Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: DEEP BLUE SEA (1999)

After watching THE LEGEND OF HERCULES (2014), yet another wretched mess of a movie from Renny Harlin, it is hard to imagine that the man actually made entertaining movies at one time. I’m not trying to make the case that he had the meteoric fall to earth like Orson Welles going from CITIZEN KANE to doing frozen pea commercials, mainly because Findus frozen peas ads have more depth and integrity than Harlan’s recent outings.

Harlin started his American career with the superb, yet underrated horror film PRISON(1988) and over the next eleven years would stay true to his Finnish roots and crank out silly, broad appeal, but highly entertaining action-oriented films. Hell, even to this day, I will gladly take CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995) over PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (2003). No matter how stunningly bad Geena Davis and her implants are, they still rate higher than yet another one of Johnny Depp’s mincing, fey eccentrics.

The film opens with the sense that this is essentially a FRIDAY THE 13th sequel in the water (which is really not a bad idea until you remember that they made part 8). A couple of young, pretty couples are having a beer drinking make-out session on a catamaran, when they are suddenly attacked by a shark that punches through their hull, but doesn’t seem too interested in munching on the fleshy morsels that are now flailing around in the water. This is to give ex-con smuggler turned shark handler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) plenty of time to arrive out of nowhere and shoot the predator with tranquilizer-filled harpoons and save the day… err, night. Damn, he's good at his job! How else would he have been able to track a shark in one night to coastline where over-privileged tweens would be hanging out? He's that good!

The shark happens to be a test shark that escaped from the pens of an ex-Navy sub-aquatic laboratory where research scientists, headed up by Alzheimer’s disease research expert Dr. Susan McCallister (Saffron Burrows, who in the same year, appeared in the cringe-inducing WING COMMANDER). Yes, you heard that right, the brains in world’s oldest link to the age of dinosaurs can hold the cure for modern human minds. Apparently the frontal portion of the brain (we are never given much in the way of technobabble explanations) contains a protein that when added to human brain tissue will cause the synapses to begin firing again. At this point you might wonder why the scientists didn’t use dolphins, who are much more compatible with humans and can’t rip you to shreds because that is literally all they do. Screenwriter Duncan Kennedy has that one covered. Sharks are so old that they are the only animals that have that protein. So there!

Oh yeah, I remember having this for the Intellevision


The wrench that gets thrown in the gears is one Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson), a wealthy suit and tie guy, a survivor of a tragic climbing incident, who works for the corporate machine that is funding the project. Because the project is only close to getting results, the company wants the operation shut down unless the team can show proof of concept in the next 48 hours. Don’t they know that never works? Haven’t they seen R.O.T.O.R. (1988)?

Of course these folks gotta eat, so they have a chef named Preacher (L.L. Cool J) on board. I repeat “a” chef. Can’t you give a brother a prep cook fer cryin’ out loud? All the man has is his is a freakin’ parrot, which he has creatively named "bird". A parrot... underwater. Of course he’s called a chef, but no cook worthy of the title “chef” would mix blueberries into muffin batter with a wire whisk! Even amateurs use a spatula to fold them in but if you are legit, you pour in half the batter, throw in your whole blueberries, pour in the second half and then take a knife and swirl the batter in the muffin pan so that you a yellow muffin with whole blueberries in it. Uhhh… is anyone still reading this? Even though he makes this egregious error, I’ve totally got his back when the crew throw a birthday bash for McCallister with a full bar, and guess who is expected to serve the drinks? Yeah, the cook isn’t invited to par-tay at the party, but rather to work at the party. Patronizing bastards. Even worse, in a deleted scene Michael Rapaport's character, drunk on a single glass of wine, insults the man's cake without after refusing to even try it! I don't know whether that was supposed to be funny or not, but I can't wait for this guy to end up as fish food.

Pretty soon we discover that the sharks have become hyper intelligent due to the fact that their brain mass has been increased so they produce more of the McGuffin serum. Now they can recognize weapons, swim backwards, take out video cameras and roar. Kennedy claims that the genesis of the script came from seeing the body of a shark attack victim wash up on the beach. We know this is total hogwash because clearly the genesis of the script was from personally witnessing JAWS 3-D (1983). There are so many similarities, it’s a bit shocking, but on the other hand, this really is the movie that JAWS 3-D should have been.

Franklin wants to see all this crazy sciencey stuff work, so they set up a mako shark in the lab’s bay to show that the proteins actually cause neurons to fire in inert brain tissue. Things are going swimmingly until an allegedly intelligent scientist, Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgård), lights a cigarette causing the shark to come out from under the anesthesia and bite his arm off. Must be a California shark. Next thing you know it will be chaining itself to a tree in Berkeley.

