Flawed as it definitely is, 1999’s Deep Blue Sea is a rare type of big-budget summer extravaganza that fulfils its promise of delivering fast-paced, entertaining action with genuine panache. Nothing about Deep Blue Sea is original or groundbreaking in any way, but the production was overseen by blockbuster extraordinaire Renny Harlin, whose previous pictures include Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Cliffhanger (let’s forget about Cutthroat Island). As a result, it’s unfailingly enjoyable, and it doesn’t feel its lengthy 100-minute running time. If Deep Blue Sea was released in 2013, it would have been produced by the SyFy channel, with zero budget and no skill behind it. Luckily, it was made in 1999, when studios still put money into R-rated B-movies. And thank goodness for that, as the resulting picture is a blast of pure good-natured fun.
On a floating research facility in the middle of the ocean, marine biologist Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) is seeking to find a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease by harvesting the brain matter of Mako sharks. In order to glean more protein from the fishes, the scientists genetically engineer them, which results in heightened intelligence. Susan’s corporate funder Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) agrees to a weekend expedition to the lab to check on progress. With most of the staff having left for the weekend, only a skeleton crew remains, including Susan, shark wrangler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane), engineer Tom Scoggins (Michael Rapaport), scientist Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgård), religious chef Preacher (LL Cool J), and lab assistant Janice Higgins (Jacqueline McKenzie). Unfortunately, a violent storm arises, and a series of circumstances results in the base being severely damaged and partially flooded. With a number of gigantic, intelligent Mako sharks craving the taste of their captors, the science crew are left to fend for their lives as they attempt to get to the surface and escape.
The big issue which faced screenwriters Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers and Wayne Powers was how to structure a shark attack movie without recreating Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Fortunately, the writers admirably overcame this, using Mako sharks as opposed to Great Whites, and creating a new plot and setting, not to mention introducing scientifically-altered sharks with increased smarts that are capable of more than the average beasties. In fact, the writers instead borrow from another famous Spielberg movie: Jurassic Park. How creative. Deep Blue Sea is well-structured for a B-movie, with a fair amount of build-up before all hell breaks loose and we get into the action. Once the mayhem commences, it never relents, progressing from one shark set-piece to the next at a brisk pace. Unfortunately, Deep Blue Sea is less successful in terms of dialogue and characters. The roster of characters here have little dimension to them; they’re established as plot pawns, and lack satisfying individual personalities. The chatter, meanwhile, is standard, one-note action film speak, lacking the spark of wit which bolstered Jurassic Park.
Deep Blue Sea deserves plaudits due to the lack of sentimentality that’s displayed towards the characters. None of the players are safe here, leading to unexpected and shocking character deaths. Most notable is a memorable scene in which a character delivers a very cheesy, melodramatic speech imploring the rest of the characters to stop bickering and work together to survive. It’s the standard action film speech, meant to denote a key turning point in the narrative, but, before the character can finish, a shark emerges and pulls him underwater to be ripped to shreds. It underlines that anyone can be killed off, no matter their star status or how important they ostensibly look to be. The actors are fine, doing what they can with the material. LL Cool J is the only one who really shines, as he has the best dialogue and the best character, not to mention he’s the most charismatic. Jane, meanwhile, is solid as well, establishing himself as strong leading man material. Also of note is seasoned veteran Jackson placing forth a fairly colourful turn, while Rapaport, Burrows and McKenzie are likeable as well.
Deep Blue Sea is a B-movie at heart, but Harlin had an A-grade budget at his disposal. $60 million was no small chunk of change in 1999, and in this day and age it’s unheard of for an R-rated action movie to be produced for such a lavish sum. Production values are competent here, and Harlin is a gifted action filmmaker, staging exhilarating set-pieces with confidence and skill. The R rating is a huge benefit, giving Harlin leeway to go nuts with graphic depictions of shark attacks. Water turns red when someone is taken, and the sharks rip the characters apart in a gory fashion. It’s glorious. Furthermore, it’s hard to overstate the effectiveness of the animatronic sharks here. The twenty-four years separating Jaws and Deep Blue Sea yielded tremendous advancements in cinematic special effects, allowing for practical sharks that are flawless in movement and detail. At times, you could swear that Harlin and his team must have thrown real sharks into tanks with the actors. Funnily enough, to date no other shark film has equalled or surpassed the animatronics here, which is bewildering. However, the movie’s digital sharks are not nearly as successful. A few moments here and there look somewhat convincing, but, for the most part, the CGI is obvious and slipshod. Jaws overcame its fake-looking shark by keeping it hidden for the most part, but Harlin is too concerned with in-your-face money shots.
To be sure, it’s disappointing that Deep Blue Sea is not on the same level as Jurassic Park, which merged genuine awe and excitement with an engaging sense of humanity and intelligence. Deep Blue Sea is instead closer to the film’s sequel, The Lost World, with Harlin more interested in big action scenes than substance. But, to the movie’s credit, it’s a big success, guiltlessly trashy and undeniably fun, even if it is thoroughly ludicrous. Deep Blue Sea is the very epitome of summer entertainment; stuffy critics relentlessly lambaste it, but it’s executed with enough energy, excitement, charisma and skill to render it an enjoyable guilty pleasure that gives you plenty of bang for your buck.