In 1997 a movie about a stricken ocean liner set the box office alight. Titanic, James Cameron’s historical fiction starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet romped to Oscar glory and monumental box office, changing the face of cinema forever. The following year, another imperilled ocean liner movie emerged… and it was better. It incorporated many elements that were sorely lacking in Titanic – namely sea monsters and lots of guns. And that movie was Deep Rising.
The plot is pure and innocent and beautiful in its simplicity. Somewhere in the South China Sea or “the middle of nowhere squared” according John Finnegan (Treat Williams), skipper of a small boat hired by a suspicious group of mercenaries, a luxury cruise ship called the Argonautica is on its maiden voyage. The mercenaries, led by Hanover (Wes Studi) and comprising a motley crew of great character actors like Jason Flemyng, Cliff Curtis and Djimon Hounsou are en-route to intercept the Argonautica and mess some stuff up. However, when they arrive at the rendezvous location they find the Argonautica adrift and deserted. As the crew investigate the desolate vessel they encounter several survivors including smarmy boat designer Simon Canton (Anthony Heald) and the fantastically named professional cat burglar, Trillian St. James (Famke Janssen). Together, they learn the cruise liner was the victim of an attack by a multi-tentacled deep sea leviathan, hell bent on gruesomely chowing down on everyone on board.
Deep Rising was part of a short-lived mainstream monster movie revival in the late nineties, coming along one year after an ancient fossilized beast terrorized Penelope Ann Miller and Tom Sizemore in Peter Hyams solidly entertaining The Relic (1997), and Guillermo Del Toro’s sophomore venture, Mimic (1997), about genetically engineered bugs disguising themselves as humans and wrecking havoc on New York. There were also less mythical beasts running riot that same year, in the form of giant reptilian menace Anaconda (1997) and (riding their coattails a little later) the overlooked, but hugely entertaining giant crocodile rampage, Lake Placid (1999). 1998 also saw Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s sub-par yet profitable take on Godzilla emerge. But Deep Rising is comfortably the goriest and most entertaining of the lot.
Now entering its twentieth year, Stephen Somers’ man-vs-sea-beast opus has had a rockier ride to acclaim than Titanic’s iceberg strewn path. Deep Rising has spent the best part of the last two decades plagued by some fairly tepid reviews, so you might well be forgiven for overlooking it if all you’re going by is a wretched 29% Rotten Tomatoes score, or the bafflingly average six out of ten on IMDB. However, that would be a mistake. Look at little closer at some of the audience statistics and you’ll find ratings that belie the poor critical showing. 77% of Amazon users rated Deep Rising either four or five stars out of five, and Google’s audience scoring gives it a spectacular 91%. If any film should stand as a cautionary tale against putting too much stock in ‘popular’ critical opinion or review aggregators, then Deep Rising is it.
Deep Rising’s case for redemption is also not helped any by its inclusion on Roger Ebert’s ‘most hated’ list. This seems harsh. Even if Deep Rising isn’t your bag, surely it’s unfair to let it keep company with the likes of Spice World (1997) and assorted Rob Schneider vehicles? But again, closer inspection of the list reveals the inclusion of Halloween 3: Season of The Witch (1982), Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988) and Critters 2 (1998) – the finest Easter-set, alien invasion, sci-fi horror-comedy ever made – which all took time to find their audience. So if we can agree that, in the words of Mr Homer Simpson “people can come up with statistics to prove anything”, and therefore ignore all the ratings and percentages Deep Rising has accumulated, then we can examine it on its own merits.
For starters, any movie that employs a pun of such astounding quality as ‘Full Scream Ahead’ for its poster tagline, should advance immediately to the top of your ‘must watch list’. But if you need further convincing, Deep Rising is simply a perfectly calibrated monster movie. And when done correctly, the giant-creature-runs-amok flick is one of life’s greatest pleasures. From Godzilla (1954) to Alligator (1980) to Digby, The Biggest Dog in the World (1973), there’s a surprising amount of room to manoeuvre in a genre where simplicity is an asset. In horror movie terms, originality can be a vaporous concept, but as far as the monster movie goes all it really needs is to be executed with a bit of style and a sense of fun. Deep Rising knows this, and it really doesn’t get much simpler… or fun… than giant-creature-attacks-giant-boat.
The cast is excellent too. Harrison Ford was alleged to have been the first choice for the role of John Finnegan, but in Treat Williams, Deep Rising has much more than a Ford substitute. Admittedly his wry delivery might owe a tip of the hat in the direction of Henry Jones Jr, but Williams still makes Finnegan his own with a smirking, don’t-give-a-shit-attitude toward the madness unfolding around him. As an action star, Williams is definitely unconventional. Yet he has the square jaw, immaculate centre parting and innate authority of a leading man – more Bruce Willis than Schwarzenegger – but that’s just fine, because he suits the normal-bloke-in-an-abnormal-situation right down to the ground.
