Humans who find themselves living beneath the ocean in sci-fi movies might as well be living in space. Many of the dangers are the same, be they natural (oxygen scarcity, claustrophobic proximity to asshole co-workers) or unnatural (monsters!). Needless to say, it’s a setting that has inspired a lot of filmmakers.
This Friday brings a new entry into that genre: Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart as one of several deep-water researchers who must struggle to survive once an earthquake rattles their lab and shakes awake some hostile sea beasties. It’s a familiar blueprint, with slight variations, that all eight of these relatively recent (1989 and later) films also followed—some with better results than others.
This 1989 entry from George P. Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part II; Tombstone) reunites the director with his Of Unknown Origin star Peter Weller, who heads up an ensemble cast that also includes Ernie Hudson, Daniel Stern, Hector Elizondo, and They Live’s Meg Foster. The premise (the script is by Blade Runner co-writer David Peoples and Die Hard co-writer Jeb Stuart) pilfers from genre greats like Alien and The Thing, as a crew of deep-sea miners discover a Russian shipwreck that’s hiding a terrible and contagious secret. Special effects by the legendary Stan Winston help elevate this pre-CG creature feature, which is admittedly very derivative—but at least it takes the time to craft its characters (even the unlikable ones) before tentacles start flailing around and mutating everyone that gets caught in their rubbery grasp.
Also from 1989, and also very derivative, this tale from Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham dives to the ocean floor, where a U.S. Navy crew tasked with constructing an underwater storage facility for nuclear missiles discovers there’s a floor beneath the floor, and it’s home to something that definitely does not appreciate being disturbed. The crab-like creature (a joint effort from Chris Walas, of The Fly and Gremlins fame, and Mark Shostrom, who worked on A Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead II) exudes sufficient menace, but the real villain of DeepStar Six is the petulant, pissy character played by the great Miguel Ferrer (RoboCop, Twin Peaks), whose obsession with saving his own ass puts everyone else in mortal danger. You love to hate him, and he’s the highlight of the movie for sure—with a pleasingly gruesome death scene of his own making that doesn’t even involve the movie’s sea monster.
This underwater epic is yet another 1989 release. Although it feels more retro, or to put it less kindly, schlocky, than the others listed here (it got its own Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode in 2018). Lords of the Deep has the producing stamp of B-movie legend Roger Corman (he also makes a cameo!) and this suddenly timely exposition dump at the outset: “In the year 2020, Man has used up and destroyed most of the Earth’s resources. Large corporations have begun to develop experimental undersea habitation in the hope of conquering a new frontier...” Priscilla Barnes (Suzanne Somers’ replacement on Three’s Company) plays a researcher stationed on one of those new habitats, puzzling through a strange discovery: a substance that resembles translucent slime and has what seem to be telepathic powers since it immediately starts zapping the doc with trippy visions.
Lords of the Deep’s production design is heavy on blinking lights, stock footage, pink-and-purple jumpsuits outfitted with name tags (WHY?), and plenty of lo-fi special effects (like vigorously shaking the camera to simulate an earthquake), even before you get to the underwhelming creature reveal. Far more alarming is the unstable mission commander played by Bradford Dillman, whose majestic overacting increases in gusto as his character progressively flies off the rails.
The clear winner in the 1989 underwater horror movie derby is James Cameron’s post-Aliens thriller, which boasts Oscar-winning visual effects that still look pretty fantastic even today and a budget that probably could’ve funded all four movies listed above and then some. The cast is also top-notch, with Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio playing estranged spouses who find themselves working together when something...unusual...disturbs a U.S. submarine lurking deep beneath the Caribbean, and the crew of nearby, privately-owned underwater drilling station is roped into lending a hand.
Cameron’s good luck charm Michael Biehn plays the mustachioed Navy SEAL who loses his shit under pressure, but the main attraction in The Abyss is quite obviously the effects—the dreamy, fluid, jellyfish-alien creatures steal every scene they appear in. Not to mention the extensive underwater, waterlogged, and otherwise soggy sequences, a reliably treacherous setting that’s been an enduring Cameron obsession ever since.
