Sharksploitation sort of began and ended with Jaws. No film could touch Steven Spielberg’s peerless, nightmare-inducing vision, regardless or, more accurately, in spite of technological advances.
In the intervening decades, this once promising sub-genre has mutated into complete nonsense with Ghost Shark, House Shark, Swamp Shark, Sand Sharks and, of course, the ludicrously fruitful Sharknado series that is mercifully coming to an end shortly. The Shallows, a 2016 film starring Blake Lively, captured some of that classic Spielbergian magic, and the 2018 adaptation The MEG (i.e. The Stath vs. The Shark) will hopefully provide the requisite popcorn thrills. Also, the shark is REALLY big, so take that, Bruce.
When it comes to finding an heir to Jaws‘ toothy throne, however, there is just one contender: Deep Blue Sea.
A cult classic beloved by the kind of people who also argue the merits of WolfCop and Tusk (both great), the 1999 Renny Harlin-helmed flick boasts a tight script loaded with eye-rolling zingers about what sharks think about, a devilishly complicated yet inescapably dumb premise and a bizarrely high-caliber cast, most of whom were then still unknowns. The sharks are also properly scary, but more on that later. Deep Blue Sea’s poster sucks, the trailer is insane and LL Cool J both stars and handles the theme song. None of it should work. And yet, Deep Blue Sea rules pretty damn hard.
The completely nuts plot finds a group of dumb scientists (always a classic) marooned in a massive floating ocean facility besieged by three massive super sharks they themselves have unwittingly created. There’s some nonsense about Alzheimer’s research and increasing brain mass to harvest protein matter, but suffice to say that killer line — “As a side effect, the sharks got smarter” — is just the tip of the iceberg (or the peak of the fin).
Rather than making self-aware nods to the escalating madness, Sharknado-style, Harlin plays it completely straight. As a result, high quality actors like Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Stellan Skarsgård, Michael Rapaport (before he lost his mind) and even the great Samuel L. Jackson are tasked with delivering cheesy lines about “making waves,” being “knocked to the bottom of the goddamn food chain” and “wrangling” sharks.
That they do so with absolute sincerity is testament both to their skills as performers and the strength of the script (credited to three screenwriters, one of whom based it on a nightmare he had), which never once winks at the material. Its po-faced earnestness makes even Deep Blue Sea‘s wackiest moments (“They recognized that gun!”) easier to swallow.
The characters feel lived in from the moment they first appear, whether it’s Jane’s good guy with a bad past, Rapaport’s nerdy Cal Tech alum with too-long answers for why everything is going wrong or Skarsgård’s grumpy doc, who’s memorably introduced peeing into the wind.
When Jackson’s rich suit rocks up to their self-described island paradise, he causes ripples, but the witty repartee between colleagues and long-time friends remains. There’s an innate sense that these people have worked together, fallen for each other and fought for many years, which makes it so much worse when the sharks begin chowing down on them.
Unlike other high body count horror movies, which character is going to survive isn’t predictable (LL’s character complains that “brothers never make it out of situations like this, not ever” — but, happily, he’s wrong). This is never truer than with the shock death of Jackson’s character — meant, according to Harlin, as an homage to Alien, and which became an instant classic.
Midway through a pompous speech about his previous dalliances with death (something hinted at throughout the movie), Jackson suddenly and horrifyingly becomes shark food via some admittedly terrible CGI. Still, it’s a fantastic moment that sets Deep Blue Sea apart from its contemporaries.
Harlin is not messing around here; anybody could be next. Poor Burrows’ character was actually meant to survive but, following test screenings, her ending was re-shot so that she’d perish. Audiences believed the mad scientist deserved to fall victim to her own creations, so she did exactly that.
Further selling the flick as a genuinely scary (rather than silly) shark movie is the design of the beasties themselves. The three super sharks are the toothiest, scariest animatronics creations imaginable. Even when dodgy CGI is used to show them swimming around or sharing some tasty legs, it’s mostly forgiven because the effect is so sparingly used and seamlessly integrated — everything around it feels so tangible.
