Movie-A-Day: Deep Blue Sea (1999)

That movie where a shark eats fucking Samuel L Jackson.

Cast: Thomas Jane, Samuel L Jackson, LL Cool J, Saffron Burrows, Michael Rapapport

Premise: In an attempt to cure Altzheimer’s, a research team enhances the brains of three Mako sharks. Too bad they didn’t enhance their own brains first.

I hate Sharknado. I didn’t hate it when I first saw it – though I thought it was bad from the beginning. I hated it because it made me think of how Syfy, a channel that once honestly attempted to make cheap yet entertaining films (I’m a big fan of their version of Hercules) instead just settled for the cheap part. Sharknado‘s creators attempt to cloak the film’s laziness as refuge in audacity; “Sure the effects are cheap but come on it’s SHARKS IN A TORNADO”. “Yeah all of these experienced actors turn in awful performances but come on it’s SHARKS IN A TORNADO”. Ironically, the film’s cheapness equates it with the type of expensive yet soulless schlock Hollywood puts out; it’s a film born of cynicism and disdain for the audience. Good “bad” movies come from sincere effort and energy. Even if filmmakers don’t think their film will be the next Jaws or Alien, at least attempting to make something competent goes a long way to pleasing audiences. Which brings me to Deep Blue Sea.

With a premise as silly as “super smart sharks attack humans”, Deep Blue Sea wasn’t going for anything Oscar-worthy. Instead, it’s a pretty derivative film. And that’s not a bad thing. Audiences and critics have been taught to think of “derivative” as a four-letter word in regards to art. “Art should be wholly original”, one would say. In actuality, not only should art be derivative, it’s actually bolstered by referencing the work of others. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver based it’s core conflict on John Ford’s The Searchers, taking the cowboys’ attempt to save a girl from Indians and transposing into a slimy 70’s New York. Even without knowing the source material, this allowed Taxi Driver to have an urban psychological twist on the familiar Western tale.

deep-blue-sea2

The premise of Deep Blue Sea immediately reminds us of films such as Jaws and Jurassic Park and the filmmakers seemed to realize that. Several of the characters are equivalents to characters in those films: Thomas Jane plays a shark wrangler who’s knowledge of shark hunting parallels the dinosaur herder Robert Muldoon in Jurassic Park. Samuel Jackson plays a badass avalanche survivor whose expertise doesn’t save him in the same way that Jaws‘ Clint is killed by the very shark he claimed he could handle. These similarities allow us to connect with the characters without too much exposition. The plot also has many shades of the two films: the fence surrounding the underwater research station is a big plot point just like the one in Jurassic Park. And of course, the film’s penultimate scene has a great variation on the final confrontation with the shark in Jaws. These references don’t rely wholly on familiarity however, many of the characters we assume will be fish food manage to survive and vice versa.

In terms of plotting, the film is pretty consistent with good foreshadowing and exposition. The opening scenes establish all of the interiors of the underwater research station and how the equipment works. This is important because the film has A LOT of technobabble when the characters attempt to escape the increasingly flooded, shark-infested station. The exposition is admittedly ham-fisted at times; during the initial escape attempt, Jackson asks what would happen if the sharks escaped the station, to which a character replies how impossible that idea is. Riiiiiight. Much of it works well though. The midpoint of the film introduces a compeling conflict where our heroes have to decide whether or not to attempt scaling the elevator shaft or actually swiming to the surface. While we could guess which plan will succeed, we at least can see the value of each course; one is proactive yet terrifying and one is defensive yet precarious. It sort of reminded me of George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead where the group has to decide whether to stay in the cellar or attempt to outrun the zombies and commandeer a nearby truck. In both cases, we know which course we’d like to be successful but fear which one we’ll probably have to take.

The setpieces are mostly well done. Nobody pulls a weapon or comes with a plan out of nowhere and the environment is always well established. In one scene a character walks into a room with a heavy amount of sparks coming out of the big obvious wiring. Guess what’s later used as a weapon against an attacking shark? In the background of an escape up an elevator shaft, we see several flaming debris falling from above. Guess what eventually knocks off one of the escapees?

While this is basic, it’s competent screenwriting like this that sets Deep Blue Sea apart from dumbass movies like Sharknado. While I wouldn’t go as far to call it a “passion project”, it’s clear everyone involved did their best to create an engaging film.

My rating: One partially digested thumb up.

Stray observations

  • I can’t help but feel that Samuel Jackson’s successful, intelligent and brave character is meant to offset LL Cool J’s mildy “coonish” character

  • If you don’t know who Saffron Burrows is, you’ll want to after the film has the oh-so-unnecessary but oh-so-hot scene where she strips off her clothes to…do something.

  • While some might call bullshit on me making fun of Sharknado with how bad the CG is in this film, remember that this was made in 1999

  • Dave Chappelle ruined one of the most shocking scenes in the film. Kind of like how he ruined his own career. Burn.

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