DeepStar Six (1989) DeepStar Six (1989) **

     Every thoughtful fan of monster movies experiences this frustration, I expect. It isn’t that we lose our appreciation for the classics, the standards, and the old favorites— your werewolves, your killer sharks, your giant spiders, and so on. It’s just that there are so many other things that the makers of critter flicks could turn loose to terrorize the populace, yet which remain not merely underexploited, but virtually untapped. My personal movie-monster wish list is quite long at this point: mosasaurs, pliosaurs, were-hyenas, paleontologically correct azhdarchid pterosaurs, scolopendra centipedes, proper Arabian ghouls, and plenty more. But the thing at the very top of the list might be the so idiosyncratic as to require explanation. I want a movie in which the monsters are approximately woman-sized mantis shrimp— say four to five feet long (minus the antennae) and about 120 pounds. Read up on the little bastards, and I’m sure you’ll agree. Ounce for ounce, the mantis shrimp is among Earth’s most terrifying ambush predators, with a strike too fast for the eye to track, hitting with the force of a small-caliber pistol bullet, and directed by some of the most sophisticated visual apparatus in the animal kingdom. Scaled up sufficiently to view humans as viable prey, but left small enough to hide in tight spaces, they’d be just the thing to ruin some bunch of suckers’ tropical island vacation. That’s why DeepStar Six irritates me in a manner disproportionate to its actual faults. This is almost my longed-for mantis shrimp creature feature, insofar as the monster in it is a huge marine arthropod with a lunge-and-grab attack methodology, but that very impressive beastie is barely even in the movie! Furthermore, it ends up posing nowhere near as grave a threat to the characters as the fallout from their own pigheadedness and bad decisions. Much like the snakes-on-a-submarine telefilm, Fer-de-Lance, DeepStar Six is less a monster movie than a disaster picture on the Poseidon Adventure model with a monster lurking in the background.

     The DeepStar Six of the title is an installation on the seafloor somewhere, crewed by a mix of scientists and demobilized US Navy personnel. Although it seems to have been designed with cutting-edge oceanography and marine biology in mind, the station’s primary mission just now is to serve as a staging area for the establishment of a naval ballistic missile base at the bottom of the sea. The top man on that project is an Afrikaner engineer by the name of Van Gelder (Marius Weyers), an arrogant son of a bitch whose abrasive personal style would no doubt cause headaches for station captain Philip Laidlaw (Taurean Blacque) even if his needs weren’t constantly coming into conflict with those of the researchers onboard. Take Scarpelli the biologist (Nia Peeples, of Werewolf: The Beast Among Us), for example. She has no role to play whatsoever in any scheme to turn America’s nuclear triad into a nuclear tetrad, so all she can do while Van Gelder frets over his missiles is to hang around accumulating resentment for all the time she’s wasted sitting on the ocean floor not studying the local ecosystem. The prioritization of Van Gelder’s project is also a problem for the DeepStar Six crew in the sense that it’s kept them under the sea for two months past their four-month contractual engagements, and the only reason there’s an end in sight even now is because the Navy has informed Van Gelder that they’re pulling the plug if he doesn’t have some concrete results to show for his labors by the end of the week. Naturally the Navy will be taking their money with them if they pull out, which would likely doom the entire DeepStar enterprise. Thus it’s in everyone’s interest to work like fiends to meet the deadline, but all people have limits. A technician by the name of Snyder (Miguel Ferrer, from RoboCop and Badlands 2005) is just about at his, to the extent that he’s formally requested medical leave from staff doctor Diane Norris (Cindy Pickett, of Night Games and Sleepwalkers). Norris says she’ll try to get Snyder sent upstairs, but she obviously doesn’t think the admirals will go for anything that will reduce the station’s manpower at this crucial juncture.

