The Rock nonetheless works brilliantly as a film, however, because Bay actually knows what he’s doing. The aesthetic of blockbuster sadism described here only goes horribly wrong when a film is helmed by a horrifically clueless director who has no idea how things actually signify or win empathy from the audience. And this brings us to Deep Rising and Stephen Sommers – the future dubious auteur of The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing, and G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra. With all of those films, however, he would obey the corporate Hollywood diktat to always neuter things for the PG-13 rating. With Deep Rising, however, he was allowed to embrace the R, and all the sadism that allows. The result is what is, without a doubt, the most horrible and repulsive film I have ever seen produced on a mainstream blockbuster scale.
The basic plot involves a luxury liner attacked by an absurd deep-sea octopus monster whose tentacles double as innumerable mouths and throats. Described as “some kind of strange off-shoot of the Archaea Ottoia family,” the creature, we are told, does not “eat” people. “No, they drink you. They drink you alive. Sucking all the fluids out of the body before excreting the skeletal remains.” This is the key bit of foreshadowing exposition, and if this sounds to you like it would be intensely, horrifically, agonizingly painful, the film makes clear in no uncertain terms that you’re right. There’s one particularly horrific sequence where we see the “heroes” (none of the character are really prepossessing or sympathetic) shoot open one of the Ottoia tentacles, only to see it spill out one of their previously-devoured comrades, who is now, thanks to CGI, partially-digested but still alive, and obviously in the most acute agony possible. In supplying a large cast just to have the maximum number of victims for this established fate, this film’s sadism is some of the purest I’ve ever seen.
All this would still be potentially workable if Sommers possessed a competent understanding of screen presence. Alas, he doesn’t, and in casting Kevin J. O’Connor as the insufferable “Joey Pantucci,” Sommers creates the most vivid example I’ve ever seen of what might be called the MUCHAS (Mind-bendingly, Unwatchably Creepy, Hateful, Annoying Sidekick) character. Seriously – every moment this guy is onscreen, there is only one candidate a viewer can possibly be thinking of for who needs to be drunk by the Ottoia tentacles next. And yet Sommers persists in the delusion that he’s somehow funny and likeable, and wins viewer empathy. This reaches an absurd peak at the end of the second act when, trapped by one the tentacle-maws, one of the (actually empathy-winning) mercenary-villains uses his last bullet trying to kill MUCHAS instead of sparing himself a gruesome and horrible death. Of course it doesn’t work and MUCHAS just does some more stupid “WTF?” mugging. Badly done sadism of this sort works very differently than the competently-done kind: namely, the latter plays on your humane impulses, while the former simply turns you into a sadist yourself. Watching Return of the Jedi, I always wish I could save Oola and Jubnuk, and watching Jurassic Park, I almost never find myself cheering for the raptors to eviscerate and devour Lex and Tim. Remembering Deep Rising, however, beyond wanting to see MUCHAS get half-drunk, regurgitated, and then drunk again, my only thought is that, for using the character the way he did, I wouldn’t feed Stephen Sommers to the Ottoia even if I could. It would be too good for him.