Thursday, March 29, 2018

You Do The Math

The 20th anniversary of DEEP RISING has already come and gone so it might not be too necessary to spend much time contemplating that particular milestone. More important things happened back in ‘98, after all. Maybe. It’s been a long time. But I saw this film back then so I may as well put some thought into it. Released at the very end of January (opening in eighth place; TITANIC was still going strong), DEEP RISING was an early film written and directed by Stephen Sommers who immediately after its box office failure went on to the blockbuster success of helming the first two MUMMY films with Brendan Fraser which were then followed by VAN HELSING in 2004, a film I hated so much that I immediately pledged to never see another film by him ever again. Considering his one wide release since was 2009’s G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA that hasn’t been a problem. But I lived in blissful ignorance of these future events back when I kinda sorta enjoyed DEEP RISING on opening weekend (after which I snuck into the Barbet Schroeder thriller DESPERATE MEASURES, which might be even more forgotten now) and, in fairness to Sommers, I also remember genuinely liking the version of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN that he directed for Disney in ’93. As for DEEP RISING, looking at it again on the Blu-ray release that pairs it with the 1994 Heinlein adaptation THE PUPPET MASTERS, it’s not bad, maybe just good enough to go perfectly fine with a night of pizza and beer. It pretty much does the job with enough promising touches that you wish maybe, just maybe, it could have been a little better. It’s no big deal that it isn’t but sometimes you can’t help but wonder.

In the middle of a storm in the South China Sea, John Finnegan (Treat Williams) along with crew members Joey Pantucchi (Kevin J. O’Connor) and Leila (Una Damon) is piloting his boat with a charter of mercenaries led by the mysterious Hanover (Wes Studi) to an unknown location. Meanwhile somewhere nearby, the mega-deluxe cruise liner the Argonautica is in the middle of its maiden voyage with owner Simon Canton (Anthony Heald) lording over the festivities which is quickly followed by passenger Trillian St. James (Famke Janssen) being caught red handed breaking into the ship’s vault and thrown into a makeshift brig. But just as the ship’s navigation and communication systems are mysteriously disabled and an unseen threat to the ship begins causing mass chaos and destruction. As Finnegan begins to realize that his own passengers are intent on attacking the Argonautica themselves to loot and destroy it, they arrive only to find it seemingly empty with no idea what has happened until creatures beyond any comprehension quickly begin to make their presence known and are preparing to attack.

It’s basically THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE meets BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE with the added presence of underwater ALIENS-type creatures on the attack and, I have to say, I’ve heard worse ideas. DEEP RISING is slick, glossy, loud and gory with just enough mayhem to keep things moving while still making me wish that there was a little more of a plot to it all to keep my interest. Of course, since it’s never really meant to be much more than a monster movie that probably sounds like I’m just looking for something to complain about. Which is fair enough. With a good amount of energy and snappy dialogue it’s more of an energetic theme park ride than a horror film but since it knows what it wants to be the tone is consistent, always knowing to have one more joke standing by to keep us off guard. Although I haven’t seen Sommers’ THE MUMMY ’99 in years my very distant recollection is that the two film’s plots are surprisingly similar, featuring two opposing groups forced to team up against an otherworldly force to stay alive, with DEEP RISING the gorier, R-rated version of the storyline even if it is mostly CGI gore, one nasty axe to the face notwithstanding. And it’s always aware of the film it’s trying to be with a healthy sense of humor that almost makes you forget that there isn’t quite enough going on from scene to scene.

Part of it is an odd structure, one that jump sinto the action almost immediately while still taking way too long to get all the necessary pieces into place, a little too much wandering around the mysteriously empty boat during the first half before the various factions finally collide. The lengthy buildup means that Williams and Janssen, the alleged lead couple, don’t even meet until close to the halfway point and there’s not enough of a chance for their relationship to develop into much beyond the first glance. It’s a film that too often doesn’t realize which elements are working so it winds up focusing on the wrong things, particularly the amount of time spent on the mercenaries who are mostly all dull meatheads with some sort of Chinese-made superguns that fire endless rounds of ammunition which keeps the focus on them instead of the Howard Hawks-styled banter between the leads which gives the film much of its personality.

Played by Treat Williams, Finnegan is given a simple “Now what?” as his default catchphrase and his snarky impulsiveness is about all we ever know about him, part Han Solo and part Bogart in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT which I guess means that Kevin J. O’Connor is playing Walter Brennan and Famke Janssen is supposed to be Lauren Bacall but the fact that I’m even making these comparisons really means that I’m trying to will this film to somehow be better or at least become the film that I can sense lingering underneath all the noise. That’s how much I want to like it with the personalities of the leads giving me hope but it never quite gets there, too often more interested in getting to the action and gunplay.

Just about the biggest plot thread in the film, the mystery of who’s responsible for the sabotage of the ship, is done away with in about a minute of screen time, so fast that one of the characters is forced to comment on the plot expediency but when the culprit offers the feeble excuse, “I misjudged the market!” for his financial reasoning it might be the best line in the film. Since almost all of the hundreds onboard the ship are killed off right away (they’re mostly rich people, so who cares) the main cast feels slightly underpopulated and maybe could have used an extra character or two to add to the disaster movie vibe, plus any film that so quickly tosses out the concept of Famke Janssen as cat burglar isn’t one that I can bring myself to completely endorse (this is as good a place as any to admit my weakness for Famke Janssen, just to state for the record). With a film like this, scares count as well as the laughs and even the gore effects but if the characters don’t stick in the brain the way they do with the best of them whether ALIEN or Carpenter’s THE THING, it’s all going to dissolve and DEEP RISING only gets part of the way there, coming up a little short when it comes to its own personality to help remember any highlights five minutes later, let alone twenty years.