This is actually a good thing for two reasons. For one it provides the tipping point of an admittedly ridiculous, but absolutely riveting sequence in which a raging storm, a rescue chopper and an angry shark causes massive explosions and a shatter underwater bay window via the still living Jim, who is strapped into his airlift gurney. Most importantly though, it means that there will be no scenes of Skarsgård showing off the ol’ Swedish sausage. Nobody can accuse this movie of being terribly original, or even a smart one, but it definitely has a lot going for it and many of those things are what they don’t do. No annoying characters (ok, except for Michael Rapaport), no overly heavy dramatics, no naked guys named Stellan and a pace that moves faster than a greased pacu at a nude beach.


Once the water starts flooding the station, our aquatic Jason Voorhees manages to bust through a solid steel airlock door to get into the galley, but once in the galley cannot seem to muster the strength to smash through the glass on a convection oven. A convection oven that was apparently fitted with a waterproof electrical system in the case of just such an event. It’s also interesting to note that the beast is described as being a 45 foot, 8000 pound shark. The shark in JAWS (1975) was estimated at 25 feet and 6000 pounds. So even given the fact that this would be a selachimorphaic Jared Fogle, it would be impossible for something that big to navigate the half submerged rooms and hallways. That isn’t my biggest issue, no sir. My main gripe is that all credibility is lost when the cook, Preach, grabs a bottle of Reese cooking wine and starts chugging. Every cook knows damn well that the bottle says “Cooking Wine”, it doesn’t say “Drinking Wine” and there is a very good reason for that. Never, ever drink the cooking wine. Even if you are about to be attacked by a 8000 pound shark. Matter of fact, no one should really ever cook with it either. Fortunately he redeems himself by leaving what he thinks may be his last message to the world, which is never to use milk in an omelet. Damn straight, my brotha, you know it.

Interestingly the script received one major rewrite during the casting phase. Originally Samuel L. Jackson was sought for the role of the cook, Preach. This being the height of Jackson’s career and having been cast in STAR WARS EPISODE I around the same time, his agent balked at the frivolous second string part. Because of this, screenwriters Donna and Wayne Powers retooled the script, writing in the role of Franklin specifically for Jackson. One of the best subversive scenes in recent genre films almost wasn’t. The film also went before test screenings and met with audience disapproval of the tired cliché (major spoiler) of having the black man die and the white girl live. Originally Preach was torn up by the shark and McCallister was the person to shoot the explosive harpoon. If you watch the finished scene you can see several continuity errors that attest to the recutting of the sequence. As much as I hate the very idea of test screenings, sometimes the audience is right. Having McCallister end up as chum makes the ending much more interesting. (end of spoilers)

If nothing else, just watching what the cast went through in the making of the movie is impressive. These guys must have been miserable. Not only is it scary enough when some actors had to train with real, wild and unpredictable sharks, but cast members are perpetually drenched in rain, pummeled by walls of water and thrown around in the water by mechanical sharks. As Jackson said "when I read [the script], it didn't read as wet as I've been. It read a lot drier." I can't imagine that it was much fun to shoot. One night sipping Leflaive Montrachet, the next being slammed down a flight of concrete stairs by several hundred gallons of water. You could argue that the CG is a little dated, it still blends well with the real sharks and the mechanical sharks. Mechanical sharks that were programmed and were capable of swimming and biting like real sharks.

Another glamorous day on a Hollywood movie set

One thing that helped make DEEP BLUE SEA have such a positive impact on the few people that went to see it was that 1999 was a rough year for horror movies in general. This is the same year that saw films such as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, Jan de Bont's remake of THE HAUNTING, Stephen Sommer’s reworking of THE MUMMY hitting theaters, while Mitch Marcus' remake of THE HAUNTING OF HELL HOUSE, CARRIE 2, WARLOCK III and CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666 all landed with a thud onto home video.

Unfortunately, in spite of being one of the few bright spots of the year and generally well received by movie goers and critics, the $78 million US/Aussie co-production floundered at the box office pulling in a underweight $19 million on its opening weekend. While it was a hit on home video, it still marked the last solid film in Harlan's career, and the second to last time that Hollywood would trust him with a fat budget. His follow-up feature film was the $72 million Sly Stallone clunker DRIVEN (2001) that would pull in a paltry $12 million and ran Harlan’s big studio career directly into a brick wall. Damn shame too as I would have liked to have seen a big budget sequel to PRISON (1988).

Moments of Clarity:

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