     The form of progress which Van Gelder would most like to be able to report is the laying of the foundation for his missiles’ launch pad. The most promising site nearby is a broad flat spot in the hollow of several seamounts, but Burciaga the seismologist (Elya Baskin, from Transformers: Dark of the Moon and 2010) has bad news regarding it. His readings indicate a cavern beneath the area— most likely a deep and extensive one. Scarpelli pricks up her ears at that. The main reason why she put in for a stint aboard DeepStar Six in the first place is because the waters above it have a hundred-year history of sea monster sightings and unexplained shipping losses. She was hoping to find evidence of some unknown species, and Burciaga’s giant cave sounds like an excellent place to look. Van Gelder’s preferred solution to the engineering problem posed by the cavern— to collapse the roof with explosives, and then to build on the rubble— would obviously mean the destruction of anything that might be living down there, so Scarpelli begs Laidlaw to postpone the demolitions until she’s had a chance to investigate. Unfortunately, there’s just no time for that if Van Gelder is to keep the Navy happy. Laidlaw regretfully denies Scarpelli her postponement, and gives Van Gelder the go-ahead to blast.

     That’s Mistake #1. The cavern turns out to be bigger than even Burciaga expected, and the cave-in caused by the bombs nearly kills Hodges (Thom Bray, from Stripperland and The Horror Show) and Osborne (Ronn Carroll, who played even smaller roles in House and Friday the 13th), the men assigned to plant and detonate the charges. They and their undersea bulldozer wind up at the bottom of Van Gelder’s hole, from which vantage point any fool can see that the location is going to be useless as a missile base. It’s just way too rugged down there, with too much volcanic activity. Worse yet, the collapse of the cavern roof continues in a leisurely manner until it reaches the very threshold of SeaTrack, the DeepStar outpost from which Burciaga and his assistant, Joyce Collins (Nancy Everhard, of Demonstone and Urban Legends: Bloody Mary), have been conducting their studies of the intended construction site. SeaTrack seems to be in no immediate danger of falling in, but its perch on the rim of the abyss is more precarious than either scientist would like. Still, with so much of the cavern exposed, and Van Gelder’s mission so obviously fucked, Collins figures they may as well get some research done. With that in mind, she instructs Hodges and Osborne to deploy a remote-control probe to reconnoiter. The drone has just begun sending back video and still images, though, when its transmissions unexpectedly stop. Dreading the raft of shit they’re sure to get for losing such an expensive piece of hardware, Hodges and Osborne launch the seadozer’s free-swimming cockpit in the hope of finding and retrieving the errant machine. That’s Mistake #2. The cavern is indeed home to Scarpelli’s mysterious sea creature, and not only does the organism make short work of the two techs, but it also swims out to see if there are any more interlopers where they came from. Drawn by SeaTrack’s external floodlights, it attacks the outpost vigorously enough to jar it halfway over the edge, causing all manner of damage inside.

     The rescue mission which Laidlaw organizes once he realizes that both SeaTrack and the seadozer have gone incommunicado is, to put it mildly, a catastrofuck. Burciaga’s legs were crushed by some large, falling gizmo when the monster hit the station, and he bleeds out before help can arrive. Also, connecting DeepStar Six’s DSRV utility submersible to SeaTrack’s airlock further destabilizes the outpost’s footing above the pit, so that Laidlaw and McBride the submarine pilot (Greg Evigan, from Scorchy and Stripped to Kill) have their work cut out for them just getting to the partially flooded control room without setting off a deadly Jenga effect. In the end, McBride and Collins reach the DSRV in safety, but Laidlaw is killed when one of SeaTrack’s watertight doors comes unseated with him only halfway through it.

     The captain’s demise creates a power vacuum on the station, which gets filled by an emergent rivalry between Van Gelder and Dr. Norris. The former, despite all the evidence staring him in the face, doesn’t want to believe that it’s curtains for his missile base, while the latter grows newly vehement about confronting the multiplying risks to the overextended crew’s health and safety. When Norris wins the argument, Van Gelder nevertheless insists upon following to the letter the Navy’s protocols for securing the nukes prior to evacuation. Responsibility for carrying out the latter task falls to the increasingly erratic Snyder, which is Mistake #3. You see, there isn’t just one missile security protocol. Instead, there are three of them, each keyed to a different set of circumstances requiring the abandonment of DeepStar Six. The trouble is, it isn’t obvious to Snyder which one applies to the present situation (nothing marked “In case of sea monster,” for instance), and the questions he asks Collins to help him figure it out are misleadingly vague. Based on her description of the cave creature’s attack on SeaTrack, he settles on the “Aggression” protocol— which is to say, the one intended for use in the event of military aggression by a hostile foreign power. That protocol “secures” the missiles by detonating one of their warheads, destroying the lot to keep them out of enemy hands. DeepStar Six is pretty tough (it has to be in order to withstand the pressure at the ocean bottom), but it wasn’t built to take a 20-kiloton nuclear explosion at a range of only a few miles.

