In this regular series, a Wicked Horror writer presents an unpopular opinion about a particular genre offering and asks the oft-repeated question, “Is it just me?” In this installment, Joey Keogh presents the much-maligned Deep Blue Sea as the best shark-themed horror movie since the mighty Jaws scared everyone out of ever going into the sea again.
With the fortieth anniversary celebrations for the incomparable Jaws in full swing, what better time to showcase the only truly great sharksploitation movie to have come in its wake: Deep Blue Sea. Now, I know what you’re thinking; it’s trashy rubbish and belongs in the bargain bin alongside the likes of Lake Placid and its many sequels. Considering the deluge of sharksploitation wannabes over the past few years, in particular, we should have more respect for Deep Blue Sea. For one thing, at least the sharks look (mostly) real. For another, it hasn’t got its tongue shoved so hard in its cheek that it’s poking out the other side. Think of the much-maligned Sharknado series, Sharktopus and Sharktocopter, a terrifying helicopter-shark hybrid that I may or may not have just made up now. None of them are scary, fun or any good.
Deep Blue Sea is an underrated gem. Smart yet enjoyably dumb, consistently scary and funny, exciting, involving and boasting the coolest animatronic sharks since dear old Bruce, it’s the only real pretender to the Jaws throne. Let’s start with the basics; Deep Blue Sea has a terrific cast of seasoned actors who, although they have no business being in this movie, give it all they’ve got. Tom “I just want my kids back” Jane is a standout as shark-wrangler (it’s exactly what it sounds like) Carter. Probably an ex-con, definitely a bad-ass, Carter’s particular set of skills includes; riding sharks just as they’re about to eat him; delivering convincing speeches about being knocked “all the way to the bottom of the goddamn food chain” and, unsurprisingly, saving the day at the crucial moment.
Elsewhere, Sam Jackson keeps it classy in a fun role as a rich suit, Michael Rapaport does his usual Michael Rapaport thing and Stellan Skarsgard (!) tries valiantly to play an American doctor and ends up getting his arm bitten off as a result. The biggest surprise is rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J, who has since carved a successful career in television via the popular series NCIS: Los Angeles. Back in 1999, he’d only really been seen as bait for Michael Myers in Halloween H20 but he comes into his own in Deep Blue Sea. In fact, rumour has it that, following test screenings of the flick, the ending was changed so his character (a preacher/chef/alcoholic with a parrot buddy who may be a figment of his imagination) could turn out to be the hero.
Considering how dumb the premise is–super-sized mako sharks get super-smart thanks to idiotic scientists conducting Alzheimer’s research–the performances are played impressively straight. The film has its funny moments, but they’re knotted into the narrative and well-executed, which saves it from stumbling into so-bad-it’s-bad territory, like Lake Placid 2-4. Director Renny Harlin is known for being a bit eccentric and there’s a sense–particularly during his rousing commentary on the film–that he genuinely set out to make a properly scary, thrilling horror movie. And in this case, he knew what he was doing.
Both the villains and heroes of the film, Deep Blue Sea‘s mighty sharks were refreshingly brought to life using massive animatronics, with only slight CGI enhancements. Unlike Jaws, which saved the big reveal until the end (by necessity, not design due to major issues with the shark) Harlin refused to hide his monsters. A team of VFX experts spent eight months developing their creations, using footage of real-life makos to get a feel of how they moved. The beasts were built as self-contained units, using parts of 747 planes, along with 1000hp engines, to capture their massive size. Capable of swimming entirely on their own, they were remote-controlled and, Harlin recounts in the commentary, often seemed to have a mind of their own, with one reportedly shooting right through the ceiling.
The practical effects are staggering, particularly in key sequences such as when LL’s chef gets chased down a flooded hallway, or when Saffron Burrows is trapped in her office with an angry mako. Although the CGI is a bit ropey–the worst example of it is the choppy sea–the animatronics are so strong that it can be forgiven. Although you wouldn’t necessarily think so, Deep Blue Sea boasts some of the most convincing sharks ever committed to celluloid. Compare it to something like Sharknado, where the sharks never once look convincing, or even recent Aussie attempt Bait, where they’re swimming around in a flooded supermarket. These films rely on quick glimpses of the beasts to whet our appetites, but Harlin bravely, and wisely, shows us his monsters and they’re terrifying as a result.
Naturally, there are references to Spielberg’s masterpiece throughout; a dismembered leg floating past the camera, the creepy opening notes of the score, the classic boat party at the outset, and even a couple of the sharks’ deaths. However, rather than simply paying homage to the untouchable film, Harlin updates the concept for a modern audience. And, sixteen years later, aside from the use of a zip disk (Google it, kids), Deep Blue Sea has aged remarkably well. It’s also strangely progressive, boasting two African-American actors as main characters (LL Cool J’s character jokes “Brothers never make it out of situations like this!” at one point). It also stands up to repeat viewings, and it’s still scary. There are several noteworthy set-pieces that are undeniably horrifying. Jackson’s now-classic death scene is still shocking, in spite of the rusty CGI, and the final act, during which a desperate plea for freedom is made, is nail-bitingly tense even when you know the outcome.
Considering sharksploitation, as a sub-genre, has really taken a battering over the past forty years, Deep Blue Sea is ripe for a revisit. Endlessly entertaining, thrilling and scary, with a stellar cast and the best animatronic beasties this side of Jurassic Park, it’s better than you’ve heard, more fun than it has any right to be and much smarter than its central conceit would have you believe. Modern sharksploitation often either shows too much or too little but Deep Blue Sea is brave enough to pay homage to its most famous influence while simultaneously carving its own way through the waves. Think back over the past forty years and ask yourself whether anything else has even come close to replicating the magic of Jaws. Deep Blue Sea does and it deserves more respect as the best sharksploitation since Spielberg’s classic. Or is it just me?