Deep Blue Sea
Renny Harlin has gotten a bum rap. He’s often derided as a hack but I think he’s a very talented action director that’s had some bad luck and made some poor career choices. Yes, Mindhunters was absolutely abysmal, but watch the opening of Cliffhanger and tell me that sequence isn’t a masterpiece of location, action, suspense and special effects. It’s a brilliant scene that the rest of the film doesn’t even come close to living up to. Now that I think about it, that’s kind of symptomatic of Harlin’s entire career: he’s never able to adequately follow up his own flashes of genius (except The Long Kiss Goodnight, which is balls to the walls awesome from minute one). Most of his films are mediocre, but they`re almost always energetic and entertaining, even when they don`t quite come together. Deep Blue Sea is one of the better films in Harlin`s oeuvre, not because of any genius of concept or execution but because of solid B-movie efficiency and craftsmanship.
On the open ocean, four young people with one thing on their mind are drinking and partying on a sailboat when an aggressive and determined mako shark attacks. Shark wrangler, with a typically macho moniker, Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) arrives just in time and manages to spear the dorsal fin and winch the shark away from the partiers before they become lunch.
Dr. Susan McAllister (Saffron Burrows) has been doing research into sharks and the possible regenerative properties their cerebral fluid might have for Alzheimer’s patients [Ed: Of course.]. A side effect of her experiments is that the sharks have become highly intelligent, as well as aggressive. After the incident with the partiers, the news has revealed her super intelligent sharks to the general public. She meets with investor Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) to calm his nerves. To avoid negative publicity, the investors want to shut down the project. Susan is on the verge of a breakthrough and manages to negotiate a forty-eight hour extension. The condition is that Russell accompanies Susan to Aquatica, the marine research station where the shark experiments are conducted, so he can witness them first hand. When they get there, Carter and Tom Scoggins (Michael Rappaport) notice that the sharks are becoming smarter, which is why they’re slipping through traps and escaping from their pens. Not only that, but a hurricane is also heading for Aquatica - an ominous beginning to the weekend, to be sure.
When the moment for the experiment arrives, a shark is brought into the lab via the station’s moon pool. The shark is heavily sedated and brain hormone is extracted from the shark and added to some degenerated human brain tissue. The experiment produces the results that they were hoping for, but the supposedly sedated shark escapes its restraints and bites off the arm of Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgard). An air rescue during the hurricane fails and a shark uses Whitlock’s gurney to break into and flood the lab. The film then becomes a race against time and the elements as these survivors, as well as “Preacher” (LL Cool J) and Jim’s lover Janice (Jacqueline McKenzie) try and get to the surface as the flooding station sinks and the super intelligent sharks stalk them.
Deep Blue Sea has few pretensions beyond providing the audience with a fun ride. Harlin must have known that with the budget afforded to him, he wouldn’t be able to fully realize the concept (the effects were second tier even when the film was released and they haven’t improved with age) and while he doesn’t exactly camp it up, he doesn’t take it too seriously, either. He keeps a tight control on the pace and stages the action scenes so well that it’s easy to look past the implausibility of it all, at least until it’s over. Deep Blue Sea is not the work of an auteur but it is the product of a master craftsman.
All his films are, at the very least, solidly crafted. Take A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, for instance. It is often singled out as one of the worst films in the series, but Harlin shouldn’t have to shoulder the blame for that. He was hired, pretty much last minute, by a studio trying to rush the film into production ahead of an impending writer’s strike. All things considered, it’s amazing that the film is as good as it is. Any failure it has is one of concept, drawing Freddy from the shadows into the limelight, and not of execution [Ed: Resurrecting him from dog piss certainly didn’t help, either!]. Given the script he was handed, the version of The Dream Master we got is probably the best film possible.
But, like I said, he’s had some bad luck, and after following up the Stallone comeback vehicle Cliffhanger with two of the biggest bombs of the 90’s, his stock in Hollywood was in decline. I’m not sure whether his decision to direct Deep Blue Sea was an act of desperation, but if it was it counts as one Hell of a Hail Mary pass.
Deep Blue Sea didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but in the crowded box office of summer ’99 it managed to carve out a respectable box office gross and garnered some surprisingly strong reviews. In the end the film grossed $165 million worldwide on a relatively modest $60 million budget. It may not have been the shot of adrenaline to his career that Harlin was hoping for, but it was certainly a stay of execution. Of course, in typical Harlin style, he squandered any good will Deep Blue Sea earned him on what would become one of the biggest box office bombs of the 2000’s: the Stallone vehicle (har har), Driven.
Easy come, easy go.
In a movie like Deep Blue Sea, performances are secondary to spectacle but the cast is filled with skilled actors who are able to hold the screen when the sharks aren’t on it. Thomas Jane is always good for a convincingly grim action hero, Stellan Skaargard reprises his Good Will Hunting role, and L.L. Cool J and his parrot don’t utterly embarrass themselves as the comic relief duo. As one would expect, Samuel L. Jackson gets the best moment in the movie. What is surprising is that in his best scene he’s upstaged by a shark. If you’ve seen the movie you know what I’m talking about. If not, you’ll know it as soon as you see it. It’s great.
