Superdeep (Kolskaya sverhglubokaya) (2020) 

Superdeep (Kolskaya sverhglubokaya) first published by

Anna (Milena Radulovic) is an epidemiologist whose colleague haemorrhaged to death before her eyes after volunteering himself as a human guinea pig for a vaccine that had not yet been properly tested even on animals. It is an event which has left Anna distrustful both of the authorities that allowed this to happen (and are now covering it up), and of her own personal principles. “The ends justify the means”, Anna is told by her military handler Yuri (Nikolay Kovbas), but Anna herself remains deeply sceptical, even after she has succeeded in creating a working vaccine and been declared a genius. 

This prologue to Arseny Syuhin’s Superdeep (aka Kolskaya sverhglubokaya) sets the scene for a story expressly unfolding in the final years of the USSR, as our heroine’s conflicts reflect a nation caught in a struggle between its entrenched Cold War mentality, and a deep yearning to be more open, ethical and outward-looking. With Gorbachev visible in the background giving his 1984 New Year’s Address, Anna is summoned on another job, to go to the Kola Superdeep Borehole where, Yuri informs her, “sounds of unknown origin were recorded, 12,000m below the surface. After that, 20 people went missing.”

“It’s hell down there,” one survivor will tell Anna. If this sounds like the ‘Well to Hell hoax‘ which claimed that Russia had drilled a hole so deep that the tormented screams of the damned had been recorded at its fiery base (an urban myth adapted into Anthony Waller’s Nine Miles Down, 2009), then Superdeep will flirt with this premise only to head down into different, if even more familiar narrative shaftways. For as it becomes clear that man is the warmest place to hide, we are firmly in the terrain of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Marvin Kren’s The Station (Blood Glacier, 2013) and Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) – films where the threat is biological and cellular.

There can also be discerned here the baleful influence of television’s Chernobyl (2019). For Superdeep is a story of professionals behaving badly and acting irresponsibly under immense pressure, with each of their errors ramifying towards catastrophe. There are trigger-happy soldiers who want to keep playing their macho games even in a highly dangerous area. There are doctors and even a decorated epidemiologist who are absurdly cavalier about issues of transmission and containment. There are mediocre scientists more interested in making their own names than in saving lives. And there is a small cadre of men and women trying desperately to do the right thing, even in the knowledge that they will have to disobey orders and almost certainly have to sacrifice their own lives if the greater good of humanity is to be preserved.

At its core, Superdeep is a creature feature, although it takes its time to reveal the nature of the beast, along with the more monstrous aspects of the human characters. Pacing is in fact the biggest problem here, as characters circle through repetitive subterranean sets and generic routines, and are not themselves interesting enough to justify the overstretched duration. Here exposition always feels like exposition, without necessarily clarifying the players’ various comings and goings. News that the facility is about to be crushed like a can is announced to introduce tension, and then almost immediately forgotten. The body horror, when it comes, is suitably grotesque, although all the cat-and-mouse business that serves as its fleshy sinew is for the most part disappointingly rote. 

Still, it is as a political parable that Superdeep works best. For, following a militarised operation wherein it quickly becomes clear, despite all the darkness, that people’s lives are not the priority, this is a story divided between – and sometimes within – those who work ambitiously for the system, and those who realise that the system is not working. The state’s desire to weaponise, even deliberately to spread, the borehole’s buried organism is a straightforward signifier of a nation caught in its own (self-)destructive endgame – while the creature’s tendency to absorb and hybridise individuals into a single, monstrous form tells its own allegorical story of pre-perestroika communism. 

Anna heads into an extreme environment in search of a supposedly unknown disease that has attracted the interest of military intelligence – but what she and her small team of scientists and soldiers find is something as bunkered and bellicose as Soviet-era Russia itself, looking to break out and aggressively take over the world. Perhaps this message is not all that super deep, and arguably it comes a little belated, but it does continue to resonate with a still secretive, still authoritarian Russia where the permafrost of the Cold War continues to melt under an ever-warming globe, exposing all manner of monstrosities from a mouldy yet modern past.

Summary: Arseny Syuhin’s subterranean creature feature uses body, bio and bunker horror tropes to allegorise the thawing permafrost of the Cold War 

Anton Bitel