If anything it’s playful, maybe as playful as a film about monsters that suck “all the fluids out of the body before excreting the skeletal remains” can be with Anthony Heald gravely informing us of all the horrific possibilities of what they can do since he’s clearly read up on them somewhere intoning, “They drink you,” in order to drive the point home. The basic look of the creatures which were created and designed by Rob Bottin isn’t bad, leading up to the reveal of the Alien Queen-like big monster, but twenty years on the film is a reminder of that point in the digital revolution still just a few years after JURASSIC PARK when there was still a lot clearly done on set instead of green screens as it’s done so often today so the film looks expensive—and with all that water, this doesn’t seem like it was a fun shoot—but the creature effects are mostly if not all done with CGI so they feel separate from the other elements, coming off as a little too cartoony and weightless so the actors never seem like they’re interacting with a creature actually in the room. A few times it even plays like there was scrambling in the editing room to cobble something together where the effects shots simply weren’t there and while the monster gore effects depicting the after effects of the “drinking” that we’re told about aren’t bad it’s hard for me to ever think of digital effects work like this as scary or disturbing. To the film’s credit, it never allows those effects to completely overwhelm everything else going on like they would in Sommers’ later films and the film at least tries to keep the focus on the human leads as much as possible even if the material is sometimes lacking. As an aside, the sound mix on the Blu-ray keeps the dialogue levels normal but the endless streams of gunfire are LOUD which means I keep having to turn the volume down so the film clearly doesn’t care that I’ve got neighbors. Not to mention that even when a film is meant to be a non-stop thrill ride about deadly creatures chasing you, sometimes the quiet moments help.

In addition to all the mayhem there’s the Jerry Goldsmith score which fortunately contains a little more flair than the standard action beats he was sometimes composing around this period, so even when it sounds familiar as chase music that we’ve heard before but it still raises the film up immeasurably. It’s all a reminder that there was almost no one better to almost make us think that the movie was actually as good as his music made it seem, so rich and evocative that it makes me think damn, this is what movie music is supposed to be. There aren’t too many composers like that these days. With dialogue that ranges from enjoyably clever to Treat Williams saying, “I have a very bad feeling about this,” DEEP RISING has a slickness and never gets too heavy, always moving relentlessly to the next scene and even though I keep wishing that it wouldn’t be so loud or stupid and even if the climax goes on way too long like way too many films do, more than not the action beats are just right. The banter between the characters who are left during the very last scene almost offers the impression that there was more during the film then there actually was but at least it’s fun and energetic which these things aren’t always. All that action and monster mayhem at least reminds me every film that tries it doesn’t necessarily pull it off. It could have used more personality but what’s there is at least something so to get close to the Hawksian lingo that the movie sometimes strives for, it’s almost good enough. That can help get you through those long nights of beer and pizza too, because the next film you put on with a nearly identical plot might not get anywhere near this close.

The cast helps too, with Treat Williams’ lightweight personality mixing perfectly with the tone and he gives things just the right arch sense of gravity as the monsters attack. Famke Janssen brings a sharp canniness to her role, playing it as if there isn’t much that doesn’t amuse her until she finds out what’s really going on but she’s not even too phased by that as long as there’s a chance to get away and in the moments she’s given with Williams the two play off each other just right. I still want to see her in a full movie where she plays a jewel thief, though. Kevin J. O’Connor, who went on to appear in a few other films for Sommers but more importantly in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER for Paul Thomas Anderson, clearly knows that he’s the character who gets to steal as many scenes as he can and he goes for it, bringing a full characterization to what’s merely supposed to be the comic relief. Anthony Heald as the ship’s owner takes his smarmy Dr. Chilton persona to the most extreme as he explains the intricacies of what these creatures are while the likable Una Damon, a ubiquitous presence during ’98 between this, DEEP IMPACT and THE TRUMAN SHOW, work so well with Williams and O’Connor that I wish she could stick around longer. As tiresome as all the mercenaries quickly become, Wes Studi as the leader gives an added gravity to things purely from the vibe that he obviously has no interest in the monster stuff or any jokey quips and is ready to stare down anyone who looks at him wrong. The other guys in his group include Cliff Curtis, Jason Flemyng and Djimon Hounsou in a minor role filmed before he starred in AMISTAD but released a month later.

DEEP RISING was released by Hollywood Pictures, the Disney division active at the time with a logo that now seems like a true relic of the 90s, sort of like how the film itself now feels like an artifact of the sort of movies that we seemingly got in theaters weekly back then. And I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing about this movie since the presence of Famke Janssen alone doesn’t justify it unless it’s that milestone of twenty years and thinking about where I was in life back then, how different I was. Maybe not that much. I guess I’m remembering it as part of a time when things seemed more carefree, whether they should have been or not, when I would see movies in the middle of the day in no rush to go anywhere else. I probably just assumed that was going to last forever, just like DEEP RISING has a story that instead of ending just sets itself up for the next chase. The idea of living in a monster movie that never ends doesn’t sound so bad as long as I’m one of the survivors, even if it is a monster movie that’s more interested in running from the monsters than in finding out anything about them. But in the end, I don’t think DEEP RISING is about anything more than running away from monsters towards more monsters, anyway. I guess it’s just a version of that movie which manages to stick in my brain more than others, a sweet spot of one the kind which has a lot of things that appeal to me but maybe falls just short. It’s still one that I sort of enjoy regardless. As for how much I’ve changed since then, maybe a movie with a giant underwater monster is the perfect way to avoid thinking about it. With luck you can forget about those things for a few seconds longer before being forced to return to the real world.

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