Monday, October 22, 2007

Deep Rising (1998)

Deep Rising (1998)

Before he struck gold with The Mummy in 1999, writer-director Stephen Sommers had a trial run at making a blockbuster with 'Deep Rising', an action horror comedy that came out in 1998 and flopped at the box office. Its failure probably had to do with the fact that it was hugely derivative of other films and doesn't look all that appealing. I've seen it a few times now and have to say that despite being cheesy and unoriginal as hell, it's still a load of fun!

John Finnegan (Treat Williams) runs a dodgy boat service together with his partners Joey (Kevin J. O'Connor) and Leila (Una Damon) that at the start of the film has been hired by a man named Hanover (Wes Studi) and his team of tough mercenaries. Unbeknownst to Finnegan, the mercenary team's mission is to intercept and destroy a new cruise ship that is sailing on its maiden voyage, the Argonautica. When they arrive at the ship, however, they find it dead in the water with the passengers missing, save for a thief named Trillian (Famke Janssen), the ship's captain (Derrick O'Connor), and the ship's owner (Anthony Heald). They soon discover why - the ship has been attacked by some sort of prehistoric tentacled sea monsters and all the passengers have been killed! It becomes a desperate race for survival as the mercenaries, Finnegan's crew, and the handful of survivors attempt to fix Finnegan's damaged boat (it sprung a massive leak after a collision) and get away from the ship before they become monster chow.

Squaring off against the still improbable success of Titanic, it's easy to see how this disaster at sea film failed to make much money. Epic it ain't. Setting aside the elements it shares in passing with James Cameron's film, it borrows liberally from the Alien series, Jaws, and even (it seemed to me) Jurassic Park. It's shamelessly derivative, that much is certain. Which isn't always a bad thing when it's well executed, as it is here. Unlike Sommers' later films this one fully embraced its horror aspects and features some reasonable scares and quite a bit of gore. The claustrophobic setting, the incorporation of a trained fighting unit stocked with tons of cutting edge weaponry, and the presence of tenacious and resourceful outsiders together with a duplicitous 'suit' are all elements that adhere to formula, but they are still effective.

The ship, which is meant to be massive and cutting edge, is a pretty cool setting with plenty of places for the creatures to hide and pop out of, and offers plenty of variety in terms of locations. The mercenaries aren't exactly as well written as the marines in Aliens, but they do make enough of an impression for it to be possible to tell them apart. There are no real characters of substance in this film, just personalities, but those personalities are strong enough to hold your attention and actually give a damn about their fates. I don't think I need to reveal how the story is structured - lets just say that a lot of people die along the way and it ain't filled with surprises - but I do want to mention the ending, which is darkly humourous and memorable.

The action in 'Deep Rising' is a mixed bag. The set up is usually good, with a fair amount of tension, but once the bullets start flying it feels a bit random and incoherent. The worst part is the monsters that, while being nicely designed, are poorly animated and look completely fake. They are also poorly defined, with their limits and capabilities never being made clear, allowing the story to do anything with them and have them randomly pop up whenever it's convenient. Fortunately there are enough thrills and excitement in the form of people running, screaming, and generally being terrified, which they tend to do whenever they stop squabbling and arguing amongst themselves!

As with his subsequent films, Sommers employs a lot of humour in the story, enough to label it a bona fide action comedy. Most of the writing is perfunctory, but the comedy one liners tend to work, helped along by the game cast. Treat Williams is surprisingly effective as the wisecracking action hero, and he is ably supported by the delectable Famke Janssen, who I don't think has ever played a character quite as playful as Trillian. Kevin J. O'Connor is as annoying as always, but he gets bullied around enough on screen to make his presence tolerable. Wes Studi is great as the comically stoic mercenary leader who is in over his head. The actors playing the team of mercenaries (a group that includes Djimon Hounsou) are fairly effective as the tough talking gun toting types.

'Deep Rising' does not at any point look like a film of pedigree, and thankfully it doesn't try to be too big for its britches. It knows that it's a cheap and cheesy horror film and plays to its strengths by mixing in outrageous action and thrills together with some laughs. It has some decent production values (nice sets!), a pretty good soundtrack, and enough excitement and humour to keep a relatively undemanding viewer engaged for the duration of its runtime. A good but not great film for fan's of the genre, and a decent one for everyone else as long as they don't expect too much from it.

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