Most filmmakers looking to make the next Jaws can’t grasp that Deep Blue Sea works as well as it does because the shark is so rarely glimpsed. This wasn’t by design, of course, but rather as a result of an endlessly malfunctioning animatronic, but the point remains. Modern films want to show the shark in all its glory without first ensuring that it looks somewhat believable (usually due to a low budget, but still).
Harlin wanted the audience to see everything, explaining in the DVD special features that his “whole approach to this movie was ‘no more hiding sharks.'” As a result, an SFX team headed by the legendary Walt Conti, who built Free Willy‘s titular killer whale as well as the massive snakes in Anaconda, took a whopping eight months to get the animatronic sharks exactly right.
Equipment and tech utilized in the building of 747s was optioned to create the sharks as self-contained units. They were all remote-controllable, with 1000hp engines, weighed around 8000 pounds and could swim on their own at up to 30mph. When LL is being chased down a flooded hallway, for instance, there’s really a massive contraption in the water with him. His fear is palpable. How could it not be?
The FX team studied footage of real mako sharks swimming around to properly mimic their movements. Skarsgård even admitted he thought one of the animatronics was real the first time he saw it. Although real-life makos only grow to about 10 feet, those featured in Deep Blue Sea are 26 feet in the storyline (15 feet in reality), which Harlin reportedly did to one up Jaws‘ monster creation.
The attention to detail really makes a difference, particularly in the movie’s standout sequence, which sees Jane hanging out next to a massive shark in a laboratory. The thing is really there in the water next to him, moving around just like a real shark would. When it bites off the arm of Skarsgård’s character, Harlin slows right down, ensuring the money shot lasts as long as possible. It’s horrifying, from the blood spurting to the creature’s rows and rows of teeth — suddenly visible in the skirmish — to the scrambling of reactionary characters.
Watching modern sharksploitation is a frustrating experience for a multitude of reasons, chief of which is that the sharks rarely look even momentarily real. Deep Blue Sea believes in the fear generated by its creations, and the brilliantly constructed animatronics help to ensure the audience feels it.
Likewise, Trevor Rabin’s epic score makes Deep Blue Sea sound like the grandest action movie imaginable. Operatic screeches, via an actual orchestra, play over the flick’s most intense moments, with LL’s vocal stylings understandably left until the end credits sequence. Most of the movie was shot on location in Mexico, where sets were constructed above the massive water tanks that James Cameron used for Titanic, further adding to the movie’s massive scale and tangibility.
Harlin may have been looking to outdo Spielberg, but his film references Jaws in several clever, loving ways, including when Jane’s shark wrangler removes a license plate from the mouth of a tiger shark that just so happens to be the same one taken from the stomach of that exact breed in Spielberg’s movie. Likewise, all three super sharks perish in Jaws-esque ways, from an explosion to an electrocution, further paying homage to the ultimate sharksploitation movie.
In comparison to Spielberg, Harlin’s efforts may be sillier — they certainly made for a rousing episode of How Did This Get Made? with particular attention given to how a shark hilariously appears to be eating one poor character’s vagina first — but Deep Blue Sea’s committed performances, bombastic set-pieces and just how bloody well the thing is laid out (and thought through) means it’s never going to be considered on the same debased level as a Swamp Shark.
There’s merit to making loopy, low budget shark-themed fare, of course, but there’s a reason Deep Blue Sea still resonates today in spite of ageing CGI and a truly preposterous premise. Hell, even the direct-to-video sequel Deep Blue Sea 2 completely missed the point with a combination of bad VFX, unconvincing sets and bad performances. As a result, it was quickly forgotten, while its predecessor lives on in the hearts and minds of fans as the only true successor to Spielberg’s sharksploitation masterpiece.
Unlike its modern genre contemporaries, Deep Blue Sea takes itself seriously, creating genuine fear and tension from the characters’ perilous situation. Care was taken to ensure the sharks looked and felt like proper nightmare fuel, and they still do, regardless of how many tornadoes, houses or Slip ‘n’ Slides their brethren have since populated. It’s a world of gliding monsters indeed.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.