Powered by exceptional displays of physical filmmaking, “Deep Blue Sea” is pulled back to shore by the usual suspects–weak plotting and weaker dialogue. The main draw is a trio of 40-foot killer sharks on the loose. They wreak enough havoc to keep summer auds who are starved for action adventure coming back for more. In several ways surpassing even the gold-standard action of his 1993 “Cliffhanger,” helmer Renny Harlin’s new pic will reel in serious and sustained B.O. at home and, especially, abroad, guaranteeing the best numbers Warners (with partners Village Roadshow and Groucho III Film Partnership) has enjoyed since “The Matrix.”
If timing is everything, then this wet, wet thriller has it, amply filling this summer’s curious gap in all-out popcorn action with the kind of first-rate thrills at which Harlin is most adept. It’s when the script by Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers and Wayne Powers does the standard expository drill or pauses for breath that “Deep Blue Sea” springs leaks.
Most troublesome of all, however, is the film’s love of technology in its rich display of digital and special effects, even while serving up a “Frankenstein”-like message that science and technology are bad, bad, bad. It’s a contradiction that has bedeviled Hollywood for years, but seldom so glaringly.
Except for weak opener, which awkwardly doffs a cap to “Jaws,” new sharker avoids any comparison to the Spielberg action classic. The “Jaws” prologue is blessedly swift, with the twist that the shark doesn’t get its bikini-clad prey. Still, it means that one of the three test sharks being used by marine biologist Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows), in her dubious experiment to wipe out Alzheimer’s disease, has somehow compromised her facility’s security. Her corporate funder, repped by tycoon Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson), decides to cut her off, but McAlester angles for a little extra time to show medical results.
Franklin, wanting to see where his money is going, flies back to Susan’s lair — a giant former U.S. Navy sub base off the Baja coast, now called Aquatica and converted into an enclosed underwater tank for the shark studies.
McAlester’s aim is to harvest protein from the brains of the test sharks, being fed a steady, rich diet of other sharks. Somehow, the protein — when deposited onto Alzheimer’s-infected cells — quells the disease.
Script mechanically allows us to learn through Franklin’s eyes as he’s briefed on the facility and introduced to McAlester’s people. There’s her steady, cool shark wrangler, Carter (Thomas Jane); her loyal assistant, Janice (Jacqueline McKenzie); her taciturn research partner, Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgard); and Tom, the guy who seems to know every nook and cranny of the mazelike facility (Michael Rapaport). Up top is Brenda (Aida Turturro), who divides her time between monitoring the weather and grooving to discs, and down below is the cook, Preacher (LL Cool J), whose best buddy is his talking parrot.
Carter barely wrangles one of the sharks, and, in a tense sequence, McAlester extracts brain protein and succeeds in her test, pleasing Franklin. Moments later, all hell breaks loose as the seemingly subdued shark chomps off one of Whitlock’s arms. A series of disastrous events quickly follows, ultimately unleashing a flood and pic’s central action sequence. Though digitized sharks are unevenly realized, to sometimes ferocious and sometimes cartoonish effect, the physical f/x here, dominated by the flooding of Aquatica’s endless corridors, hatches and tanks, create an astonishing display of characters threatened by the elements. Harlin’s prowess for action is paired with his tin ear for dialogue during the pauses, and it’s easy to suspect that Preacher’s blend of Bible talk, smack and wit is mainly the product of LL Cool J’s dialogue insertions. Jane emerges best of all — with the fewest lines — and surfaces as a genuine new action star, evincing an ideal blend of brawn and charisma.
Script’s plot gimmicks continue all the way to the climax. The thrills are such a rush, however, and the balance of digitized and analog effects is generally so satisfying that pic’s sheer dumbness finally becomes part of the fun.
Trevor Rabin’s undistinguished score is the composer’s standard issue of churning, chugging sounds, while d.p. Stephen Windon pulls off easily the best action lensing so far this year. Except for some questionably artificial shark imaging in the digital department, tech credits are outstanding and, at times, extraordinary.