     The good news is that most of the station survives the blast, including the part where all seven of the remaining crewmembers happened to be standing at the time. The bad news is that one of the parts that didn’t survive was the coolant system for its own nuclear power plant, meaning that DeepStar Six can be expected to blow itself to bits in a little more than eight hours. Also, the air lines feeding the decompression chamber were severed. Unless some workaround can be rigged up by diverting other, intact lines, anyone leaving the station in the escape pod will die of explosive decompression long before reaching the surface. The ensuing effort to fix the chamber creates a good news/ bad news situation of its own. On the one hand, the crew does manage to get new air lines connected. But on the other hand, the final stage in the repair process requires Richardson (Matt McCoy, from Bigfoot: The Unforgettable Encounter and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle) to go outside the station. The light he needs to work attracts the cave monster, and it pursues him inside DeepStar Six after he’s done.

     Someone who enjoys the Irwin Allen disaster formula would probably get more out of DeepStar Six than I did. It isn’t just that most of the plot complications fall into the category of “Man vs. Shit Going Impersonally Wrong, Aided and Abetted by His Own Stupidity,” either. This movie also shares the typical Allen picture’s fascination with aspects of its characters’ personal lives that have little or nothing to do with the plot. For instance, writers Lewis Abernathy and Geof Miller, together with producer/director Sean Cunningham, devote what feels like a disproportionate amount of attention to both the perfunctory romance between Scarpelli and Richardson and the somewhat better developed one between Collins and McBride. (Will Collins ever work up the nerve to tell the footloose and fancy-free McBride that she’s pregnant with his child? Will he stampede for the exit if she does? Will anyone in the audience give a shit one way or the other?) They also dwell at length on the idyllic homelife to which Captain Laidlaw is expecting to return— so much so, in fact, that we know he’s going to die well before we’ve even seen his face! One almost wants to look around the station for the unaccompanied precocious child, the faithless priest, and the slumming pro athlete. Indeed, there’s such an abundance of this irrelevant, Allen-style interpersonal melodrama that it’s a little surprising when the friction between Van Gelder and the others (and between him and Snyder especially) turns out to be central to the story.

     When DeepStar Six finally remembers to be a monster movie in the final act, the unusual nature of the creature itself is the main thing it has going for it. Everyone who might have bought a ticket in January of 1989 had seen rather a lot of this sort of thing by then, thanks to the decade-long proliferation of Alien clones. Most of us were therefore eager for a new spin on it. Trading outer space for the bottom of the sea and using a giant shrimp-critter get us about halfway there, especially since the animatronic puppet representing the thing is both well designed and unexpectedly effective. Alas, Cunningham has brought along just a few too many of his bad habits from Friday the 13th— including a nonsensical epilogue that is absolutely the Red Lobster version of Zombie Jason lunging out of Crystal Lake to grab Alice out of her canoe. Obviously there’s some kinship, too, with the final fights from Alien and Aliens, with the crucial difference that neither of those films, unlike DeepStar Six, asks us to accept that the monster could just shrug off a nuclear reactor meltdown, and follow the escapees to their presumed safe haven under its own power. Also Friday the 13th-like is the oddly random winnowing of the cast; to be honest, I can’t decide whether that goes in the credit or debit column. I expect that until I mentioned Collins being pregnant, none of you had much idea who the last survivors would be. Neither she nor McBride has any obvious claim to be the movie’s protagonist, and in fact both of them spend most of the film in positions oddly peripheral to the main action. That might be refreshing realism from a certain point of view, or it might equally well be mere lack of focus. Either way, it’s a bit jarring.



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