Deep Blue Sea (1999)


USA/Australia. 1999.


Director – Renny Harlin, Screenplay – Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers & Wayne Powers, Producers – Akiva Goldsman, Tony Ludwig & Alan Richie, Photography – Stephen F. Windon, Music – Trevor Rabin, Visual Effects Supervisor – Jeffrey A. Okrun, Visual Effects – Cinesite (Supervisor – Jerry Pooler), Flash Film Works (Supervisor – John P. Mesa), Hammerhead Productions (Supervisor – Jamie Dixon) & Industrial Light and Magic (Supervisor – John Knoll), Animatronic Sharks – Edge Innovations, Special Effects Supervisor – John Richardson, Prosthetic Effects – Chad Atkinson, Matthew Mungle & Clinton Wayne, Production Design – William Sandell. Production Company – Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow/Groucho III Film Partnership.


Saffron Burrows (Dr Susan McAlister), Thomas Jane (Carter Blake), LL Cool J (Preacher), Samuel L. Jackson (Russell Franklin), Michael Rapaport (Thomas Scoggins), Jacqueline McKenzie (Dr Janice Higgins), Stellan Skarsgaard (Jim Whitlock), Aida Turturro (Brenda Kerns)


After a shark escapes the Aquatica ocean laboratory and attacks a catamaran, Dr Susan McAlister is forced to justify her research. She has been attempting to find a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease using sharks whose brains have been genetically engineered to five times normal size. As the project’s backer visits, an accident damages the laboratory, leaving the scientists trapped in a flooding facility as the super-intelligent sharks enter and start hunting them.

At one point during the early 2000s, I placed Renny Harlin on my list of the ten worst directors currently working in the Hollywood mainstream – along with Joel Schumacher of Batman & Robin (1997) notoriety; Jeremiah Chechik, known for Diabolique (1996) and The Avengers (1998); and Michael Bay of Armageddon (1998) and Pearl Harbor (2001) infamy. The Finnish-born Renny Harlin seems to epitomise all that is mindless about action blockbuster movie-making. Harlin broke into the American mainstream with Prison (1987), followed by A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master (1988), which competes to be the silliest in a string of silly sequels, and then made The Adventures of Ford Fairlaine (1990), universally regarded as a bad movie (but which actually remains one of this critic’s guilty pleasures). Harlin graduated to A-budget films with Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993), popular films that upon closer examination exist as nothing more than oversized box-office juggernauts designed to provide a series of emptily spectacular action sequences and stunts at timed intervals.

Harlin plummeted to the depths with CutThroat Island (1995) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), films where the spectacular mindlessness of the production increased at the expense of believability or brain and where, in lieu of a plot, the only thing that seemed to drive them was the desire to outdo each preceding ridiculously unbelievable stunt and blow up something larger than before. Both films were the massive flops they richly deserved to be.

If all things in the world were fair then nobody would ever have trusted Renny Harlin with the reins of a mega-million dollar action film again and would have instead given the money to people like Guy Maddin, Henry Selick or David Cronenberg who always have to struggle to find funding. It is sometimes difficult to fathom Hollywood logic – as to why someone would entrust Harlin with another large-budget production after his proven track records of over-budgeted flops but such has continued to be the case.

Thomas Jane and genetically-enhanced shark

Harlin subsequently went on as a replacement director with the much derided Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and then went onto the serial killer thriller Mindhunters (2004), the witchcraft film The Covenant (2006), the non-genre 12 Rounds (2009), The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013) and The Legend of Hercules (2014).

Deep Blue Sea was billed as a big-budget CGI version of Jaws (1975). You can see the way the thinking goes – two killer shark movies – but the Spielberg film that Deep Blue Sea comes closest to is Jurassic Park (1993). The plot here is stolen virtually wholesale from Jurassic Park‘s set-up about genetically-engineered creatures getting loose from their penned confines. The part about finding a cure for Alzheimer’s seems even slimmer a raison d’etre than most of the pretexts that exist in these films. (There is one extremely silly scene where successfully regenerated brain tissue suddenly starts producing little lightning bolts under a microscope).

The surprise with Deep Blue Sea is that Renny Harlin almost makes a decent film out of it. Once he cuts to the chase, Harlin produces a moderately well made and occasionally intensive combination of Alien (1979) and Jurassic Park. (Indeed, Deep Blue Sea generates suspense better than Alien: Resurrection (1997) – a project that Renny Harlin was once assigned to). Deep Blue Sea is a film that once has to accept entirely on Harlin’s level – that of the insistently in-your-face spectacular – but at least it is well mounted on that level. Indeed, of the 1999 summer season’s plethora of CGI-driven monster movies – The Mummy (1999), The Haunting (1999), Lake Placid (1999) – Deep Blue Sea is the only one of the group that offered more than mindless pop-up effects and bothered to generate suspense.

Chef LL Cool J seeks to avoid a shark in the kitchen

Of course, as with any Renny Harlin film, there is a good share of scenes where the action treads a fine line between effectiveness and foolishness. While Harlin keeps you on the edge of the seat some of the time, the rest you are falling off it in laughter. There is a scene with LL Cool J in a flooded kitchen trying to hide from a shark in an oven where the shark somehow manages to start the oven cooking, which falls into the risibly preposterous.

Another is a false jump with a shark leaping out of the water to gobble up a parrot. And a scene where, with wholly contrived rationale, Saffron Burrows is required to stand in her bra and panties on a desk trying to electrocute a shark with a bare electrical cable, seems absurd in the obviousness of its gratuitousness. Certainly, in terms of its cheesy schlock silliness, Deep Blue Sea is one of the more watchably enjoyable of Renny Harlin’s films.

The sequels were Deep Blue Sea 2 (2018) and Deep Blue Sea 3 (2020).

Trailer here

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