Deep Blue Sea (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

At first glance, Deep Blue Sea might look like just another dumb, pointless monster movie crawling from the depths to take a run at the mid-summer box office chart. However, while I won't argue that this creature feature is going to enrich the mind, the script is characterized by a certain flair and Renny Harlin's direction keeps things moving at a breakneck pace. Consequently, while Deep Blue Sea may not be the most edifying motion picture to arrive in mutiplexes this year, it proves capable of doing something that many more artistically ambitious films fail at: entertaining an audience for nearly two hours.

I like the way Deep Blue Sea is constructed. It takes a short time to introduce the characters and set up the situation, then gets right into the action. And, once the mayhem starts, the level of tension doesn't let up until the closing credits. The script borrows liberally from Jaws, Jurassic Park, Alien(s), and The Abyss, but it doesn't try to hide its sources of inspiration. Deep Blue Sea knows it's not original, and it uses the audience's recognition of this as an asset rather than a detraction. The filmmakers play with our expectations by allowing events to happen in ways that they often don't in movies of this sort. When a genre film can throw out a couple of things that take me unawares, I know it's doing a reasonably good job.

Nearly all of the action takes place on the Aquatica, an advanced deep sea research laboratory that looks like a "floating Alcatraz." It's there that a small group of marine biologists and other scientists are experimenting on three genetically altered Mako sharks that are bigger, smarter, faster, and deadlier than is typical for members of their species. The humans, led by Doctors Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) and Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgård), believe that a protein found in the sharks' brains can cure Alzheimer's Disease. On the day that the project's funder, Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson), is on the Aquatica, all hell breaks loose. The sharks turn violent, a tropical storm hits, and a helicopter crashes into the station. A group of six - McAlester, Franklin, shark handler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane), engineer Tom Scoggins (Michael Rapaport), preacher/cook Dudley (LL Cool J), and scientist Janet Winters (Jacqueline McKenzie) - are trapped below the surface, struggling against rising water levels while avoiding three pairs of dangerous jaws.

The cast of Deep Blue Sea is atypical for a monster movie. The only two who seem to "belong" in this kind of film are Thomas Jane and LL Cool J. Everyone else has made their names in lower profile, independent fare. Samuel L. Jackson, one of the best actors of his generation, continues to display amazing range. This year, he has shown up in the highest-profile film of the decade (The Phantom Menace) as well as a somewhat obscure Canadian picture (The Red Violin). Jackson agreed to appear in Deep Blue Sea because he had never done this sort of movie, and his presence adds a dose of class and energy.

Saffron Burrows, most recently seen in Mike Figgis' offbeat The Loss of Sexual Innocence, turns Dr. McAlester into a sympathetic-but-flawed character (quite a difference from the paper-thin stereotypes that typically populate this kind of picture). Michael Rapaport manages to be moderately less annoying than usual. Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård (Insomnia) and Australian actress Jacqueline McKenzie (the female lead in Angel Baby) are solid in small roles.

The special effects are virtually flawless. Unlike in the recent Lake Placid, where the crocodiles don't convince, the sharks here have a feel of deadly authenticity (they are the combined result of computer generated images and animatronics). Their unbridled ferocity makes the killer in Jaws look like a wimp by comparison. Speaking of that venerable '70s film, Trevor Rabin's "shark attack" score pays homage to John Williams' Jaws music without ripping it off outright. There are also a couple of copied shots, including the "shark cam" view.

While Deep Blue Sea is mostly played straight, it's clear that Renny Harlin isn't beyond having a little fun with the material. The majority of the comic relief comes from rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J, who has some great lines (including "Brothers never make it out of situations like this" - referring to the propensity of token black characters to die in monster movies). But humor and drama are not the reason why audiences see a movie like Deep Blue Sea, and Harlin (who is best known for helming Die Hard 2) recognizes that. He gives viewers exactly what they want - a taut, exciting thriller that takes movie-goers and characters deep under water and leaves them gasping for breath.

Deep Blue Sea (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1999-07-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1