It has been 24 years since Jaws changed the face of the film industry and made director Steven Whatshisname moderately well-known, and it's probably safe to say that no aquatic horror film, let alone a shark film, will ever top it. So I'd like to think that director Renny Harlin won't be insulted when I say that Deep Blue Sea is the second-scariest shark movie ever made.
You might have imagined that the genre was pretty much played out, what with the various Jaws sequels and stuff like Anaconda and the current Lake Placid, the latter a perfectly competent but pointless entertainment. But Harlin has managed to squeeze some new thrills out of it.
The central hook is downright silly: While part of the horror in the original Jaws was the idea of sharks as mindless killing machines, this time around they're brainy killing machines. It seems that scientist Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows), obsessed with finding a cure for Alzheimer's and with the possibility of her funding drying up, has broken every rule of medical research by monkeying with the DNA of her lab sharks, increasing their brain size. It apparently hasn't occurred to her that this might result in a concomitant increase in intelligence.
When one of the sharks escapes and goes after your basic incredibly-gorgeous-young-babe-in-a-swimsuit-who-will-look-very-good-in-the-trailer, corporate honcho Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) heads for the floating research facility, where McAlester and Dr. Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgärd) are headquartered. No sooner does he arrive than an unexpected storm blows in, isolating the lab's weekend skeleton crew -- which is when the sharks see their big chance to wreak a little havoc and bust out of the joint. Soon there's nobody left but McAlester, Whitlock, Franklin, and four others -- marine biologist Janice Higgins (Jacqueline McKenzie), engineer Todd Scoggins (Michael Rapaport), cook "Preach" Dudley (LL Cool J), and tough, hands-on lab assistant Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) -- plus three really smart sharks.
The rest of the story is sheer action, combining elements of Jaws, The Abyss, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Killer Shrews, as the sharks destroy the multimillion-dollar floating lab and the humans try to get out, without drowning, getting smashed by debris, or becoming fish food.
Harlin has long since proved his adeptness at this sort of material in films such as Die Hard 2: Die Harder, the underrated Long Kiss Goodnight, and even the silly Stallone vehicle Cliffhanger. (I'm even a fan of his nearly universally reviled Adventures of Ford Fairlane -- so sue me.) He isn't above using the occasional shock cut, but he understands that suspense is more important than simple surprise. One of the most effective things about Deep Blue Sea is Harlin's continual breach of the genre's conventions. It would spoil things to be more explicit, so suffice it to say that not everything in the film happens according to the traditional, overly familiar blueprint.
On those occasions when the silliness of the script threatens to become too much, the cast saves the day: Jackson, who has always been able to deliver any nonsense with utter conviction, is, as usual, money in the bank. And LL Cool J is surprisingly well cast: His character, who starts out as standard-issue comic relief, turns out to have greater resources than we at first suspect.
Burrows does her best with a thankless character: McAlester is alternately an irresponsible jerk and a simple ninny. What is occasionally distracting about her presence is the extent to which she resembles -- or has been coiffed and made up to resemble -- Harlin's ex-wife and frequent star, Geena Davis. Given what the character is put through, it almost feels like some kind of creepy displaced revenge.
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