Welcome to Freaks of Nature, a monthly column devoted to creature features of all shapes and sizes. This includes eco-horrors, kaijū, cryptids, and everything else in between. If a film features a beast who strikes terror in the heart of man, I’ll be there, bestiary in hand and ready to bask in all that monster glory.
Over ninety percent of the ocean remains unexplored. Take that into consideration when thinking every species of animal has been discovered. So much activity goes undetected in the great abyss; surface dwellers are better off not thinking about it. Yet whenever we enter the water, all bets are off. The rules of dry land don’t apply anymore because the sea is a force beyond human control. The characters in the 1998 disaster film Deep Rising learn that lesson the hard way.
“What [begins] as a simple heist movie, ends up being an unremitting creature feature like never before.”
The success of both Jaws and Alien led to an increase in outer space and underwater movies throughout the eighties. People’s fear of the unexplored depths of the galaxy and water was realized in films like The Abyss. The following decade was comparatively drier until we neared the millennium, though. In early 1998, both Deep Rising and Sphere came and went at the box office without much of a splash. The latter made more money than Stephen Sommers’ seafaring actioner, but neither were well received, at the time. Deep Rising especially took a beating from the critics. In his scathing review, the late Roger Ebert signed off with—”Been there, seen that.” As if things couldn’t get any worse, the movie was a box office bomb with only $11 million earned against a $45-million budget.
As much as critics hated the formulaic-ness of Deep Rising, audiences were more quenched. Admittedly, Sommers’ story — originally “Tentacles” on paper — isn’t exactly novel. A boat captain and his small crew of two are hired by mercenaries looking for a luxury cruise ship in the South China Sea. Onboard, everyone is then attacked by a colossal creature. The plot is far from complicated, but Sommers’ execution is what really makes this movie float.
In its best interest, Deep Rising relies on its ability to go with the punches and refusal to slow down. There is hardly a moment where the characters are left alone with their thoughts. Instead, we bear witness to the cast’s nervous, biting dialogue and chaotic energy. Our protagonist is John Finnegan, a maritime man for hire played by the charismatic Treat Williams. He rocks a tight shirt and flannel like it’s his job, and he is the voice of reason among an ensemble of irrational ‘shoot first; ask questions later’ players. Finnegan‘s not profound, but he’s smart. He’s easy to root for because he’s redeemable and comparatively humane. Williams — who took on the role after Harrison Ford apparently turned it down — plays well with others, too. He foregoes niceties and any sort of courting with romantic interest Trillian St. James (Famke Janssen), one of the cruise’s passengers caught in flagrante delicto. Never does their nautical amour feel organic. Regardless, they sizzle together and audiences will not argue with their opportune coupling.
The Argonautica’s owner, Simon (Anthony Heald), is integral to the origin of the monster. He conveniently explains what on Earth they’re dealing with when the deep-sea terror rears its many-toothed head and endless supply of tentacles. Otherwise, he’s a rat-like foil who skirts by long enough before audiences enjoy his fitting comeuppance. Besides Simon, the other most significant supporting character is Kevin J. O’Connor’s Tooch. He backs up Finnegan all the while providing most of the film’s comic relief. O’Connor would play a similarly pathetic role in the same director’s 1999 movie, The Mummy.
The film’s main attraction — something most audiences would not even know about just by looking at the movie’s sometimes vague promotional art — is speculated to be an immense, highly evolved Ottoia. Dubbed the “Octalus,” the modern-day Kraken is pure eye candy for monster enthusiasts. We gradually see more of the beast as the characters evade its fatal feelers all up and down the ship. It’s never a dull moment with an Octalus around.
By this point in film history, the days of using only practical effects in genre movies were long gone. Even so, Deep Rising is above the mean when put up against its contemporaries. As ample as the computer-generated imagery is here, it at least looks impressive for both the time and now. The effects hold up well with only some spotty moments here and there. We have Rob Bottin — who contributed his aesthetic know-how to films like The Fog, The Thing, and Robocop — to thank for the Octalus‘ hellish appearance.
The Octalus has an unmistakable habit of showing up out of nowhere with no warning despite its girthy presence. Deep Rising‘s objectors will complain, but the massive villain undoubtedly adds a whole other layer to this multi-tier cake of horrors. What began as a simple heist movie, ends up being an unremitting creature feature like never before. The plentiful shootout action and sardonic dissent among the ranks are not enough to carry the movie. Spicing things up with a bloodsucking, tentacular monster, however, is just offbeat enough to work.
After the immediate threat is dealt with in Deep Rising, the story ends on a curious cliffhanger that was never resolved. Any hope for a sequel was ultimately dashed by the film’s utter failure—the movie was the nail in Cinergi Pictures’ coffin. That teasing conclusion would have led into Sommer’s own reboot of King Kong.
“[…] the gold standard for aquatic horror…outside of Jaws.”
It’s tough to say why Deep Rising performed so poorly in theaters. Audiences have never been stopped by a harsh critic or two. While advertisements were understandably cryptic to conceal the movie’s marine marvel, they weren’t exactly withholding about the movie’s agenda either. This was designed to be a riotous affair full of gunfire and monster mayhem. That alone didn’t pull people in. This was also a ‘dump month’ release so that might have had some impact. Whatever the reason, Deep Rising is not a lesson in misguided moviemaking. It’s honest about its intentions and succeeds at what it aims to do.
There’s a common saying about trash and treasure that will never apply here. Deep Rising is not the dregs of movies. Far from it. Sommers’ film was a misfire not because of its content, but because of its timing and inability to find an audience back then. By now, people have realized this is the gold standard for aquatic horror…outside of Jaws. Sheer enjoyment is readily found on the surface of Deep Rising, a movie that truly deserved better.
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