The Superdeep, the debut feature from writer/director Arseny Syuhin, wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve. Tonally and visually, it combines the ghoulish Soviet bureaucracy and sense of impending cataclysm that made Chernobyl so compelling with the claustrophobia and VFX of The Thing. This is a movie whose aesthetic is borrowed from some true classics. However, it can’t boast the same storytelling power as the films that it emulates.
We open on a black and white POV sequence in which we watch from behind the eyes of a Hazmat-suited doctor delivering a vaccine to a pustule-covered patient. It’s a horrific and disquieting scene that hints at some of the gooey practical effects work to come. It turns out that we just had front row seats to a medical disaster that occurred thanks to the dubious decision-making of our protagonist Anya (Milena Radulovic). The disgraced doctor must now accompany a military team deep underground, to investigate strange happenings at the Kola Superdeep Borehole drill. With ominous warnings from the scientists ringing in her ears, Anya uncovers a ghastly secret that may have the potential to end all life on earth.
With this strong opening and promisingly unique setting, viewers will no doubt be excited to see how the film progresses. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long before the storyline gets bogged down with some hokey dialogue and paper-thin characterisation.
Despite a plot that meanders throughout the film’s two hour runtime, horror fans will still find some enjoyment in Superdeep. The practical effects on show are first-rate, and when we first see a person with an infection that has more or less replaced her entire torso, it’s a shocking moment. The threat appears to be some sort of fungus, throwing clouds of spores into the air, infecting humans and merging or combining bodies into sentient masses of flesh and pain. Such a monster presents some fascinating opportunities for creativity, and it’s a challenge that effects supervisor Samir Farzalibekov more than rose to. The creature effects are icky and covered in slime, with human shapes distorted and disfigured with fibrous strands of tissue. There are moments of inventive puppetry that bring to mind the best of The Thing and Aliens.
Aesthetically, the film is more of a mixed bag. With such a distinctive location, and one that is based on a real place, the filmmakers had the chance to construct an unfamiliar world of greasy industrial mining equipment. However, a lot of the production design is a bit more space-age and generic, which seems like a missed opportunity to bring a truly novel setting to the screen. On the other hand, the costuming is great, with choices that really evoke the 1980s setting.
The job of creating the sense of stifling terror evoked by having 12 thousand meters of solid rock between you and safety is handed over to the score. Here, Dmitry Selipanov does a sterling job. His soundtrack is peppered with metallic noises and groans that could be industrial machinery, distant sirens or even the seismic shrugging of vast tectonic plates.
Anya herself is a great protagonist, with the requisite amount of baggage weighing her down and a hard-nosed approach to problem-solving that Ripley would be proud of. The people that surround her, however, are a little more hazily sketched. Nikolay Kovbas is a strong cinematic presence as a grim-faced military leader, but his character is far too much of an archetype for the audience to grow attached to him. Much of the dialogue is awkward and clunky, and while this may be a translation issue, it will severely undercut some of the emotional engagement for an English-speaking audience. For example, a soldier forms a romantic attachment to Anya, which is a little baffling given that the exchanges they share are so one-note. Meanwhile, character motivations remain murky and unclear. A third-act betrayal is more likely to be met with bemusement than surprise.
This is further complicated by an inconsistency in the level of threat that the fungus represents. At points, only a full hazmat suit seems to be sufficient to protect the team from infection. At others, a scarf wrapped around the face seems to do the trick, or even nothing, when Anya decides to just raw-dog the deadly spores that we assume are filling the air. For these reasons, the audience may spend a lot of the time between creature encounters glancing at their watches as they struggle to really engage with the story.
Superdeep has flashes of technical excellence, with practical effects that rival much bigger productions, and a score that is inventive and thematically appropriate. It is purely in its storytelling that it falls flat. With confusing decisions and bland interactions between staple characters, it’s likely that viewers will spend some time checked out when the monsters are not on screen.