Thursday, August 14, 2014

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

One of the more blistering criticisms of Deep Blue Sea is it’s a lame Jaws knock off.  But critics leveling this complaint are off the mark.  This film has more in common with Alien (Ridley Scott’s version of It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires) than Spielberg’s classic tale.

Okay, before you come to the defense of Alien, I suggest you watch the two films I mentioned.  Scott’s film is great, with astounding visuals from H. R. Giger, a great cast and some solid scary moments.  But the plot and several shots are heavily “borrowed” from these earlier films, particularly Bava’s Planet of the Vampires.  Not just the giant skeleton, but early shots of some of the space ships as well.  It’s a great movie, but not the original masterwork some claim it to be. 

I bring up this point not to call Renny Harlin’s monster shark film a rip off of Alien, but point out it's similar heritage.  Replace outer space inner space, insert a crew of working class stiffs battling the monsters released upon them by an authority figure over which they have no control and you've got another great variation on the haunted house tale.  Only this tale takes place in the deep blue sea, not the black vacuum of space.

So, with that settled (I hope), let’s get on to the review.

The film opens as a giant shark attacks a group of kids boating on the open sea.  Lucky for them, this fish is a test subject at the Aquatica research lab, an ocean scientific facility housing giant Mako sharks, one of which escaped from its pen.  Fortunate for the kids, shark wrangler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) keeps them from becoming a late night snack.

Of course, the corporation backing Aquatica is concerned about the bad press from the shark’s escape, so they call in team leader Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) ashore to announce they are cutting funding for the project.  But Dr. McAlester’s claim that her research will cure Alzheimer’s disease sends corporate executive Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) to Aquatica to witness this medical breakthrough.

As one might expect, in order to harvest enough protein, the test sharks’ brain mass has been increased through nefarious means.  And, thanks to a series of unforeseen events, the sharks are in a position to sink Aquatica and return to the deep, blue sea.

And, as expect, some actress strips to her bra and panties along the way.
But at least this moment makes a bit of sense, more than can be said
for films like Star Trek Into Darkness.

That’s enough plot, as the movie doesn’t have much of one.  Let’s get to the meat of the matter, as to whether this film is worth your time or not.  Again, get Jaws out of your mind.  This movie is a mash-up of Alien, Frankenstein and a submerged haunted house fun ride, not a surface bound action film.

Along with the Jaws analogy, another criticism leveled at this film is why the holding pen for these sharks are on the open ocean, rather than in the middle of the desert.  Well, a landlocked tank drains the movie of any suspense.  The film would be over pretty quick if all the group had to do was exit into some isolate site in Arizona.  

But, if you’ve ever tried to maintain a saltwater aquarium, imagine trying to keep one large enough for three giant sharks to roam.  The site would have to be located somewhere near the ocean, in order to keep the fish alive.  And, as most large sharks (such as the great white, which is a relative to the mako) are harder to keep alive in an aquarium, maybe an open water pen might be a better location.  Sure, that’s not spelled out in the film, but it doesn’t need to be, as the film would not make for a great thrill ride any other way. 

Okay, the next paragraph contains mild spoilers.  You are warned.

The film also runs into the stumbling block of increase intellectual capacity means increased intelligence.  Somehow, as the shark’s brain mass increases, so does their ability to understand doors and hydrodynamics.  Even Carter admits, during the final act, the sharks have herded them in order to flood Aquatica and lower the fences in their pens, allowing them to escape into the ocean. 

Whether the shark is smart of stupid, I think she's still in trouble.

If you have a problem with this plot point, I hope you are not a fan of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as that film makes the same mistake.  Sure, Caesar learned a lot from his exposure to the Alzheimer drug, but that was over time.  Just throwing canisters of monkey-smartening gas into the ape pens does not grant the rest of the apes his knowledge and learned experience. 

But this misstep works better in Deep Blue Sea, as the script introduces the idea early in the film.  Several scenes before the sharks are able to swim amok have characters commenting that the fish are not behaving normally.  That, as well as the likeable characters and rapid pace of the movie, keeps the audience in a state of disbelief, than acceptance once Carter figures it out.  Unlike Rise, where the ending relies on the other apes becoming super smart within a few scenes, Deep Blue Sea lets the idea simmer before bringing it to a boil.

The performances are solid, as the script gives the cast (including LL Cool J, Stellan Skarsgard, Jacqueline McKenzie and Michael Rapaport) enough to infuse their stereotypical characters with more life than most horror films.  As expect, Harlin delivers on the action sequences and the sets are amazing, especially when flooded.  And it appears some of the actors did their own stunt work at times, or their stunt doubles looked really good.  Either way, it makes the scenes much more believable.  

As for the sharks, the film mixes CGI and anamatronic creations with great success.  The shark attacks are vicious, bloody and quite believable.  And the film’s reliance on practical effects as much as possible keeps the film more grounded in reality than most CGI dependent blockbusters in the cinema today.

I told you, no smoking in the lab!

It’s not a perfect film, to be sure, but Deep Blue Sea is a fun little monster flick that deserves more credit than it has received by fans and critics.  Sure, it’s no Jaws, but it’s not trying to be.  It’s a submerged haunted house movie, where the ghosts have fins and sharp, pointy teeth.  And if you’re willing to view it that way, it’s a lot of fun.

Oh crap.  It's behind me, isn't it?

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, loved this film when I saw it in the theater -- and still like it a lot. Doesn't get enough love.