In Defense Of: Deep Blue Sea

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When it comes to films where sharks are at the forefront, there’s a pretty large spectrum in terms of the quality of products we’ve been given over the years. On one end, of course, is Jaws, the undisputed king of shark movies that set a precedent that none that have followed in its wake have ever cleared. Then, on the complete opposite end, you can find things like the Sharknado series, any number of Syfy Channel original movies with names like Ghost Shark and Sharktopus, and even Jaws: The Revenge.

Caught in between are films like Open Water, The Reef, and last year’s The Shallows, all projects that didn’t soar as high as Jaws, but thankfully never sank to the lowest depths of the worst types of shark movies. More than that, however, they managed to prove that there’s still some serious life left in watching people going up against one of nature’s toothiest killing machines.

It’s easy to see why that is, too. No matter how many years go by and no matter how deeply connected the world continues to get technologically, there’s something to be said about the inherent fear of isolation. And what’s a scarier place to be isolated on this planet than adrift alone in the ocean, at the mercy of nature and unable to call for help as some dangerous – and very real – predator could be circling somewhere below you, quiet and unseen, just waiting for its moment to strike? The best shark movies capitalize on this notion, and even if they may not end up swimming in the same immediate vicinity as Jaws, they end up close enough to effectively make us think twice next time we dare to wade out a little further than usual from shore.

That brings us to a shark movie like Deep Blue Sea, Renny Harlin’s 1999 sci-fi/horror fest that was unleashed during a pretty loaded summer season. On the surface, its concept is one that would seem right up the alley of one of those aforementioned SyFy Originals: In an effort to cure Alzheimer’s, a team of scientists working on a floating laboratory named Aquatica in the middle of the ocean have genetically engineered a trio of Mako sharks whose brain tissue fluids, once drained, serve as the key to unlocking the cure. Unfortunately, the sharks’ increased brain size only results in making the beasts even smarter, and it’s not long before the sharks enact a plan to gain their own freedom by picking off everyone they can and sinking the facility itself in the process.

In essence, the sharks’ longing for the titular open pasture are painted here more akin to clever serial killers than the mere single-minded animals that their cinematic contemporaries tend to be, lending the entire film an air of unpredictability as events unfold and it’s revealed that dining on their captors isn’t the only item on their agenda. It’s somewhat of a goofy gamble – somehow the sharks’ larger brains allow them the capacity to swim backwards, for instance – and if you’re not willing to let yourself run with it from the get-go, then it most likely won’t click at all. I would argue though that the film overcomes what could have become an easily bungled mess of a premise to deliver a final product that continues to hold up and entertain nearly two decades on from its initial release.

There’s nothing deep about Deep Blue Sea. It knows it’s not Jaws, and doesn’t care at all that it isn’t. It’s a movie about three insanely smart, incredibly dangerous sharks and the people desperately trying to find a way to survive what’s happening, and once that entire premise is in place and all hell breaks loose, there’s nothing more to it, leaving the rest of the film to exist purely as a rollercoaster ride filled with thrills punctuated only by the briefest moments of breathing room. It’s entertainment in its purest form, allowing you to turn the brain off without also causing you to roll your eyes, the film taking its concept seriously enough to keep the whole thing from steering into outright ludicrous territory.

In large part, the cast has a lot to do with grounding Deep Blue Sea in that way. No one really steals the film from the main attraction – the sharks, of course – with the sole exception, perhaps, of LL Cool J’s Preacher, but no one detracts from the film, either, via noticeably and needlessly over-the-top acting. Everyone in Deep Blue Sea is a utility player, yet no one hams it up to compensate, which is incredibly refreshing and makes what happens to various characters all the more effective because the acting itself never telegraphs their fates ahead of time. From Stellan Skarsgard to Saffron Burrows to Thomas Jane – who spends much of the film falling down, it feels like – to Samuel L. Jackson, it’s a pretty solid lineup of actors, and the fact that everyone seems to be playing on the same wavelength instead of going rogue and chewing scenery in a way some horror film casts can tend to do is to be commended.