The only weak link is Saffron Burrows. She doesn’t give a bad performance. She’s actually pretty… okay, well, let’s say she’s decent…as the morally conflicted scientist whose irresponsibility is the root of all the carnage. It’s just that her conflict and her turmoil are totally out of step with the rest of the movie, which is mostly silly shark carnage. Contrast her performance with that of Michael Rappaport who, as an actor, acknowledges the silliness of the movie even while his character is terrified beyond belief.
As I alluded to earlier, the digital effects weren’t top tier in 1999 and the intervening years haven’t been kind. Fortuitously, they were supplemented with animatronics as well as footage of real sharks. Not surprisingly the shark scenes that best evoke a sense of danger are the ones that use in camera effects or stock footage. This is one time when the pro-practical, anti-CGI brigade is right on the money.
Deep Blue Sea is capped with one of the most awesomely ridiculous movie tie in songs ever. Rapper LL Cool J provides us with the gem “Deepest, Bluest (Shark’s Fin)” over the end credits. The unmitigated awesome awfulness of this song can’t be conveyed in mere words. You need to hear it if only to know how hard the bottom of the barrel can be scraped. My hat is like a shark’s fin? Indeed.
Like the film itself, the 2.35 VC-1 transfer is perfectly serviceable but doesn’t really stand out in any significant way. Although initially noted for crafting visuals awash in primary colors (Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane), Harlin has since settled in to a drab looking visual style with the consistent motifs being snow and rust. That murky style is well represented, blacks are spot on, detail is good, and what the few bright colors present pop. Detail is good enough that I noticed, for the first time, that the silent, white haired man sitting in on Russell and Susan’s first meeting is none other than Dick Jones himself, Ronny Cox. Guess OCP was looking to invest in shark research.
Like the video, the DTS-HD 5.1 track is serviceable but unspectacular. For a film that involves long stalking sequences the audio provides surprisingly little atmosphere. There’s not any of the creaking metal or dripping water filling up the surrounds like you’d expect in such a film. The whole affair feels surprisingly flat. The action sequences, explosions, chases and the like, are much better served, however with lots low end and the score aggressively used.
The major feature is a feature length audio commentary, featuring director Renny Harlin and actor Samuel L. Jackson. The participants are clearly recorded separately, so the track lacks a lot of the energy they could have brought if they’d collaborated. Harlin spends the commentary largely narrating the on-screen action, interspersing his descriptions with behind the scenes tidbits of the “who/what/where/when” variety. Still, Harlin has a boisterous and enthusiastic presence that makes the rather rote commentary far more breezy and enjoyable than it has any right to be. Samuel L. Jackson isn’t in the movie a whole lot, so he doesn’t has as much to contribute to the commentary, but he still manages to throw out some interesting observations, especially with regards to how he got involved with the film. Jackson does a pretty good Renny Harlin impression, though.
When Sharks Attack (15:02) is far duller than its title would suggest. It’s a slight, making-of documentary that glosses over the most interesting parts (the shark wranglers). It’s largely a hodgepodge of a lot of complex elements; shark wranglers, CG, location sets, scoring, but doesn’t explore anything with any detail. It’s was pretty obviously produced by the studio to help sell the movie. Renny Harlin gets a little overzealous in his sales pitch and provides the best part, where he talks about how great the digital effects are and challenges the audience to distinguish between what’s real and what’s digital. Hate to burst your bubble, Renny, but…
The Sharks of The Deep Blue Sea (8:19) deals with the animatronic sharks built for the scenes where the actors have to directly interact with the sharks. They make a big point of talking about how the models employ “aerospace technology” but don’t go into what type of technology: impellers? Special alloys? Aerodynamic physics? It entices but doesn’t deliver anything interesting.
Eight minutes of deleted scenes with optional director’s commentary are included. There are five scenes, presented in rough, workprint quality. They’re all redundant, and understandably deleted; the finished film’s greatest asset is its pace and these scenes would have hampered it.
Finally, the original Theatrical Trailer (2:22) is presented in 16:9 standard definition widescreen. It’s an interesting trailer in that it’s very concerned with selling the film, it pimps the release date relentlessly, far more crassly than most modern trailers do. It does a good job since it makes the film look far scarier than it is. Kudos to the marketing department.
Nobody involved in the making of Deep Blue Sea had any pretensions about what they were doing but they didn’t use that as an excuse to be lazy; this is a well-crafted shark thriller. Can I recommend it? Eh, not to the average viewer, no, but if your spine starts to tingle in excitement when I say: “Shark-on-shark carnage,” and “Saffron Burrows in her underwear,” then yeah, you’ll probably get a kick out of it. The Blu-ray is much like the film: competent in all ways, spectacular in none. If you haven’t seen Deep Blue Sea, then give it a rent to find out “good enough” is good enough for you. If you already know that it is, then yeah, pick it up.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Own the laser, DVD and will definitely be getting the blue. Fun flick!!!
a little off topic, but i'll say it again - nightmare 4 is a better flick than nightmare 3!
that is all.
The shark biting off Skarsgard's arm always freaked me out!
Not seen this film in years but I was never thrilled by it thinking back. The CGI kind of spoils the whole thing... L.L. Cool J is just so out of place in this...
About the title/end credit song:
I always though it was "my head is like a shark's fin", even dumber although I like the music of that track. Googling shows I'm probably in the 'bathroom on the right' with misunderstood lyrics. :)
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