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Deep Blue Sea Print E-mail
Tuesday, 07 December 1999

Deep Blue Sea

Warner Bros. Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Samuel L. Jackson, Jacqueline McKenzie, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skarsgard, LL Cool J
release year: 1999
film rating: Three and a half stars
sound/picture: Three and a half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Movie shark technology has improved a hell of a lot since JAWS; most of the time the three intelligent, evil sharks menacing the cast in DEEP BLUE SEA are ultra-realistic.

It's too bad that shark movie scripts have gotten worse. While DEEP BLUE SEA is generally entertaining and the action scenes are top notch -- director Renny Harlin is generally good at this -- the screenplay, by Duncan Kennedy and Donna & Wayne Powers, is riddled with lousy dialog, thin characters and clichés. The story itself -- well, "contrived" is not nearly strong enough a word to describe the setup. It's just a way of creating a hybrid of JAWS and ALIEN. The script does provide at least one audience-shocking surprise, though.

Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) meets with Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson, looking impressive in gray sideburns and goatee), the money man who's bankrolling her dream project. Her father, she says grimly, died of Alzheimer's Disease, so she's dedicated to finding a cure through studying protein complexes derived from the brains of sharks. (This is cheap and obvious; giving the lead a Personal Interest is contrived and unnecessary.)

He accompanies her to Aquatica, a converted submarine refueling base (?) somewhere off the California coast. In the middle of this big open square -- much of it is underwater, for no apparent reason -- are the shark tanks containing two medium-sized and one large mako sharks, the experimental subjects. Tough Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) is the shark handler, but no scientist. There are lots of people at Aquatica, but most of them leave just as McAlester arrives with Franklin. Those staying behind (or "chum") include Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgard), Janice Higgins (Jacqueline McKenzie) and Tom Scoggins (Michael Rapaport), cook Sherman "Preacher" Dudley (LL Cool J) and his pet parrot, and communications expert Brenda Kerns (Aida Turturro). And by another coincidence, there's a storm on the way, too. Also, to harvest enough of the vital stuff from the sharks' brains, the scientific team has enlarged the sharks' brains. Now they are very smart sharks. It might occur to you, as it did to me, to wonder why they used such mean sharks as subjects. Oh well, just one of those little experimental blunders we all make sometimes, like Dr. Frankenstein using that criminal brain.

Naturally, as soon as the storm hits, things start going very,
very wrong. A shark attacks, the storm rises, a helicopter crashes, things blow up, windows break open, and Aquatica starts sinking, which makes it easy for these brainy sharks to go gliding down hallways and battering doors open in order to chow down on the cast. Since all these corridors and rooms are flooded, the sharks have an unusual opportunity: they sneak up on people.

These scenes are exciting and entertaining; they might not be as much fun if we cared what happened to the cast, but almost everyone is loud, abrasive and unpleasant. We worry about the cast more because we are people and not sharks, or at least most of us are, and therefore we worry more about what happens to the people than what happens to the sharks. There are, it must be admitted, some pretty horrifying, surprising and occasionally horrifying/surprising/FUNNY scenes during all this mayhem; it's hard not to feel horror when someone screams "I don't want to die!" just as a shark is biting them in two.

Technically, the film is terrific. Harlin keeps the pace going in several ways: the camera is mobile, the claustrophobic sets are used well, the editing is tight but not jagged, and the situations are pretty damned exciting creates edge-of-the-seat suspense for much of the movie's soggy but fast-paced running time. The soundtrack is another matter; abrupt, loud sounds are okay, but overused and sometimes silly, as when the sharks make roaring noises as they sweep by the camera. The DVD dutifully matches the brassy sound for home theaters.

The setup is so bare-bones and yet unlikely (smart sharks, storm, sinking building) as to be almost embarrassing. The dialog in general is just exposition and a few lame jokes; people keep doing foolish things, the most ludicrous of which may be when Susan strips off her wet suit to use it as insulation when she grabs some kind of electrical cable.

The suspense, which is often very strong, is as often compromised because we don't really know where the characters are in relation to their goal, where these corridors go, what the consequences are of opening this or that door. However, the sharks evidently have this all figured out, even though we never actually see them studying blueprints of Aquatica. There's something like a surprise toward the end, but it's mostly surprising because it's preposterous -- it requires far too much careful planning and forethought on the part of the sharks.

The characters are smudges, given a few traits to distinguish them from one another. Some of the actors work hard at this, such as Michael Rapaport, who gives an odd street-wise edge to his Berkeley-trained scientist. Stellan Skarsgard isn't around long enough to make much of an impression, and Jacqueline McKenzie is required to spend most of her time shrieking. Samuel L. Jackson is both ingratiating and commanding.

Saffron Burrows has an interesting, pouty, angular face, but DEEP BLUE SEA requires her to seem morose and frightened (at the same time) through most of the movie. Now, granted, being hunted by ungrateful sharks you yourself made superintelligent would probably irk most people, the sameness of her playing becomes rather wearisome, and doesn't generate much sympathy for her. Thomas Jane comes off better, but again, it's a very standard role: the tough guy hero. There are no shadings, but he wears better than most of the other actors.

LL Cool J is alone in the sinking base much of the time, and is more fun when he is by himself. At the end, he opens one weary eye and says, "It's the devil, you know." He underplays it effectively, but the line itself is so over the top audiences burst into laughter.

If the characters seemed more real, the story stronger, the dialog sharper, the whole film would have worked better. As it is, it's a showcase for Renny Harlin's abilities as a director of action and suspense scenes, and not a lot more than that.

His commentary track, though, is both informative and entertaining, with Harlin demonstrating more of a sense of humor than he usually does in his movies. He happily points out errors, talks about how difficult some scenes were to shoot, reveals effects secrets, and in general does just about the kind of commentary that works best for this kind of movie. Samuel L. Jackson (recorded separately) also narrates for about a third of the film, and he's as warm and funny in this capacity as he often is as an actor.

The two documentaries are the usual "making-of" trifles, although the one called "The Sharks of DEEP BLUE SEA" is much more interesting than the other one. There are several cut scenes; one is interesting, but it's obvious why the others were removed. There are also DVD-ROM features, including a chat room and various links. In terms of value for money, the DVD of DEEP BLUE SEA is a good buy. Too bad the movie is only okay.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Commentary track, trailer, cut scenes, other enhanced features.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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