Deep Blue Sea (1999)

D: Renny Harlin
S: L.L. Cool J., Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows

Researchers at a special deep sea facility experiment on sharks in an attempt to develop a drug to cure alzheimer's disease. In the way of monster movies since time began, something goes wrong. This time it's because the scientists have made the sharks super-intelligent. On a stormy night with only a skeleton crew on duty, the sharks decide it's time to eat some people. You know the rest.

Renny Harlin films are never subtle. They are almost always cartoonish, certainly ludicrous, but often entertaining. The best of them, however (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger), depend on other things for their success, usually performances which capture the spirit of the thing and play along with a wry grin. It's impossible to take one of his films seriously. When he tries to do so himself, the result can be disastrous, especially when a script shows promise (The Long Kiss Goodnight). When it doesn't, things can be infinitely worse (Cutthroat Island).

The script for Deep Blue Sea is not especially exciting (credited to Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers & Wayne Powers, but with Akiva Goldsman (Lost in Space) among the ten or so producers/executive producers, it's obviously one of those committee rewrites). It's an old fashioned monster movie recycled from bits of Jaws 3-D and other miscellaneous humans-menaced-by-intelligent/strong/mutated-creatures movies. There's nothing wrong with this as such, and done with sufficient skill and a devil-may-care attitude, films like this can work out just as well today as they did fifty years ago. Harlin is a skilled technician, and always has been. After his recent, disastrous, more personal projects featuring then wife Geena Davis, Deep Blue Sea has obviously been more a director-for-hire gig. It is competently directed and features plenty of explosions, slow-motion action and violent death. It plods along nicely and contains a variety of suspenseful confrontations with the killer sharks in enclosed, semi-submerged spaces which generate considerable claustrophobia. All told, Deep Blue Sea is a much more professionally crafted film than Stephen Sommers' Deep Rising. But it's not as much fun.

Too ridiculous to be taken seriously, too serious to be campy entertainment, the film suffers from an inflated sense of its own ability to generate tension. While Harlin has fun playing with POVs and visual stingers as CGI sharks pop in and out of the water as suits the moment (as soon as a character has outlived their immediate usefulness), the characters are barely worth feeding to the sharks. Even L.L. Cool J., who is given the meatiest characterisation, is at best a one dimensional cypher for a particular response to conditions of extreme duress. Thomas Jane is the musclebound he-man type who leads the mano-y-sharko action, with Saffron Burrows expressionless as the scientist responsible for the 'big mistake' (mind you, the scriptwriters do manage to come up with the most hilariously convincing excuse to have the leading lady facing off against the monster in her underwear that I've ever seen). Look fast for Stellan Skarsgard as another whitecoat who meets a gruesome fate (that's not a spoiler - almost everyone meets gruesome death here, it's a matter of figuring out who goes when), and even faster for Ronny Cox in the establishing scenes. Samuel L. Jackson gets one or two moments to flex his muscles, but on the whole it's a paint-by-the-numbers with scarlet red and these people are meatbags. No harm in that either, except that they all seem to be taking it terribly seriously, and so does Harlin. Meanwhile he pushes the cartoon button throughout, and the result is moderately diverting, but ultimately silly without being as enjoyable as the genre can be.

It passes the time, and those fond of a bit of sadistic entertainment might find it adequate sustenance until the next bit of vicious mayhem comes along, but for my money the quirky charms of the likes of Deep Rising or even classics like The Tingler (not to mention Jaws itself, of course) are more worthwhile. That said, there are worse bits of hokum out there, and if it gets you in the right mood and in the right company, it might be worth the trip.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.