Deep Rising (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Here's something to chew on: what's the favorite food of big, cheesy-looking special effects monsters like the one lurking in the bowels of a luxury liner in Deep Rising? The obvious answer to this question is cardboard, because that's the depth of the most fully-developed character in this painfully generic creature feature. Deep Rising demonstrates all the originality and vitality of something scripted by a computer. In fact, considering the rigid adherence to the expected formulas, perhaps it was.

The most astonishing thing about Deep Rising is the exceptionally high level of gore. Not since Starship Troopers have this many chunks of flesh (both human and non-human) been scattered in all directions. We learn some bloody trivia, as well, such as how a sea monster spraypaints in red (it drinks a human being then spits out the liquefied remains) and what it does with half-digested leftovers. I suppose Deep Rising's gallery of grotesque images represents fun stuff for those who love the macabre, but it doesn't do much for me.

On the surface, and that's about the only level at which this film can be analyzed, Deep Rising feels like Tremors grafted onto Titanic (everyone else is citing the equally valid Aliens/Titanic connection, since James Cameron directed both). In going for the big disaster angle of Titanic and the tongue-in-cheek mayhem of Tremors, Deep Rising somehow misses both marks by a wide margin. The film is not humorous, tense, or exciting. In fact, it's downright boring, and, despite being half the length of Cameron's current box-office champ, Deep Rising feels like the longer movie.

Is it really necessary to say anything about the plot? Probably not, since it's easy to guess, but I'll go ahead and oblige anyone who wants a synopsis. The film opens by introducing us to a gang of bad guys on board a mercenary ship. In addition to the usual cast of psychopaths and lunatics, there's Finnegan (Treat Williams), the boat's pilot, who's supposed to be an Indiana Jones knockoff; Joey (Kevin J. O'Connor), the inept sidekick who's supposed to be lovable and funny (but is really just irritating); and Hanover (Wes Studi), the "mastermind" (and I use that term lightly) of the operation. Their goal: attack a cruise ship, clean out the safe, then sink it using some illegally-acquired torpedoes. The problem is, by the time they reach the Argonautica, the Titanic-like luxury liner has turned into the Marie Celeste. Aside from a beautiful jewel thief (Famke Janssen) and a couple of crew members, there's no one on board. The reason soon becomes obvious -- the ship has been taken over by a bad special effect that is supposed to resemble an octopus with teeth and more than eight tentacles.

The cast, which is led by Treat Williams, is primarily comprised of has-beens and probably-never-will-bes (two exceptions: Wes Studi, best known as the villain in The Last of the Mohicans, and Djimon Hounsou, Amistad's Cinque). Williams, once a "can't miss" prospect in Hollywood, has fallen so far out of favor that the best he can do these days for a lead role is a film like Deep Rising, and his inability to create a charismatic or interesting figure here may sink whatever is left of his sputtering career. Famke Janssen, who will forever be known as Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye, is the perfect bland match for Williams. Given her limited acting abilities, it's likely that she was chosen for this part primarily on the basis of her physical attributes. Unfortunately, a bra defeats the purpose of having her in a wet tee-shirt for half of the picture. Meanwhile, Kevin J. O'Connor, who has entirely too much screen time, exhibits all the appeal of fingernails scratching a blackboard.

These days, audiences are becoming more difficult to impress with computer-generated special effects. This is a lesson that writer/director Stephen Sommers (who previously helmed the live-action Jungle Book) needs to learn. The days of Jurassic Park, when viewers were astounded by the mere spectacle of seeing something big and imposing on screen, are past. Now, movie-goers are looking for the sophistication of Titanic -- visuals that are so well-incorporated that it's impossible to tell where they end and where "reality" begins. In Deep Rising, the monster, like everything, is artificial and unconvincing.

Unfortunately, the fundamental problem audiences are faced with here isn't so much the idiotic monotony of this individual picture, but the poor quality of the entire bankrupt genre (although, to be fair, Deep Rising is a particularly bad entry). Even once this film has sunk out of sight, the knowledgeable viewer knows it won't be the last of its kind. Like the slimy, slithering things that inhabit the air vents and pipes of these movies, more are waiting just around the corner in ambush. And that consideration, unlike anything on screen, is truly horrifying.

Deep Rising (United States, 1998)

Director: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Treat Williams, Famke Janssen, Wes Studi, Kevin J. O'Connor, Anthony Heald
Screenplay: Stephen Sommers
Cinematography: Howard Atherton
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: Hollywood Pictures
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 1998-01-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1