In 1999, it wasn’t the trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace that got me paying attention (and waiting ages for it to download), it was the trailer for Deep Blue Sea.
Renny Harlin’s water-based thriller opened at cinemas across the US 20 years ago this week, and it was great to see sharks on the big screen again almost 25 years after Jaws.
It was probably quite apt that a Finn ended up directing a shark movie. Renny Harlin has always been big on spectacle, whether it’s Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Cliffhanger or The Long Kiss Goodnight, his work has a real sense of fun and playfulness. Deep Blue Sea doesn’t fail to deliver on any of these points.
It’s essentially The Poseidon Adventure (the constant threat of rising water) meets Jurassic Park (we even get a shark in a kitchen scene) via Alien (in confined spaces no one can hear you scream), and that spells pure B-movie popcorn pandemonium which delivers in spades and sharks aplenty.
We open with beautiful people in peril on a boat, out at sea , where there is no escape. It plays with your expectations from the off as we think we are going to get a Jaws style opening with an attack, but then the shark is stopped in its tracks by shark wrangler Carter Blake, played by Thomas Jane. That’s Harlin plying us, with a Jaws homage, but also telling us to expect the unexpected.
As bonkers as a film about intelligent sharks sounds, it’s a world that is fully established in the sphere of the film. It’s all grounded in a reality of sorts as research is happening with sharks in helping combat everything from Alzheimer’s – like in the film – and cancer. You could even call it quite progressive that it addresses that sharks could save us rather than the outdated ‘rogue’ model of Jaws.
Just as Jaws dipped its fin into the disaster genre – file under the section of man against nature – alongside the likes of Earthquake, The Swarm and The Poseidon Adventure. This late 90s film came at the end of a run of new generation disaster releases like Twister, Titanic and Dante’s Peak. There were also a slew of man against beast movies like The Ghost and the Darkness, Anaconda, Mimic, The Relic and Lake Placid, to which it fitted.
There were also those than showed the dangers of man acting as God and paying the consequences. Perhaps it was because we were heading towards the millennium , but Deep Blue Sea could certainly be filed as a cautionary tale of mankind’s meddling, alongside Jurassic Park, its sequel The Lost World, Godzilla, a remake of The Island of Dr Moreau, Outbreak and 12 Monkeys.
As we are introduced to the underwater research facility, Aquatica, we are told in no uncertain terms that ‘living down here like living in space, you don’t get chance to make many mistakes’. Of course, we know that this is our haunted mansion and that the sharks will be the monsters that lurk in the watery shadows. And that’s exactly what this film is, an efficient theme park ride of a film. If you are unsure what type of a ride you are in for, Thomas Jane hanging onto a dorsal fin of a tiger shark - an amazing remote control animatronic - reminds us. From then we are on the steady climb of the rollercoaster until a shocking disarming moment for Stellan Skarsgard that shows why smoking is bad for your health - it’s a brilliant practical shot - and you barely get chance to recover your breath when we get the stunning window smashing scene - and contender for most inventive death by shark moment ever committed to film - then, then the brakes are off as the skeleton crew of survivors try to escape the rising water and rampaging sharks. There’s some hugely fun and tense set pieces that show that films about sharks with enlarged brains can be attractive. Humans wise, it’s an eclectic group, but they squabble and work together surprisingly well and you genuinely are disappointed when another is picked off by a shark, one being a nice homage to the tense opening sequence of Renny Harlin’s own Cliffhanger. Another, one of the most surprising exits in cinematic history.
Rapper turned actor LL Cool J (you must check out his end title song) is good at his light relief, but he ends up killing the most sharks, with Saffron Burrows also destroying her own creation. She tends to divide audience opinion, for some she is seen as more wooden than Pippet’s stick but she is just focussed on her work and goal of finding a cure for Alzheimers. As the film progresses, hers is probably the only character that has any sort of arc, that ends in the ultimate sacrifice.
Apparently, in original screening she survived and LL Cool J perished, but audiences demanded the ‘villain’ of the piece meet her maker. It’s a shame these alternate scenes don’t make it onto the bluray.
With his smart sharks, Harlin manages to establish a world of believability, where we accept that sharks can swim backwards, recognise a gun or intentionally bash a door in. For the most part we also believe how the sharks are realised on screen - save for a few even dodgy from the time CGI moments - but we are a forgiving bunch and it’s in keeping with the b-movie style of the film.
It’s fast paced, full of fin action fun that outside of Jaws is oft quoted by followers of The Daily Jaws as their favourite shark film. If Jaws spent its time keeping its shark hidden, Deep Blue Sea revelled in putting its sharks front and centre. And Renny Harlin certainly knows how to deliver an exhilarating action sequence with inventive aplomb.
Bigger. Smarter. Faster. Meaner. The poster promised it all. And boy, did it deliver. Leave your brain at the door - enlarged or otherwise - and you’ll leave with a huge toothy, shark-like grin. The sharks may be super-intelligent, the script isn’t - and neither does it ever claim to be - but it is super-fun.
Jaws and Deep Blue Sea can inhabit the same cinematic ocean, and you can enjoy both for very different reasons. This is a very different beast, I’d have happily followed Carter Blake in a sequel, but sadly the belated sequel was only in name only and poorly rehashed the original story.
After the original gave shark cinema a much-needed shot in the arm, its ham-fisted follow-up sent it to the bottom of the ocean.