Deep Blue Sea

Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, Stellan Skarsgard
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Deleted Scenes, Still Gallery, Theatrical Trailer

There are certain icons in film that shouldn’t be challenged. These films have defined certain genres and whenever you make a film that is even close to these touchstone films, your film will be scrutinized. For mafia films, there’s "The Godfather." For outer space sagas, there’s "Star Wars." For movies with exotic dancers who throw tantrums and then storm out of the room a lot, there’s "Showgirls." And of course, when the topic of sharks is brought up, there’s "Jaws." It’s hard to believe, but "Jaws" was released almost 25 years ago. With this in mind, director Renny Harlin felt that it was time for a new shark film and he brings us "Deep Blue Sea", a film that is very different from "Jaws." "Deep Blue Sea" was a surprise critical success when it was released this past summer, but got lost in the tide of the "Blair Witch" hype. (I’m still baffled by how that happened.) But "Deep Blue Sea" is now on DVD, and can be enjoyed in the safety of your own home.

"Deep Blue Sea" avoids the "open sea" angle that "Jaws" took and opts for a "Spam in a house" plot. "Deep Blue Sea" takes place in Aquatica, a research lab that is set in the middle of the ocean. Aquatica is owned by a pharmaceutical company which is controlled by Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson). After a mishap at Aquatica, Franklin threatens to shut down the project. Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows), the research project leader, convinces Franklin that her team is close to a breakthrough and invites Franklin to visit Aquatica and see for himself.

When Franklin arrives at Aquatica, he discovers the true nature of McAlester’s research. She is convinced that protein extracted from the brain of a shark can be used to revive human brain cells which has been destroyed by degenerative diseases. This research is being conducted on three huge mako sharks, one of which is 45 feet long! Franklin is introduced to shark-wrangler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane, who looks just like Christopher Lambert) and scientist Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgard of "Good Will Hunting").

During the experiment to see if McAlester’s research is going to pay off, there is a tragic accident and Aquatica begins to take on water. As it turns out, the makos are not only big, but they are smart. The three killer sharks take advantage of this predicament and enter the research facility to hunt the humans. It’s a race against the clock as the panicked crew must find a way to make it to the surface while avoiding the man-eating monsters.

I’ve now seen "Deep Blue Sea" three times (once in the theater, and twice for this review). I don’t know how the film does it, but it works. It shouldn’t work, but it works, despite the problems. The plot is very tired and hackneyed. While it does an excellent job of staying away from the "Jaws" pitfalls (if you will), it resembles many other films, such as "Alien" and "Deep Rising." Once the basic premise is set up, we know that the characters will try different things to get to their destination and that along the way some of them will die. Also, we’ve got our stereotyped group of characters — the tough guy, the bad scientist, the smart-mouth, the weeper. Also, there are plot-holes a-plenty in the film and there are several key things that are never explained.

The sharks don’t help much either. They don’t have any personality. As with humans, the fact that they’re smart, doesn’t mean that they are going to be interesting. The sharks simply act as a device to threaten the characters and to kill them off one by one. It could have been any animal that was doing this. Granted, Bruce didn’t exactly steal the show in "Jaws", but he wasn’t on screen very much. We see the sharks in "Deep Blue Sea" a lot, and they typically aren’t that engaging.

Part of the problem here lies with the CGI special effects. At times, they are awful. There are several shots where the sharks look like the two sharks from the Cinnaburst commercial. I kept waiting for them to high-five. Three kinds of sharks are featured in the film; live sharks, mechanical sharks, and CGI sharks. The mechanical sharks look great, are very convincing, and are fairly menacing. It’s the CGI sharks that shatter the illusion. On the supplemental material, director Renny Harlin challenges us to distinguish the real sharks from the computer generated sharks. It’s no challenge. When compared to films such as "Mighty Joe Young" or "Starship Troopers", the CGI here seems second-rate.

But, somehow, despite these big problems, the film is a success. Why? Much of the credit must go to director Renny Harlin. He has created quite a suspenseful film here. "Deep Blue Sea" sets up its fairly simple premise and then Harlin begins to pour on the tension. With Aquatica being such a confined space, there is a great sense of claustrophobia. Once the facility is flooded, we know that there is the potential for the sharks to pop out of the water at any time and this creates suspense. Harlin uses this to draw the viewer into the movie and distractions such as the plot-holes and questionable special effects are forgotten as we cheer for the characters to make it to safety. Actually, it wasn’t until after I walked out of the theater that I begin to realize how silly some of the film is. That’s because while I was watching it I was totally immersed in the story.

