboards that erupt due to something underneath.) Even here, however, before we have any kind of grasp on its true nature, the creature is maddeningly inconsistent. Sometimes it pounces on its prey and gulps it down lickety-split; sometimes – if the moment calls for it – it takes its sweet time about the business; and sometimes it likes to, shall we say, play with its food. We’re told that it “drinks” its victims, yet it also seems to get a kick out of spray-painting its surroundings with the very fluid it is presumably killing for. And as with all movie monsters, there is no limit to its appetite: it has disposed of 99.9% of the crew and customers of the Argonautica, and yet still hunts down the newcomers with undiminished gusto – until, that is, it meets up with John Finnegan, who is granted the most outrageous Hero’s Death Battle Exemption© since Robert Foxworth threw himself into the arms of a mutated bear and started poking it with an arrow.


Aw, cool! Santa brought me a Treat Williams doll!

The slow reveal of Deep Rising’s monster is rather well done, but the plain fact is, the more we see of the beastie, the less we can believe in it – and besides, the critter suffers from a distracting degree of over-familiarity. (I knew that thing was a Rob Bottin without even reading the credits.) And not content with showing us too much of its monster, Deep Rising goes on to commit the crowning blunder of – trying to explain it! Still more unbelievably, our explanation comes courtesy of Simon Canton, who wipes his glasses, clears his throat, and reveals himself an expert in cryptozoology by declaring the beastie to be “a strange offshoot of the Archaea ottoia family.”

At least, that’s my best guess: I’m working from an uncaptioned TV print here, so you’ll have to cut me a little slack. But if that is what he says, well, “strange” is putting it mildly.

Dredging up memories from university days spent in classes on Invertebrate Zoology and Microbiology – although obviously, my education in this area was never as extensive as Simon Canton’s – I can tell you that “Archaea” is the term for a group of prokaryotic organisms that are sometimes known as “extremophiles” for their ability to exist under hostile environmental conditions such as very high or low temperature or salinity. (I’m not aware that it applies to their ability to survive extremes of pressure, though, which presumably was what they were trying to infer here.) Ottoia, on the other hand, I had to look up....only to find that there was a pretty good reason why I wasn’t familiar with it: it’s extinct. It is, or rather was, a member of the phylum Priapulida; or – for the benefit of those of you not up with the scientific habit of disguising dirty jokes with Latin – penis worms.

So what Simon Canton is telling us here is that the creature on the Argonautica is a single-celled prehistoric burrow-dwelling wing-wang worm.

Yo.

No, actually, to be fair, this is what Simon Canton is telling us: “At 4,000 feet, the Ottoia are about as long as a pencil, with bodies about the size of a golf ball. But those at 20,000 feet have been found to eat full-grown sharks. At 30 or 40,000 feet... Well, you do the math.”

Ah, well. I guess we always knew he was a bloody liar, right?

The early parts of Deep Rising imply that there are swarms of worm-like monsters on board the Argonautica. Frankly, that would have been more interesting than the single creature that is finally revealed, which turns out to be a cephalopod-like animal of gigantic size, capable of surviving out of the water, unaffected by tremendous changes in pressure, and with enormous eyes. Because if there’s one thing that creatures that customarily lurk in “canyons deep enough to hide the Himalayas” need, it’s eyeballs the size of the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball. And if you don’t think that something nasty is going to happen to those eyeballs, well, you just haven’t watched enough monster movies.


Hey, cool gun! Can I have a closer look?

What we eventually learn are the animal’s tentacles are, on their own, fast, deadly and cunning (although when it comes to the tentacles “herding” the surviving humans and locking the doors of the liner, I draw the line: I don’t take that nonsense from super-intelligent genetically-modified killer sharks, and I’m certainly not going to take it from a giant penis worm!). The whole animal, conversely, is as dumb as a box of rocks. Confronted by John Finnegan, rather than just whipping out a tentacle and snapping him in two or gulping him down, as has happened to every single other of its victims, it winds a tentacle about his body and lifts him into the air – and then uses another tentacle to slap him around! (Granted, by this stage I felt like slapping Finnegan too, but....) In doing so, it kindly leaves Finnegan’s arms free....and his gun well within his grasp....

The something nasty in question having happened to the creature’s eyeballs, the rest of Deep Rising is spent on Finnegan and Trillion’s quest to escape the sinking liner, and Simon Canton’s efforts to thwart them and escape himself. This sequence is, even by action movie standards, incredibly stupid.

(Sorry, I seem to be using the phrase action movie standards rather too often and too pejoratively, don’t I? Because heaven knows, no-one who intentionally watches – and enjoys – as many bad horror and science fiction films as I do has any right to be sitting in judgement on any other genre. I’ll try again.)

This sequence is, even by the standards of a Stephen Sommers film, groan-inducing, interminable, and incredibly stupid. It is also the very first – but by no means, by no means – the last time that Sommers will reveal his deep personal philosophy to the film-going world: if you can’t think what to do next, blow something up.

On the other hand, the comeuppances dished out to Deep Rising’s two chief villains are as poetic as even the most mean-spirited of us could desire. So I guess I have to give the devil his due.

Well....I accept that I’m probably going to draw some heat for my rough handling of Deep Rising.  A swift look around the internet reveals a surprising amount of affection out there for this derivative piece of work, and although I try to be understanding of other people’s odd obsessions, this time they’ve got me beat. The only thing I can come up with is – to return to my McDonald’s analogy – that films like Deep Rising act like a kind of comfort food. You know when you watch one that you’re going to get exactly what you got every time before, no need to think, no nasty surprises.

Just don’t forget to keep the Tums handy.


All right, Mr Bottin, I'm ready for my close-up

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