I tend to be biased about decades; not intentionally, it just happens. I’ve come to regard the 70s as the greatest era in modern cinema, and I’ve always thought of the 80s as the most fun. I even respect the strange dance between the meticulously crafted blockbusters and the heartfelt mirco-budget flicks of today. [Note: 2000-2019 gets squashed together in my brain, probably because those decades don’t have cool abbreviations. The Aughts? The Tens? Lame.] Any scale has to have highs and lows, even arbitrary ones, and for me, the 90s gets the low. This is ridiculous, because an ocean of great movies came out in the 90s. Tarantino came from the 90s, for god’s sake. Objectively, I know this. Some of our strongest held opinions come from the gut, though, and like the gut, can often be full of shit.
My unsubstantiated disdain likely comes from the changing theatrical landscape. Local theaters and drive-ins were replaced by multiplexes. Horror had withered and died on the big screen until Wes Craven reinvigorated the genre (again), but most of the glossy, over-produced shockers that followed Scream felt toothless. B-movies were squeezed out of the theaters and mutated into a sea of Direct to Video, which was harder to navigate because the Bland Photoshopped Floating Heads movie poster style made all the VHS covers look indistinguishable from one another. The rise of the Indies might have brought loads of adorable quirk, but the decade felt devoid of the weird, cheap, inexplicable stuff that I love.
Again, I am totally wrong about that. Weird stuff was still being made in the ‘90s (Dark Backward, for example). Most of it hid in the low-budget, dimly lit cinematic corners, but an oddball would occasionally pop up with a fancy theatrical release. A prime example is the work of quintessential ‘90s director Renny Harlin. Specifically, look at 1999’s smart shark adventure Deep Blue Sea, because that shit is one nutty blockbuster.
The basic setup goes something like this: billionaire adventurer Russell Franklin (Sam Jackson) gives chilly geneticist Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) 48 hours to convince him that her shark-based Alzheimers treatment research is worth all the bad PR (over-privileged spring breakers almost getting eaten, for instance). She takes him to Aquatica, the fancy sea lab he paid for, to see the results in person. He’s introduced to her mismatched team of weirdos, including the equally serious scientist Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgård), less serious facility engineer Tom Scoggins (Michael Rapaport), and utterly ridiculous stations chief, Preacher (LL Cool J).
Franklin also meets head shark whisperer, Carter Blake (Thomas Jane), right after he’s done showing off by wrestling a 12 foot tiger shark. McAlester and Whitlock succeed in wowing Franklin, all thanks to the genetically enhanced brains of their three pet mako sharks. Shockingly, it turns out that making massive, saw-toothed killing machines really, really smart might not be the best when a disaster traps everyone in the rapidly flooding sea lab. The crew desperately races to escape rising water and hungry jaws, while the brainy sharks might have more in mind than just snacking on scientists.
Renny Harlin was always a Hollywood outsider, even when directing big budget action blockbusters like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. He walks the line between delivering on expectations and subverting them. He’ll deliver the goods, just not always by the obvious route. It’s what makes his movies stand out. The Long Kiss Goodnight was his masterwork (with generous help from Shane Black’s whip smart script). Not even the smartest shark in the ocean could compete with Charly Baltimore, but Deep Blue Sea is such an entertaining mix of clever and stupid that it works all on its own.
From the showy, bombastic double punch of disaster action that gets the ball rolling — the slow-mo fury of a hurricane directly transitioning into an orgy of explosions — it seems like we’re in for a pretty, yet predictable Jerry Bruckheimer style outing. Once inside the sinking lab, however, everything becomes claustrophobic and palpably tense. The half-submerged environment highlights the disadvantages of being human: they move slowly through water, they can’t see what’s coming, they are soft and chewable. Harlin wisely emphasizes the absurdity of the super intelligent sharks. They are practically elevated to the level of a Bond movie mastermind. They can work as a team, pick locks, and set traps. They even sabotage the lab’s only sub, the nautical equivalent of the killer destroying the engine of the teens’ car in a slasher.
The movie is filled with fun, out-of-left-field moments, but the kicker is undoubtedly Sam Jackson’s Hero Speech. Roughly halfway in, when the survivors are bickering and demoralized, Russel Franklin steps up and takes charge. Every eye is on him as he reveals his tragic backstory and the hard lessons it taught him about survival. If they want to get out of this alive, he explains, they must bury their fear and work together. It’s all very inspirational, right up to the point where [Spoiler] a shark jumps out of the pool behind him and bites him in half. It’s a hilariously shocking moment, and while it has lost some of its impact from the countless times it has been copied, I still get a giddy charge watching it.
Not everything works. The CGI effects are laughably outdated (the storm waves are on par with a Playstation 2 cut scene). The three sharks are indistinguishable, and their proportions vary wildly depending on the scene (somehow a bus-sized shark can easily swim through a three-foot wide door). Michael Rapaport, the official mascot of the ’90s, runs his bro-y New York pessimist routine into the ground within minutes and literally cannot get killed fast enough (sorry Michael, you were great in Copland and Beautiful Girls, playing basically the same character). LL Cool J, on the other hand, unashamedly owns his comic relief status and become one of the most entertaining parts of the film. I love that Harlin was bold enough to give him a potty-mouthed parrot sidekick and smart enough to get rid of it just before the gag gets tired.
His character of Preacher fares much better than his bird, continuing the maxim that the safest person to be in a 90s horror/monster movie is a rapper. This was a direct reaction to the criticism that black guys always died first in 80s horror movies (somewhat exaggerated, the black guy always died first in action movies, not horror). Like Ice Cube in Anaconda and LL again in Halloween H20, Deep Blue Sea teases his death mercilessly.
In probably the best sequence in the movie, Preacher narrowly escapes a shark chasing him through his flooded kitchen by climbing into an industrial oven. Obviously, this is not the best place to hide, but as long as — goddamn it, the shark turned on the oven (just the gas part, the movie isn’t completely sadistic). The joke’s on the shark, though, because not only does Preacher manage to escape the oven, he uses the gas to blow the brainy bastard up. LL might be the comic relief, but he gets his share of badass moments.
The most dangerous thing about the sharks isn’t their super intelligence or their toothy maws, but that all three, including the female, are total dicks. You can tell right from the beginning because the only thing they will eat in captivity are great white sharks. Talk about show-offs! Once they start dining on the crew, it’s not enough to just kill them, these jerks turn each death into a big bloody display to rub it in the survivors’ faces. “Ha ha, I’m eating your friend!” If it had been made today, they would have took selfies with the corpses.
At its heart, Deep Blue Sea is more Frankenstein fable than Sharksploitation. While super entertaining, it has the same problem as all Frankenstein fables, the ‘science is bad’ sermon. When Dr. McAlester makes the effort to save her research, work that could bring about an end to mental degenerative diseases, one of her coworkers takes the moral high ground (or high water) and asks if it was worth the lives of her whole team. Not to sound insensitive, but yeah, in that case it actually is.
I’ve always been pro-mad science, but McAlester clearly had noble aspirations, if not the best execution (maybe you should have given the big brain to a nurse shark instead of a mako). Save your shame for the guys who make dangerous creatures for the sake of amusement parks. The movie definitely favors street smarts over book smarts, as far as survivors go. On the other hand, McAlester gets to use her ivy league brain to safely electrocute a shark while stripped down to her underwear, so science has its advantages.