clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Deep Rising’ at 25 and the Lost Art of the Creature Feature

It’s tempting to imagine what could have been if the rumored ‘King Kong’ prequel had become a commercial hit instead of developing a cult following over time

Hollywood Pictures/Ringer illustration

Titanic might have turned James Cameron into the king of the world, but its historic success came at the expense of sinking other films; no pun intended. For one, Titanic’s tumultuous production meant that Paramount Pictures, which cofinanced the pricey blockbuster with 20th Century Fox, had to find another movie to slot into its original release date in the summer of 1997. The studio landed on Event Horizon, Paul W.S. Anderson’s gnarly cult classic that was hindered by such a hasty turnaround. (As Anderson told me in 2020, Paramount gave him only four weeks to cut the film; he was hoping for 10.) Then there were all the movies that Titanic squashed during its 15 consecutive weeks atop the box office, a feat that hadn’t been achieved since E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. All told, Titanic was a commercial force that no film during this monthslong period could stand up to—least of all another tentpole about a doomed ocean liner.

Of all the movies to flounder when going up against Cameron’s masterpiece, 1998’s Deep Rising has to be the most self-explanatory. Released in January, a month that’s historically treated as a dumping ground by studios for films they have little faith in, Deep Rising follows a group of high-tech mercenaries in the South China Sea as they board a luxury cruise ship, the Argonautica, with the intent of looting its rich clientele. Instead, what the mercenaries find is an eerily empty vessel—the only sign that anyone was ever aboard are all the streaks of blood. From there, it doesn’t take long for the group to realize that whatever killed the passengers and crew of the Argonautica hasn’t left, and is hungry for a second course.

Written and directed by Stephen Sommers, who would strike gold the following year with his crowd-pleasing remake of The Mummy, the best thing about Deep Rising also left it open for criticism: a willingness to borrow so liberally from its pop culture influences. That’s apparent from the opening scene of the film, which puts the audience in the POV of its underwater creature swimming through a graveyard of shipwrecks: an ominous tone-setter that apes the title sequence of Jaws. As for Deep Rising’s protagonist, John Finnegan (played by Treat Williams), he’s a wisecracking rogue in the mold of Han Solo who gets a bad feeling when shit hits the fan. (Finnegan, who was hired by the mercenaries to bring them to the Argonautica, is also the proud captain of a plucky boat that is described as a piece of junk.) Really, the most distinctive aspect of Deep Rising is its tentacled monster created by Rob Bottin, the legendary special effects and creature designer behind John Carpenter’s The Thing, and even then, the movie was dismissed as Alien meets Titanic.”

In less assured hands, Deep Rising would capsize (sorry) under the weight of its influences, but Sommers has a knack for crafting something fresh out of familiar genre ingredients. (What is The Mummy remake if not Indiana Jones for the millennial generation?) Much of Deep Rising takes the form of a swashbuckling romp—one in which the characters dish out snappy one-liners despite the nightmarish circumstances they find themselves in. It’s in these sequences that Kevin J. O’Connor—not to be mistaken with The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, the NBA writer—shines as Joey Pantucci, Finnegan’s right-hand man whose wimpiness in the face of unspeakable terror makes him the most relatable character in the ensemble. (“Can you just get asthma, or do you have to be born with it?” Joey says after a close call with the monster, a quote that belongs on O’Connor’s highlight reel.)

But while Deep Rising rarely takes itself seriously, the movie does know when to dial up the horror with some unforgettably disturbing imagery. The film’s signature gross-out moment comes when one of the mercenaries is ejected from the tentacled monster’s belly—mid-digestion—as he’s still alive: a gnarly sight that is somewhat overshadowed by a similar but more effective death scene in 1997’s Anaconda. (If those movies taught me anything, it’s that there are few things scarier than the thought of being eaten alive.) What’s certainly aged better is the monster’s feeding ground in the hull of the ship: a bloody collection of human remains that looks like it was beamed straight from hell.

Hollywood Pictures

As for the creature itself, which is essentially a mutated Ottoia worm the size of an 18-wheeler with carnivorous (and possibly autonomous) tentacles, the decades have not been kind to its outdated CGI. But Deep Rising was, at the time, made with a respectable production budget of $45 million. (Adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent of green-lighting a film in the present day for just north of $81 million.) Therein lies the enduring appeal of Deep Rising: Creature features these days are rarely made at a blockbuster scale with this level of craftsmanship, let alone with an R rating. If Deep Rising came out in 2023, chances are it would be a Syfy original movie with janky special effects from the jump.

There’s nothing wrong with a knowingly trashy made-for-TV film—I have spent an unhealthy amount of time watching Syfy’s ridiculous collection of shark movies—but they aren’t a worthy substitute for the big-budget creature features being squeezed out of Hollywood in favor of modern, mostly homogeneous tentpoles. As Sommers lamented in the director’s commentary for Deep Rising, none other than Disney produced the film through its adult-oriented subsidiary, Hollywood Pictures, which has since been shuttered. “Now all they have is Star Wars and Marvel,” Sommers says, and it’s hard to argue with him. In fact, the closest Disney has gotten to releasing something like Deep Rising ever since may technically be Underwater, 20th Century Fox’s aquatic Alien knockoff that was in the can before the Disney-Fox merger was completed. (Underwater also has the distinction of being the last film released under the 20th Century Fox banner, which has since been rebranded as 20th Century Studios.)

Sommers has his own reasons to be dismayed by the current blockbuster landscape: His output since the turn of the century has largely underwhelmed, and he hasn’t directed a movie since Odd Thomas bombed at the box office in 2013. (I will always go to bat for G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which isn’t good, per se, but successfully recreates the feeling of mindlessly smashing a bunch of action figures together.) Considering Deep Rising was another financial misfire, the film will never be viewed as the director’s crowning achievement—unsurprisingly, that honor belongs to The Mummy. But it’s still tempting to imagine what could have been if Deep Rising had become a commercial hit instead of developing a cult following over time, especially because the movie culminates with a juicy cliff-hanger.

At the end of Deep Rising, the trio of survivors—Finnegan, Joey, and Famke Janssen’s impeccably named Trillian St. James—make their way to shore on an uninhabited island. But just when you think their troubles are over, they hear a monstrous roar from the jungle—a delightful tease for a sequel that never came to be. There are unsubstantiated rumors that Deep Rising was meant to be a lead-in for a King Kong reboot, and our heroes had the misfortune of being stranded on Skull Island. If that had come to fruition, Deep Rising’s legacy would be much different, and fascinating for a whole host of reasons. But whether Deep Rising was merely a stand-alone horror film pummeled at the box office by Titanic, or a galaxy-brained stealth prequel for a monster franchise that failed to get off the ground, there is one axiom that still holds true 25 years after its release: They don’t make B-movies like they used to.