Date Posted: 10/11/19
This week I was in the mood for a bit of Man Vs Nature action. I have always been fascinated by the human fear of being eaten by animals. Generally you humans live in towns and cities plus are at the top of your respective food chain but strip away your guns, knives and you would stand about as much chance against most animals in the animal kingdom as a startled field mouse being plucked from the ground by a hunting kestrel. Deep Blue Sea was my movie of choice, mainly because it is not the usual strangely intelligent animal hunting down hapless humans. For a bit of context, the film was released in 1999 and stars Saffron Burrows, with Thomas Jane and LL Cool J.
In case you don’t know (or watch things like Shark Week on Animal Planet on Discovery) sharks don’t suffer from debilitating brain diseases as they age, and the premise of the film is within their brains a group of scientists are hoping to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease. It is an interesting idea and whilst incorporating elements from animals into your own genetic make-up has potential, selective breeding and genetic manipulation before birth is the way my people have employed to cure thousands of diseases over the centuries.
Naturally there is more to the plot than the above so let’s jump into the waters of the deep blue sea...
Four spoiled rich twenty-something’s are hanging around onboard their yacht when the boat is attacked by a shark, and all four are knocked into the sea. The shark closes in but before it can chow down on one of the beautiful young people it is harpooned, twice by a mysterious man.
A genetically modified shark attacking a yacht after escaping from a research facility makes the front page and Susan McCallister is called before her bosses to explain how the fish managed to escape. She explains what they are trying to do and there have been some problems at the research facility. The money man funding their research is Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) and decides to check out the facility after news of the attack on the yacht reaches the papers. He will determine if the project has the potential Susan claims it does and if not he will shut things down.
At the floating research facility named Aquatica, Susan and her team of scientists are attempting to harvest a brain matter protein from sharks to cure Alzheimer’s disease. The team is made up of Dr. Susan McCallister (Saffron Burrows), the lead scientist; Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgård); Dr. Janice Higgins (Jacqueline McKenzie); Carter Blake (Thomas Jane), a shark wrangler; Tom Scoggins (Michael Rapaport), an engineer; Sherman "Preacher" Dudley (LL Cool J), a religious, wise-cracking cook; and Brenda Kerns (Aida Turturro), the communications specialist.
After Franklin arrives everything seems to be going well, and the experiment produces results. Carter asks Scoggins to raise the fences surrounding the shark pens as he suspects the shark that escaped may have jumped them in order to get out into the ocean. The team are using three starks for their research, two 1st Generation and one 2nd Generation female. They refer to them as Gen-1s and the Gen-2. The Gen-2 is considerably larger than the Gen-1 being described as [a] forty-five foot shark by Carter.
Whilst congratulating themselves on a successful experiment, Whitlock gets too close to the Gen-2 shark and has his arm chomped on. With a massive storm rocking the facility the team call the mainland for help, but a combination of bad weather and equipment failure results in one of the sharks smashing the main lab’s massive window. The survivors evacuate the room and discover that the sharks are smashing doors down as they pursue the remaining scientist.
Franklin demands to know what has been going on and Susan reveals that she and Whitlock used gene therapy to increase the size of the shark’s brains, in order to harvest more protein, the side effect of which made the sharks smarter. Now they are actively hunting the team and flooding the underwater facility in order to get to them.
The survivors race to stay one step ahead of the sharks, and the flooding as facility begins to collapse and sink to make it back to the surface and figure out the answer to the riddle: what does a shark with a brain the size of a flat-V8 engine and no natural predators think about...
In many a man Vs animal films the animals seem to be unnaturally clever and are able to recognise traps or who is trying to capture them. Animals generally get assigned human traits, and I remember watching the TV movie Peter Benchley’s The Beast about a giant squid that is terrorising a seaside community, in which one of the characters claims that the squid is capable of committing acts of vengeance. Animals taking revenge or acting with a human-like characteristic is possible but generally unbelievable. As a result it is difficult to do a film in which the animals are able to act with any intelligence because no one really believes that an animal can solve problems. Now admittedly I have seen squirrels and crows figure out how to open bird feeders to get to the nuts inside which does indicate intelligence. Fish can be taught to go through a maze to find food, so it is not unreasonable to say that animals can figure out puzzles. Within the context of their own worlds animals can use tools or solve certain problems to get to food. However, animals are generally stumped by things like glass, or doors, and any animal that can figure out those things pushes it beyond the realms of believability.
To its credit Deep Blue Sea takes the idea of having clever sharks and runs with it.
Typically many of the humans meet grisly ends in the jaws of the deadly fish, but, unlike several Jaws-type films which rip off the source material Deep Blue Sea could almost been seen as a homage to the King of Shark movies. It knowingly tips its hat to the Jaws films in the way that the sharks are dispatched, as they happen in the same ways as they were in the first three films. It also makes a change to see animals forming plans and the hapless humans pitting their wits against the smart killers that they created whilst running around trying to escape the jaws of death.
Unfortunately Deep Blue Sea does make use of some unconvincing CGI effects. It was made back in 1999 and CGI in big budget movie was being done but not being done very well. It can really pull you out of the moment when you go from watching real actors, or sharks and are suddenly watching a bad CGI effect, it makes me think that this would be a great contender for a re-mastered edition in which all of the CGI effects are redone with modern methods.
However, there isn’t only CGI as the sharks are a combination of lives sharks, animatronics, and CGI. Whilst the live sharks and the animatronics look pretty good, not enough trickery is used to fool the eye when it comes to the computer effects.
The shark in Jaws looked quite fake, obviously it was the best that could be done at the time, and there are times when it looks like a giant rubber fish. As a result the shark itself was only glimpsed throughout the film, thus hiding the fact that it didn’t look great, and a less is more approach might have worked better than an overreliance on the limited CGI technology of the late 1990s.
Director Renny Harlin has had successes with a number of films including Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger so he knows how to make a good action film. During a time when the controversy around genetic engineering is still at a high Deep Blue Sea takes the idea to an extreme and creates a tense creature-feature that is better than the thousand other Jaws imitations other there.
The film also keeps its tongue-in-its-cheek with LL Cool J serving as the comic relief and generally the cast are pretty likable with them all giving decent performances. The film also includes one of the most shocking and surprising deaths in movie history, which I won’t spoil but it does come out of nowhere, and is awesome.
Renny Harlin is capable of keeping the tension high when that is what the film requires and allowing a bit of comic relief to enter the proceedings too. The film is about smart sharks so it needed to know not to take itself too seriously or it couldn’t have worked. It gets a Thumbs Up because it is one of the better Humans Vs Shark films and whilst yes the CGI does let it down in places, there is not so much CGI that you can’t ignore the odd bad effect.
7/10 – Generally Deep Blue Sea is a good fun film, it runs with the idea of sharks actively hunting down the scientists and serves as a kind-of Frankenstein’s monster coming after its creator idea. Unfortunately some of the CGI is incredibly obvious and makes me wonder why older movies don’t get their CGI overhauled and get rereleased in the cinema or on DVD or Blu-Ray.