Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Film Critique- "Deep Blue Sea"

Q- What does an 8000 pound Mako shark with a brain the size of a Flathead V8 engine and no natural predators think about?

A- the...

Deep Blue Sea (1999)
starring: Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, Samuel L. Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard, Michael Rapaport, Jaqueline McKenzie, LL Cool J, Aida Turturro
written by: Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers & Wayne Powers
directed by: Renny Harlin



Two couples on a large Catamaran are pleasure sailing at night, looking for a little nookie from each other when their craft is attacked by a Mako shark, wrecking the hull and knocking all 4 people into the water. Just when a pretty blond lass is about to experience first hand the Great Chomping, the shark's actions are thwarted via harpoon by Shark Wrangler, Carter Blake (Thomas Jane). Early next morning, Dr. Susan McCallister (Saffron Burrows) is en route to an ass-chewing at Chimera Pharmaceuticals about the escape of one of their "test sharks." Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) threatens to pull his funding for the Alzheimer's research unless the doctor can pull a rabbit from her butt, which she promises.

Everyone repeat after me, "I'm sick of these mutha-fu*kin' sharks on this mutha-fu*kin'..." wait, where are we?

Franklin and the doctor fly to Aquatica, a floating research facility dedicated to the research and home to three super bad-ass Mako sharks. Against better judgment, but without other options, the doctor and her staff bypass months of safeguard testing and attempt to remove, from a shark brain, a protein that can conceivably cure Alzheimer's Disease. The test is a success, with Moneybags Franklin as a witness, so the research team figure they have a monetary stay of execution. But unbeknownst to them, the super bad-ass Mako sharks have something very sinister planned...

It seems my "Stay Out of the Water" film critique series has been given an extension, as Deep Blue Sea is the first "reader's choice" selection here at Turzman Central, and what a choice it is. One of my faves, DBS is one of those rare and precious jewels of a film that has sharks, a plausible story and an all-around lack of suckiness. Where Jaws sits all alone atop the heap of Shark movies, Deep Blue Sea is in equal solitude as the genre's current silver medal.

For the love of Neptune, DO NOT CALL ME BRUCE!

Responses to this film were a mixed bag of bad and good, the good tending to focus mainly on the mega-awesome visual FX (more on that later). The critics were prone to bad mouth what they thought was bogus science backing the fiction. Normally this doesn't bother me, as I am always happy to see something story-driven over stuff exploding onscreen every five minutes, and I'm usually first to call "Shenanigans" when I see BS onscreen. But we live in an age where people are willing to believe that giant robots from outer space transform into cars and talk to people. Or that furry-footed midgets need to spend three long-ass movies walking all over Allah's creation to drop a ring in a lake of fire. Or that Keeanu Reeves is Jesus Christ in a computer generated facade in front of a never ending battle between people and machines. My point is, DBS is a film that goes out of its way to back up the science behind the fiction and their ideas come from real life scientists performing real life research on sharks.

Here we have a textbook example of "The Great Chomping," present in all Shark movies.

It's no secret that, with just one exception that I am aware of*, sharks are not prone to any diseases and therefore have been dissected by anyone in a white coat, searching for the cure to something. Usually it's cancer, sometimes (as is the case in DBS) it's Alzheimer's. The film makes the point of connecting Dr. McCallister to Alzheimer's for just a hint of sub plot to explain why she blatantly broke the rules and endangered the other characters (something NOT done through exposition, which is not nearly as easy as you may think). So the science backing the story proper is fundamentally strong and is supported fictionally through the personal tragedy of Dr. McCallister.

It's funny, you looked A LOT bigger just a second ago.

So what rules, exactly did the doctor break to justify her ends? It's what explains the film's tagline, "Bigger, Smarter, Meaner, Faster" and is the other point of ire for the nay-sayers so quick to degrade DBS. The short answer is, genetic tampering. Oooooh, that nefarious staple of exploitation cinema, specifically in creature features that dared to toe the "You should not play God moral of the story" line. But again, DBS makes a conscience effort to connect A to B. The shark's brain did not process enough of the protein viable enough to get wanted results, so the doctor increased the brain size in an effort to get more of the protein. "As a side effect, the sharks got smarter," she explains, and the sharks, now smarter than they were previously, realize they want OUT of their cages and set into a motion a plan to do just that. Hence, the question posed at the beginning of this post and by Franklin once he realizes what the doctor had done.
Not only does this plot point explain both the doctor's motives and the new bad-assery of the sharks, but it puts Saffron Burrows in the very unique position of playing a character that is both protagonist AND eeeeeviiiiiil scientist in the same script. That's right, this story is all about Dr. McCallister and no one else, really, but it is very cleverly masked by the chaos caused by the sharks and the action that ensues from it. You can thank director Renny Harlin, his FX team and his post production editors for that.

