Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (1998)

4. Deep Rising

In the mid-to-late nineties, there was a brief revival of interest in monster movies. For the first time in a while, major studios were willing to spend lots of money on gory creature features. Maybe the new toy of CGI made filmmakers interested in putting monsters on-screen. Maybe the historical success of “Jurassic Park” made films about big beasties chasing people through corridors seem profitable. Whatever the reason, for a few short years, films like “The Relic,” “Starship Troopers,” “Mimic,” “Virus” and “Phantoms” flashed across theaters screens. Even low budget filmmakers got in on this, non-gems like “DNA” and “Within the Rock” hitting the direct-to-video market. Few of these films made much money, which is probably why the trend was so short lived. Somewhere in there was “Deep Rising,” Stephen Sommers' fourth feature.

Finnegan makes his living steering a boat over the seas. He ships whatever a client wants and doesn't asks questions. This makes him the perfect partner for a shifty gang of mercenaries, led by Hanover. Finnegan and his crew doesn't know it but the mercenaries are planning on robbing a near-by cruise ship. However, when they arrive at the ship, they find it wrecked and deserted. Soon, it becomes apparent that something has attacked the boats. The few survivors say monsters are responsible. The intruders soon discover this for themselves. A giant breed of prehistoric worms have infiltrated the boat and is eating anyone it can get its tentacles on.

Stephen Sommers' previous movies were rated PG, being family films of one sort of another. “Deep Rising” is a major shift in style. It's an R-rated monster movie, Sommers' first stab at the horror genre. He also mixes in action and heist movie elements, with a little bit of humor. The director would find his greatest success with a similar combination of genre. “Deep Rising” is nastier than “The Mummy” movies though. The horror scenes are more intense. Such as a moment where someone is dragged back and forth by an unseen creature, under the water. Or a suspenseful moment when the beasts slam on the walls of a hallway, trying to get at its meal.

In fact, “Deep Rising” gets pretty grisly at times. The film doesn't skimp on the blood and gore. An early moment has a woman, hiding in a bathroom, being sucked down into the pipes, blood splattering over the mirror. Later, one of the monster's victims is coughed up. He's been half-digested, his skin melted away so that his skull and brains are visible. Later, the characters come upon a hallway that is covered in blood, partially devoured skeletons lining the floor. This leads up to an even bigger moment, when a room full of corpses is discovered. That's some pretty explicit gore, coming from the director of “Huck Finn” and “The Jungle Book.”

However, even when making a movie full of dead bodies and people being eaten alive by horrible monsters, Stephen Sommers can't help but throw in some humor. Despite being in a very perilous situation, the characters are frequently telling jokes. Quips are often treated. More than once, while monstrous jaws snap right over their shoulders, the heroes express their disbelief in amusing ways. Probably the funniest scene in the movie involves the gang riding an elevator up, only to be greeted by a muzak version of “The Girl from Ipanema.” Later, a character can't get that song out of his head. Some of these moments got decent chuckles out of me.

Ultimately, Sommers does not balance these conflicting tones as well as he would in his future films. “Deep Rising” feels flippant at times. When you have hundreds of people being eaten alive by monsters, their bones spit back up later, jokes and one-liners leave a bad taste in people's mouth. This becomes especially apparent near the end. One character realizes his girlfriend has been killed. He's given only a minute to mourn before the plot moves forward, getting back to the jokes and gags. Later, Finnegan experiences something similar, believing a friend of his has been taken. When a supporting guy becomes an unhinged villain, that also feels a little at odds with the story up to that point. “Deep Rising” is a bit too horrific to be an effective comedy but a bit too comedic to be an effective horror film.