The other pivotal point to the film’s triumph is its no-holds-barred script. While the basic plot may not be very original, the way it is executed is. "Deep Blue Sea" has a definite edge to it and it can be downright mean-spirited at times. (The scene which leads to the facitily flooding still disturbs me.) Also, the game of cat-and-mouse between the sharks and humans becomes completely unpredictable. We’ve seen other films like this where the people are killled one at a time, but in "Deep Blue Sea", anything goes. It’s nearly impossible to predict who is going to die and when. In "Alien" we always had a feeling when someone was putting themselves in mortal danger (although it’s still shocking that Dallas is killed), but in "Deep Blue Sea", the shark attacks come swiftly and without warning, leaving the viewer shaken and not knowing what to trust. I’m surprised by how many other reviews or write-ups on "Deep Blue Sea" have given away the biggest shock in the film, so I’m being very careful to not reveal any of the film’s secrets.

The Warner Home Video DVD of "Deep Blue Sea" presents their typical package of an excellent transfer and some nice goodies. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> format and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. The framing of the picture appears to be accurate, as there is no visible warping of the frame. The picture is crystal clear. Even the underwater scenes, which can have a tendency to get murky, are impeccable. There is no apparent graininess or artifacting on the picture. Harlin’s color palette here consists of mainly blues, greys, and blacks, and there is no color saturation, fuzziness, or overlapping of the colors. The video transfer on "Deep Blue Sea" is very well done.

When I saw the film in the theater, one thing that really stood out was the great use of stereo sound. I had hoped that the DVD would re-create this effect and it doesn’t disappoint. The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 soundtrack is very effective, offering a great deal of surround sound. The mix offers sound effects in two front channels, as well as the rear channels to maximize the feeling of claustrophobia and unease in the film. The sound is well-balanced, with the sudden loud sounds not being overpowering and the dialogue is always comprehensible, although substantially lower in volume than the effects – a tendency in many new movies.

The DVD offers several special features. The first is an <$commentary,audio commentary> featuring director Renny Harlin and star Samuel L. Jackson. Unfortunately, the two were not together when these commentaries were recorded, so we get two commentaries which have been edited together. In his commentary, Harlin focuses on the mechanics of making the film and explains how many of the shots were done, while Jackson tends to talk more about what the actors were doing during the scene and the hardships that the crew went through to make the film. While each part of the commentary is fine, there were times when Jackson was discussing a scene where I would’ve liked to have gotten the technical aspects from Harlin (and vice-versa). Still, both Harlin and Jackson are entertaining speakers and it’s obvious that they both have affection for the film.

There are two short documentaries which show behind the scenes footage. Warning; Do not watch these first, as they give away most of the plot. "When Sharks Attack" is fifteen minutes long and originally aired on HBO. This feature shows Harlin and actor Thomas Jane diving with live sharks to get some necessary footage for the film. It also offers several interviews with the cast.

"The Sharks of the Deep Blue Sea" is about eight minutes long, and focuses more on the special effects. We get to see how the mechanical sharks were built and controlled. (Watch for the hilarious shot of shark designer Walt Conti standing next to a mechanical shark who looks as if he’s awaiting his turn to speak.) This also shows how the CGI sharks were designed.

There are five deleted scenes, which aren’t very impressive. They are presented at 2.35:1, but look like a video copy that has been transferred into MPEG. These scenes can be watched with or without commentary from Harlin, who does a good job of explaining why the scenes were excised. It’s obvious why these scenes were left out of the finished film. (I’d hoped to see some deleted scenes that helped to flesh out some of the plot holes.) The theatrical trailer is presented at 2.35:1 and is very effective. The DVD also contains a still gallery and talent files. I was very surprised that the music video for LL Cool J’s "Deepest Blue" didn’t make it onto the DVD.

I was initially attracted to "Deep Blue Sea" because I’ll watch anything that has sharks in it. What I discovered was a very effective action/adventure film that overcomes many deficits to become a very scary and exciting movie. While the home video experience may diminish the film’s effectiveness somewhat, it still offers some surprising moments. And this film definitely proves that despite some recent setbacks, Renny Harlin is still a great action director. So, if you’re looking for a film that is a lot of fun but won’t be too terribly taxing on your brain, then I say that you should sink your teeth into "Deep Blue Sea."