Can a brother get a Sham-Wow?

The logical lapses present in DBS are so minute compared to what Hollywood usually demands us to believe. But the fact is, they are here, and they're not so subtle. And I can see how this little stuff can ruin a film for somebody, as one particular "brain-fart" in DBS almost ruined it for me. The concept of a "shark wrangler" as depicted by Thomas Jane in DBS is, in a word, absurd. He has absolutely no qualifications, educationally to do the work he was hired to do by Chimera, as far as properly handling and studying sharks. He is more of a game warden, ala Muldoon from the first Jurassic Park, which means his only qualification was he was the only one with balls enough to get in the water with super bad-ass sharks. And his ability to outmaneuver a shark coming after him?! Just ridiculous writing we can only chalk up as Hero's Death Battle Exemption, because there is no way, in the real world, can a man outswim a shark.
Sorry, it can't happen. But just write it off as "Hollywood Logic" and the pill goes down much easier.

When will people realize, it's much safer to STAY OUT OF THE WATER?

The only other real problem the film has, and it's been said before, is the way the sharks change size to fit whatever specific set piece they find themselves in. Although only one shark is too big to fit inside the lab, (it was mentioned as being in the ballpark of 45 feet long) the other two sharks spend most of their time inside the confines of the now flooded hallways, (which were claustrophobic before they were flooded) and can move around quite easily. But when swimming next to the bigger one in open water, they are obviously of considerable size, much bigger than purported when they are chasing down our cannon fodder inside Aquatica. I guess this particular lapse is just an offshoot to the rule of Offscreen Teleportation, but it is only a sniff away from inexcusable, in my opinion.

I have to say it. I HAVE to... "Smile, you son of a..."

One final deficiency to mention- the battle between LL Cool J and the shark in the kitchen is just... dumb. I mean, VERY, VERY dumb. I'll say this, never mind the stupidity onscreen for five minutes, just think about how the shark is destroyed; the next time you come across a Zippo lighter, dunk it under water and see if it lights up. Nuff said.

Now, the good stuff:

The visual FX in Deep Blue Sea are a very effective mix of computer enhancement and puppet work. The same formula Stan Winston used in Jurassic Park shines and delivers here. And dammit, those puppets are eerily close to what a Mako shark looks like.
Here's a tangent for my fellow shark freaks- the shark that was supposed to be a Tiger shark, was actually one of the Mako models painted with stripes to look like a Tiger. I mention this because the heads and teeth of Makos are not anything like those of a Tiger, but in the film they are identical. I digress.

The acting is great when you consider not too much was asked from each individual. DBS boasts an impressive smattering of B level, support grade, recognizable faces, and none of the characters are over-developed to the point of over-shadowing anyone else. Instead, each actor is given just a little bit of wiggle room to give their characters something to make them unique, without chewing up scenery and pulling attention away from something important. Like the plot.

So the balance of Deep Blue Sea is weighed out perfectly. In the few spots where it lacks logic and reason, it more than makes up for it somewhere else via fine acting, great FX and edge of your seat action. DBS is not a blatant ripoff of Jaws, but it's impossible to make a Shark movie without Jawsey moments, whether cognizant or not. But the DBS/Jaws parallels are very subdued here, and do not overtake the audience. Again, it's another great balance, this time between originality and the unavoidable similarities.

And one more thing I should mention, a very important point that makes DBS superior to almost every Creature Feature, it has no children in it, as a lame duck attempt to add more tension to an already tense situation. Many strong Kudos to the writers for remembering to leave the kids at home.

* Footnote-
the only example of disease in sharks that I can think of is the odd, deforming curvature in the "spine" of the Sand tiger shark...



As seen here, over time, the back of the Sand Tiger curves, and the once streamlined body develops this awkward and unnatural "hump" in front of the first dorsal fin. Based on aquarium observation, this malady appears to be quite painful and there's no known cure. It doesn't happen to every specimen, but it does appear to be species-specific to only the Sand Tiger. Despite all we know, we know nothing.

Much thanks to reader Steve for the suggestion. I hope more of you challenge me in the future to critique a piece of Hollywood you want to see reviewed. There's always room for comments and I'm always up for Movie Night. If there's a film you want my opinion on, just holla.

In the meantime, stay well and of course,

Stay out of the water.

Internet addict Pornocat says, "Agreed, the absence of children was a strong, positive point for DBS, but what made it great was when the shark swallowed LL Cool J's pet parrot. I say good riddance. I hated that stupid bird."
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