Like a lot of these late nineties monster movies, “Deep Rising” does have a novel central beast. It seems like creature features of this period were eager to distinguish themselves from the movies that had gone before. The organisms responsible for eating all these people are revealed to be ottoias. That's a meat-eating, aquatic worm species that went extinct during the Cambrian period, 500 million years ago. In real life, ottoia rarely grew over three inches long. The creatures in the movie are massive. Mostly, they seem to be huge tentacles slithering through the interior of the ship. They are covered in spikes and reveal dividing maws full of razor sharp teeth. In one of several nods to “Aliens” the film makes, the individual worms are later revealed to be appendages of an even bigger mother organism. That the design is impressive should be surprising, considering “The Thing's” Rob Bottin worked on the film.

While the creature design is impressive, the special effects that bring them to life frequently leave something to be desired. Stephen Sommers would frequently be criticized for relying too much on CGI, many years before the platform was at its greatest strength. This began with “Deep Rising.” The worms are primarily computer generated. While they sometimes look all right, too often the effects are underwhelming. The mother ottoia at the end is especially egregious, looking like something from a video game cut scene. This is not the only example of weak effects in the film. There are a few scenes, such as when the heroes are outrunning an explosion, when the actors are obviously performing before a green screen.

The part of Finnegan was written with Harrison Ford in mind. This is all too obvious. He's exactly the kind of roguish hero you'd expect Ford to play. He's grouchy and somewhat reluctant but ultimately driven by his love of adventure. He also pilots a big vehicle. Ford, of course, passed on the film. Treat Williams would be his unlikely replacement. Williams at first seems like an odd fit for the part. However, as the film goes on, he develops into a likable hero. He's well suited to the action theatrics and is good with a one-liner or a shotgun shell. He also plays well off Famke Janssen, the resourceful thief who ends up being a survivor.

There's actually quite a few familiar faces in “Deep Rising.” Kevin J. O'Connor plays Joey, Finnegan's sidekick. This is the first of several sidekick roles O'Connor would play for Sommers. O'Connor's ability to generate laughs from neurotic behavior is nicely deployed here. Wes Studi is believable as the serious and stern leader of the mercenaries. Anthony Heald, who looks a lot like Nick Nolte in “Cape Fear,” plays the owner of the cruise liner. Though how the script handles the character strains believably, Heald is amusingly unhinged in the part. Jason Flemyng, reappearing from “The Jungle Book,” shows up in a similar role as the nervous, somewhat cowardly mercenary. Djimon Hounsou, years before making his mark as a character actor, also appears as part of Hanover's team.

For its flaws, “Deep Rising” is a quickly paced film. Stephen Sommers' direction is energetic. His camera is frequently moving, sliding through the labyrinthine tunnels of the cruise ship. He even throws in a dutch angle a few times, providing an askew feeling to some of the attack sequences. While Sommers keeps “Deep Rising” moving at a decent clip, some of his more tacky tendencies continue to shine through. There's at least two of those rough crash-zooms he likes to use. Just before the movie is over, he throws in some slow motion. At this point, it's clear that these aren't the quirk of a developing director. Instead, I guess that's just Sommers style.

Jerry Goldsmith composed the score for “Deep Rising” and its one of the film's highlight. Instead of going with a seafaring theme for the ocean-set movie, Goldsmith throws in a Caribbean feel. There's some steel drums and lightly plucked strings. This also provides a light-hearted feel for the film, matching well with its more comedic moments. Goldsmith also provides plenty of heavily pounded percussion and rising horns, for the more thrilling moments. Few did bombast better than Goldsmith, so you know he ramps up the tension during the horrific scenes. Over all, it's a sweeping, adventurous score and sometimes better than the movie that accompanies it.

“Deep Rising” was not successful upon release. The reviews were overwhelmingly negative. The box office receipts topped out at around 11 million, far below the movie's 45 million dollar budget. This would make the sequel teased by the ending unlikely. Maybe the advertising had something to do with this. I distinctly recall seeing the posters all over my local video store as a kid. It wouldn't be until years later that I learned the film was a monster movie at all. The movie has its defenders but I wouldn't exactly call it a cult classic either. There's enough cool, interesting, or funny moments for me to enjoy this one, even if it has some pretty serious flaws. [Grade: C+]

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