There’s no aquatic creature in this 1998 film, directed by Barry Levinson from a Michael Crichton novel, but it does involve a very odd sci-fi mystery situated at the bottom of the ocean. What is initially believed to be an aging alien spacecraft—housing a mysterious sphere that has what appear to be mind-altering abilities—turns out to be an American spaceship that’s traveled back in time after encountering a black hole.
That puzzle, and the ensuing puzzles the movie ends up unlocking but never quite explaining, end up bedeviling the characters (who are housed in a deep-sea encampment called “the Habitat” when they’re not staring into the sphere) as well as the audience. Even the robust cast—which includes Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Liev Schreiber, and Samuel L. Jackson—can’t bring enough energy to make Sphere resemble anything more than a talky drama with an unusual amount of special effects. If only a sea monster had burst out of that freaky bubble, instead of thoughts and feelings.
Juan Piquer Simón—director of notorious cult classics Pieces and Slugs: The Movie—tones down the exploitation vibes ever so slightly for this stupidly enjoyable take on what (by 1990, when The Rift, which also pops up under the title Endless Descent, was released) had become a well-explored horror sci-fi niche. When an experimental submarine ends up at the bottom of an ocean trench, the sub’s designer (character name: “Wick Hayes;” hairstyle: “pouffy mullet”) is summoned from his boozy downtime to assist in a NATO rescue mission using an identical vessel. The stuffy captain (R. Lee Ermey) takes an immediate dislike to Wick, but everyone—aside from the saboteur played by Ray Wise (Twin Peaks)—learns to work together once the sub tracks a distress signal to an enormous subterranean cavern, where unchecked genetic experimentation has produced a thriving population of creepy, slimy mutants.
The quest to recover the lost sub’s black box swiftly takes a back seat to more pressing concerns, like blasting the cave so none of the rapidly evolving critters—who are both infectious and violently hostile, kind of like sea-monster zombies—can reach the surface and decimate the human race. The story is familiar and the special effects are neither laughable nor notable, but The Rift is blessed with a fast pace and a generous array of shocking moments that are delivered with just enough knowing humor. No other film on this list features a gruesome exploding human head, followed just a few minutes later by an equally gruesome exploding monster head, too.
Right before he made The Mummy, Stephen Sommers made his first foray into the world of big-budget B movies with this 1998 tale of terror that poses the eternal question: Which is more deadly, a toothy, tentacle-y sea monster, or a desperate man with a machine gun? The main setting is a luxury liner in the South China Sea whose route takes it directly over caverns “deep enough to hide the Himalayas,” as we’re told—or, as the case may be, a huge population of beasts from the deep who raid passing vessels when they need a meal.
Treat Williams does a praiseworthy Kurt Russell impression as the captain of a boat he’ll charter to anyone, no questions asked—a loosey-goosey policy he begins to rethink when his latest clients prove to be missile-toting bandits who’re planning on robbing the aforementioned fancy cruise ship. Things get even more sticky when the intended target appears dark and abandoned...at least until the creatures begin stirring, and the mounds of bloody human skeletons start popping up everywhere. Along with Williams as the reluctant hero, the cast includes such familiar faces as Famke Janssen (post-Bond Girl, but pre-Jean Grey), Djimon Hounsou, Wes Studi, Cliff Curtis, and Sommers’ go-to goofy sidekick guy, Kevin J. O’Connor. But those pesky sea monsters—a mix of practical effects (from creature master Rob Bottin) and the finest CG 1998 could provide (courtesy of ILM)—are, as always, the real stars, even if they end up being outfoxed by a spark and a jet ski in the film’s climax.
Including this 2018 crowd-pleaser on our list is cheating a little bit, because significant portions of The Meg take place on boats and rafts, in scenes that recall Jaws more than anything else (albeit with a comedically enormous version of cinema’s most famous shark). However, we’d be remiss in excluding Jon Turteltaub’s energetic Jason Statham-fest from this list; it features several deep-sea scenes—mostly high-stakes rescues—as well as a sleek, mostly-underwater research facility that makes the rig in the similarly shark-infested Deep Blue Sea look like a leaky dinghy.
But most importantly, it makes the cut because the title creature (a should-be-extinct prehistoric beast, or rather, two prehistoric beasts) emerges from alarmingly unknown depths, thanks to accidental human interference. Only then does it find its way to the surface, where it immediately begins feasting on the buffet of swimmers, scientists, billionaires, and everything else that flails into its path.
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