Matty gets to grips with Phillip J. Roth’s CliffsNotes version of The Abyss and finds much to savour.
Premiering on SyFy at 9PM on Saturday 9th August 2003, the Unified Film Organization’s DEEP SHOCK was in development as early as spring 2001 and announced as part of the same slate as Dragon Fighter (2003), Maximum Velocity (2003), Flight 747 (2003) and Darklight (2004) (then called ‘Dark Warrior’). Throwaway trivia? Perhaps — but the dates are interesting to note in terms of what Deep Shock is, and where helmer Phillip J. Roth’s career was when it was conceived and when it was released.
Between his debut, Bad Trip (1988), and 1999’s Interceptor Force, the UFO chieftain assembled a string of increasingly more ambitious action and sci-fi flicks tethered by recurring themes of identity and time. While Roth the auteur still seized any opportunity to probe these obsessions during the brief period he was active post the millennium (Roth hung up the megaphone in favour of producing after 2003’s Dark Waters), by 2001 he was busy crafting a relatively straightforward quartet of creature features in the same mode as one of his producer hits, Python (2000).
In the broadest sense, Deep Shock is Roth’s penultimate creature feature as director. But as far as monster mayhem goes, it’s at the bottom of the pile when weighed against Boa (2001) and the aforementioned Dragon Fighter and Dark Waters. The giant electric eels at the centre of its underwater-set story — swirling, wraith-like masses of translucent flesh and blue lightning blood, brought to life with Roth’s typically masterful use of CGI — are as aesthetically fantastic as the snake, fire-breather and sharks in his other form entries. The problem is the immediate pang of disappointment caused by the film’s bait-and-switch. The eels are more cutesy than terrifying because Deep Shock isn’t the scoff-a-thon its key art and come-on suggest. Unlike Boa et al — which were designed to cash-in on Anaconda (1997), Reign of Fire (2002) and Deep Blue Sea (2000), respectively — Deep Shock ‘mockbusts’ the weirder end of the big budget sci-fi spectrum and is closer in step with Barry Levinson’s Sphere (1998), Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), and, most prominently, James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989).
Though the extended edition of The Abyss was a massive hit on laserdisc in the early ‘90s, it was when the much ballyhooed two-disc DVD of Cameron’s classic dropped at the turn of the ‘00s when Roth seemingly became reacquainted with it, given how quickly he’d raid the picture for three different UFO movies. Deep Core (2000) swiped its title from the name of The Abyss’ base; Dark Descent (2002) pilfered chunks of its setting and plot; and Deep Shock — well, it half-inches everything. It’s an Abyss cheat sheet, from the eels’ alien origins and ecological concerns; to a bit of business involving nuclear warheads and global flooding. Hell, even the film’s leads (David Keith and Simmone MacKinnon, UFO regulars of the period) are an estranged married couple a la Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
To be clear, none of that is a bad thing. Clocking in at a lean and mean ninety-two minutes — effectively half the length of Cameron’s excellent but plodding epic — it’s extremely fast paced, entertaining, and as technically polished and showy as any of Roth’s best (Digital Man (1995), Darkdrive (1996) and Total Reality (1997)). Written by Roth, UFO mainstay Jeff Rank and the mysterious Brian Mammett (which, based upon Roth’s own employment of a nom de plume, is almost certainly a pseudonym for someone), the script demonstrates a splash of wry humour. In a particularly amusing touch, the subaqueous base in Deep Shock is called The Hubris — an in-joke that’s become a whole lot funnier and bittersweet in the years since. After all, at the time of Deep Shock’s creation, Roth and UFO were the cornerstone of SyFy’s film programming and their status as the channel’s preeminent supplier of wares was largely unchallenged… Until 2002, when network execs Thomas P. Vitale, Ray Cannella and Chris Regina revamped SyFy’s in-house movie division and competitors such as Nu Image and The Asylum started muscling in on the act.
USA/Bulgaria ● 2003 ● Sci-Fi ● 92mins
David Keith, Simmone MacKinnon, Mark Sheppard, Sean Whalen ● Dir. Phillip J. Roth (as ‘Paul Joshua Rubin’) ● Wri. Phillip J. Roth (as ‘Paul Joshua Rubin’) & Jeff Rank & Brian Mammett