Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation demonstrates all the fun times that can be had when a collection of monsters take to the sea. For a more responsible cautionary tale about why this would be a bad idea, we must go back 20 years.

"What if Alien was also Titanic?" is one fucking weird pitch for a movie, and to be fair, it's certainly not the pitch that actually  got Deep Rising greenlit in the mid-'90s. But to its misfortune, when Deep Rising opened on 30 January 1998, Titanic was starting its seventh week in release, and had already become a dominant fact of moviegoing life. So Alien, but it's also Titanic, and that's just how it must be.

(It would convenient to instead summarise Deep Rising as "every bit as dumb as Deep Blue Sea, without being any fun at all", but Deep Blue Sea was still 18 months in the future).

The film was the brainchild of Stephen Sommers, and indeed it's not unfair to call it the start of his "true" directorial career. He spent the first half of the '90s quietly establishing himself making adaptations of children's adventure stories for Disney, and setting himself up as a team player at Hollywood Pictures, the now-defunct label that the Walt Disney Company used for its adult-oriented fare. Deep Rising was his last project for the company, and his first effects-driven action-adventure repurposed out of the material of horror cinema. Alien looms very large in the film's background, as does Aliens, and there's a dollop of The Abyss, and both the design and the conception of the monster are exactly like designer Rob Bottin was remaking Tremors in the style of his own work on The Thing, and it's all stuffed into the framework of The Poseidon Adventure. Also, it is much worse than all of those.

Initially, we have two plot strands. In one, sea captain John Finnegan (Treat Williams) and his stalwart crew Leila (Una Damon) and Joey "Tooch" Pantucci (Kevin J. O'Connor) have taken a commission from a blatantly untrustworthy team of special-ops types led by Hanover (Wes Studi), to head into an empty patch of the South China Sea. In the other, it's the maiden voyage of the Argonautica, a massive luxury liner designed and owned by Simon Canton (Anthony Heald), and things are flashy and elaborate and massively gaudy in the way of all record-setting cruise ships. We meet a decent number of people onboard, but other than Canton, the only one who's going to stay alive long enough to care is international jewel thief Trillian St. James (Famke Janssen). Ah, international jewel thief Trillian St. James! Now that's a more interesting-sounding hook for a movie than Deep Rising, which is about what you get if Stan Winston's queen alien was a giant squid, plus also running through knee-deep water in a sinking cruise ship. So yeah anyway, that's what happens to the Argonautica: as it's passing over the undersea trench described in the thick, wordy opening title cards as the most mysterious, deepest, spookiest part of the whole ocean, a Giant Something rises from the depths and strikes the boat at speed. This dislodges a speedboat that drifts right into the path of Finnegan and company, and in the subsequent collision, they're just barely able to make it to the larger vessel, hoping to find spare parts to repair themselves.

Except that, as it turns out, Hanover's crew was headed to board and loot the Argonautica in the first place, having been hired by Canton as part of an insurance fraud scheme. Except that by the time the mercenaries get there, very nearly every last human soul on the ship has been messily killed by creatures unknown. The looting operation immediately turns into a survival mission, with the few survivors from the ship (including Trillian, who was locked away for stealing at the time) and the handful of mercs getting picked off, as Finnegan and Hanover and Canton... do stuff. Fact is, it's not entirely clear what the stakes of Deep Rising are: the conflict, definitely - avoid the tentacle monsters that devour humans whole, drink all the fluid, and leave behind gooey piles of bone and meat - but not the why. I suppose "don't get sucked dry by the tentacle monsters" is meant to be enough why on its own, but it would be nice if Deep Rising at least cared to present the illusion that its characters were anything but props.

For that is one of the big problems with this film compiled out of big problems: it has awful characters, and awful performances bringing them to life. One cannot, to be sure, attack Treat Williams too harshly: he was a startlingly poor casting choice from the get-go. Finnegan is a bad-ass rogue type (supposedly, Harrison Ford turned the role down - probably without much hesitation - and it's pretty apparent that the character is meant to have some Han Solo to him), and Williams is just too relaxed and amiable for that. Really, the only cast member who isn't mostly dispiriting is Janssen; her "this is all incredible bullshit" bafflement is just as tangible as Williams's, but it suits her character better. Beyond the mere fact that these are cardboard shells of humans, they're also given painfully stiff, functional dialogue to say, and empty-headed motivations: that Finnegan and Trillian end up as a romantic couple is inevitable, but not therefore explicable.

All that being said, special attention must be given to Joey, who is one of the hall-of-fame worst comic relief characters in any '90s genre film; that rare kind of godawful sidekick so unendurable that the other characters even call specific attention to it. O'Connor does the thing he does, whining in a fast-paced mumble and staring like a sweaty junkie, and it's too painful to even contemplate; but at least the character isn't a brownface role, like O'Connor's next collaboration with Sommers, in 1999's The Mummy.

It would be tiresome to keep listing the things that don't work, like the thin, screechy score by Jerry Goldsmith (a horribly disappointing misfire from one of my favorite composers), or Sommers's addiction to using zooms as a sort of half-assed way of pushing tension, or the generally incomprehensible action choreography. So instead, let me run down the things that do work. Janssen is good, as mentioned; there's also the monster itself, which however ridiculously conceived (it is a species of worm, extinct since the Cambrian Period, that responds to decreasing pressure as it nears the surface by expanding its size several hundredfold), and however derivative of more classic beasties, still has an awfully cool look to it. The profusion of teeth, and tentacles, and tentacles with teeth, and tentacles with tentacles with teeth, feels almost like a parody of '90s x-treme design, but it's slimy and toothy in all the right places, and the CGI used to bring it to life has aged astonishingly well. And while the film mostly ignores horror in favor of a lot of simple, bland action (this is one of those movies where much of the dialogue and most of the setpieces all revolve around the "run! run! run!" principle), the remains of the creature's meals are absolutely terrific Boschian hellscapes, damp red chunks of tissue clinging to bones in grisly-funny tableaux that are simply astounding for something released by a major American film distributor as a mainstream popcorn movie.

So yeah, if you want a monster movie, that is the sole respect in which Deep Rising isn't a horrible letdown. And I get the irresistible allure of the monster movie! But then, the '90s were, if not a Golden Age, then very much a Silver Age for that genre, and very nearly all of them are better than this, even the really shitty ones.