Renny Harlin, 1999
Starring: LL Cool J, Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport
When I decided to do a themed animals attack month, I set my limit to the year 1990, so that I could avoid all the horrible SyFy films made in the past 20 years, among certain other things. With two exceptions. The first is Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, surely one of the greatest shark attack movies ever made. On the surface -- based on poster art, advertisements, and so on -- it seems like another lousy, run-of-the-mill Jaws rip off. But it is easily one of the most entertaining horror films to come out of the late ‘90s and if you have a bad opinion of it, you owe it to yourself to watch it one more time, perhaps with some altered expectations.
On an underwater, part-submarine research facility, Aquatica, scientists are studying sharks to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. One of the lead scientists, Dr. Susan McAlester, secretly and illegally mutates a group of Mako sharks to get more brain tissue, which in turn makes the sharks larger, faster, and more intelligent. One of the center’s financial backers, Russell Franklin, comes to check out the facility after a shark escapes and attacks local boaters. But during his visit the sharks become more dangerous and unpredictable, killing several Aquatica staff members. To make matters worse, an enormous storm moves in and prevents them from leaving the facility and forces them inevitably towards a showdown of man vs. super shark.
Director Renny Harlin is known for his delightful action films, such as Die Hard 2 (1990) and the unappreciated The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), though genre fans will know him for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) and the awful Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). He was the perfect choice for Deep Blue Sea. The great thing about this film is that it doesn’t try to be anything more than an action movie with giant killer sharks. There are a lot of explosions and some fantastic attack scenes, and all the main characters wind up trapped in a fiery aquarium research facility of death, one that is collapsing down around them even as it gives the sharks free range. The film also manages to subvert many of our expectations during the second half. The characters are almost all established from stock types, but the movie repeatedly puts them in comical or surprising situations that I wouldn’t want to spoil.
As is typical with late ‘90s horror attempting to be A instead of B-movies, this has a relatively famous cast. Thomas Jane had one of his early leading roles here as the disgruntled shark tamer and does a reasonable job with the lousy dialogue he is given. His counterpart, Saffron Burrows, who plays the lead scientist, is terrible in comparison. Actually, I think everyone in this film is better than she is. She's a somewhat accomplished actress, both on stage and screen, so maybe she was just miscast. Her character is certainly unlikable, a stone-cold bitch whose drive to cure Alzheimer’s puts the lives of everyone at risk.
Michael Rapaport and Stellan Skarsgård are both good in supporting roles, though the two real reasons to watch this movie are Samuel L. Jackson and LL Cool J. Laugh, if you will, but LL makes the most of some dumb lines and is surprisingly compelling as the superstitious, religious facility cook with a pet parrot. Samuel L. Jackson’s role in this film is an absolute work of art, but again, I don’t want to spoil it.
The worst thing about Deep Blue Sea is the CGI. Some of the effects -- such as the real and mechanical sharks -- are decent, but the CGI sharks and attacks are just appalling. Maybe they were state of the art in 1999, but I remember cringing when I saw the film during its theatrical run. The digital doubles of the actors are particularly bad. But this is a movie made in 1999 about mutated killer sharks. All you need to focus on is its almost defiant refusal to take itself seriously and have as much fun as possible. It’s silly, fast paced, and blithely ignores any and all plot holes, distracting the audience with surprise shark attacks as often as possible. It comes highly recommended. There’s a DVD and a Blu-ray. Both share the same supplements: a commentary with Renny Harlin and Samuel L. Jackson, featurettes, a trailer, and deleted scenes.