If you’ve seen Die Hard, you know that it’s the crowning achievement in not only cinema, but of western civilization, outpacing such popular choices as the printing press, the microchip, or The Oinkster’s legendary Doomsday Prepper Burger. If you haven’t seen Die Hard, what the fuck are you sitting here reading a blog for? Go find the manliest guy you know, the one whose fridge only contains beer, condiments, and a ham brining in Mexican Coke — he will have Die Hard on blu-ray. Watch it and you can come back later. Anyway, like anything great that somehow manages to be successful, Die Hard spawned legions of imitators. Executives have told stories that for a decade after, every single movie pitch was “Die Hard in a [blank],” such as “Die Hard in a Navy ship” (Under Siege), “Die Hard in a train” (Under Siege 2: Dark Territory), and “Die Hard in Air Force One” (Air Force One). In fact, one executive knew that the whole trend had reached critical mass when she heard the pitch “Die Hard in a building.” I could write a whole blog post on what makes Die Hard incredible (hell, I might just do that one of these days), but I actually want to talk about one of the most fun, bizarre, and just plain bonkers of the Die Hard riffs, the 1998 b-movie Deep Rising.
Really, Deep Rising is a lot more than a mere Die Hard imitator, though it shows its love in a variety of ways, from a cat-and-mouse through soulless corporate surroundings to a reference to the centerfold John McClane used as a landmark. Trying to pitch it as the sum of several movies would only result in whiplash, yet its DNA can be seen quite clearly, like looking at a motel comforter under a black light. The film sets us up with the three-man crew of a battered boat transporting a multinational team of mercenaries on a shadowy errand in the middle of the South China Sea. Meanwhile, a luxury cruise ship is in the middle of one of those parties that precedes some sort of Occupy movement. A thief prowls the ship, only to get caught in the middle of her heist and locked up. And that’s when the ship is yanked to a sudden halt and chaos ensues. By the time the mercenaries show up, the cruise ship has been turned into a drifting ghost vessel hosed liberally with blood. There’s not a body in sight. After some tense conflict between the transport crew and the mercenaries, they find a few survivors who are babbling about something loose on the ship. And that’s when the tentacles show up.
Yep, Deep Rising morphs into a glorious creature feature, as the different characters, all with their own shady agendas, try to get off this cruise ship without being turned into poop. The monster design is a triumph, with just enough scientific-sounding hokum to give it plausibility by the admittedly lax standards of a b-movie. It has enough mobility to chase our heroes through narrow corridors, enough strength to make intimidating dents in steel bulkheads, and enough teeth and mouths to make Freud distinctly uncomfortable. It even succeeds in the “fate-worse-than-death” category, which is often overlooked in monster design, as the beastie’s victims remain conscious through their digestion.
The challenge for any movie made in the late ‘90s, when studios were obsessed with CGI but the technology was not yet there, was the temptation to sacrifice suspense on the altar of FX porn. The best creature features are the ones that reveal their monsters bit-by-bit, building to an epic reveal. Think of the exemplars of the genre: Alien, Jaws, and The Thing. When CGI made it possible to see the monster in every phase of the film and do things no animatronic could do, many filmmakers abandoned the blueprints that decades of experience had provided. Now the monster was shown in the first frame, with numerous lingering shots of writhing tentacles and glabrous mouths. Director Stephen Sommers (of The Mummy, another great b-movie of the era) wisely keeps his abomination in the shadows for most of the first half. This is fortunate, as some of the FX (the green-screening especially) have not aged well, though the gift of this brand of CGI is that it resurrected big monsters from the small-monster era between when stop motion went out of fashion and raptors getting all up in our nation’s kitchens.
I’m still shaking my head over how the hell Sommers assembled his cast. Treat Williams is the lead, Captain John Finnegan of the transport ship, and the kind of beleaguered everyman action hero Harrison Ford (the original choice for the role, evidenced by his “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” quip) pioneered and Bruce Willis perfected. Williams has turned in one excellent performance (Critical Bill in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) but has spent most of his career unjustly pigeonholed as the poor man’s version of someone else. If I had to explain Treat Williams to a nerd of today, I’d say he’s Nathan Fillion that never got the cult following.
Because it’s a Sommers film, Kevin J. O’Connor is on hand as the weasely comic relief, playing Finnegan’s sidekick. The mercenaries are almost all solid That Guys from the late ‘90s, from Wes Studi has head bad guy Hanover, to Jason Flemyng, Clifton Powell, Cliff Curtis, and Djimon Hounsou. Anthony Heald shows up as the designer of the cruise ship, and since the only thing more certain than Sean Bean being killed is Anthony Heald betraying the hero for personal gain, he is the designated arrogant, sniveling traitor, the Burke, if you will. Lastly, as the thief, is Famke Janssen, and she merits special mention. Not just because late-‘90s Famke Janssen is ridiculously gorgeous (she’s still ridiculously gorgeous, but this was her peak), but because her character serves as more than just The Girl. She is given her own motivation and is not part of any of the established sides. She had a purpose on the ship, and when she’s thrown in with the others, she doesn’t disappear into a wailing millstone dragging the men into the earth. Much could be made of the climactic scene where she has to cock Finnegan’s shotgun for him, but the subtext was so obvious as to render it text.
When I announced I was reviewing this movie, I got a couple extremely enthusiastic responses. Not enough to signify a cult, but enough to renew my faith that this is a film that deserves an audience. I’ve only gone over the bare bones. I haven’t mentioned the scenes and moments that came up in these discussions with other fans, including some incredible karmic justice and a truly fantastic ending. I’ll leave you with this: if you thought Die Hard could be improved with the addition of Cthulhu, this movie is for you. If you don’t think that, you are a sad person and we probably shouldn’t speak further.