Williams’ career, in addition to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America (1984), and hard boiled crime yarn Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995), has another shining gem lurking in the back catalogue. The excellent horror/comedy/buddy movie Dead Heat (1988), which despite garnering some cruel reviews, gave an inventive take on the genre, threw out some brilliant effects work and is another solid gold B-movie that, like Deep Rising, deserves to have its day in the sun.
With the rest of the cast, Deep Rising has an excellent gang of monster fodder. The excellent Wes Studi lends an untrustworthy gravitas to Hanover. When you get a great actor in a genre role, who takes things seriously, it just elevates the whole package and Studi is no exception. He’s a hugely talented actor and makes for a great bad guy. The rest of the mercenaries are all big muscles and fragile egos, which gives us the perfect excuse for a bunch of lunkheaded machismo and justifiable digestion as they take turns ending up in the gullet of an unspeakable aquatic menace.
Famke Janssen’s Trillian St. James is also in the thick of the action as a sophisticated thief. She’s given more depth to her story than the one dimensional soldiers of fortune, and she saves the day as often as Finnegan does. So we get a nice reverse on the predictable monster movie ‘damsel in distress’ staple.
An interesting thing in terms of the character dynamics in Deep Rising is that outside of Finnegan, his crew and St James, no one really likes each other. The mercs are just together for a job and the boat personnel are oily and obnoxious. So there are three competing factions that all need to come together out of necessity in order to stay alive. This all runs contrary to the criticism levelled at Deep Rising that it’s just Aliens (1986) on a boat. The teamwork and space marine camaraderie of Hicks and Hudson’s platoon is conspicuously absent here as the assorted thugs and businessmen bicker and disbelieve each other.
And this is all before we even get to the deliriously gory effects work, with creature design courtesy of living legend Rob Bottin. You don’t need me to explain the man’s horror pedigree to you, and in Deep Rising he gives us The Octalus, a fanged, nautical terror that’s all caustic slime and infinite tentacles, which bloom like flowers into fearsome Predator-like mandibles. Interestingly the name of the creature is never mentioned in the film, but Octalus did form part of the title for the German release. The effects work overall is a nice mix of styles. There’s lots of practical goo and blood and partially liquefied skeletons, as well as CGI work for the creature. The CG effects have dated a little bit, but it’s really not too bad considering we’re talking about twenty years. And Somers direction pays off well with some big, fun set pieces sitting alongside more subtle examples of blood spatter or steel pipes popping with viscera. At times, it plays a bit like a seafaring Tremors (1990), with multi appendaged beasts and unseen terrors disrupting the floorboards. Cinema programmers make note that Deep Rising might even make a nice double bill with Chuck Russell’s gloopy Blob (1988) remake, as some common ground is shared where people get snapped in two and dissolved like alka seltzer.
Finally, Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score brings a bombastic pomp to the whole affair, with loud orchestral themes ready to compete with ear-drum shattering ballistics and speedboat engine thunder. It’s almost as if they sneaked the wrong movie in front of the orchestra and somehow got away with it. The score lends a certain sophisticated air to movie that, with the best will in the world, is not exactly highbrow. As great as it is, Deep Rising is probably not going to get the live score treatment any time soon (although that is a fantastic idea and I would totally pay to go see that).
According to IMDB there was an attempt made at PG-13 cut of Deep Rising, and while the lack of origin for that fact makes it impossible to tell if this was at studio or director behest, it gives an indication of the direction in which Somers’ career would go as he helmed the popular Mummy movies, for which he is best known. And Deep Rising was the clear testing ground for the light-hearted adventuring aspects that helped propel The Mummy (1999) to box office (if not critical) success.
Deep Rising, despite the poor reviews and years of being overlooked, clearly still has its fans. Earlier this year Kino Lorber issued an extras laden blu ray to celebrate the 20th anniversary, which must surely serve as testament to an audience hankering for this particular brand of maritime horror. It’s just a shame Deep Rising’s appreciation did not come in the form of box office receipts, thus denying us all the chance of the intriguing sequel teased at the end. Nevertheless, we can take a lot away from Deep Rising – not all CGI is bad, a bunch of poor reviews does not necessarily mean a movie is bad, and if you make a monster movie with enough heart and enthusiasm you really can’t lose.… oh and it’s still a better movie than Titanic.