1999 is seen as something of a golden year for film, we were adorned with modern classics such as American Beauty, Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club, The Green Mile, Magnolia, The Straight Story and Man on the Moon with other, more left-field titles also serving up consistently strong content such as Arlington Road, Being John Malkovich, Buena Vista Social Club, The Virgin Suicides, The Boondock Saints, Office Space and Mystery Men. We were also given multiple enduring genre game-changers like The Blair Witch Project, The Matrix and The Sixth Sense which brings me nicely to one of my guilty pleasures of ’99, Deep Blue Sea.
’90s Hollywood action hack Renny Harlin (born Lauri Mauritz Harjola) was one of the top studio go-to-guys for middle budget actioners in the last decade of creative freedom in film before the bean counters took over. He was entrusted with the second instalment of the Die Hard (1990) franchise, worked with Shane Black on The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), oversaw John Lithgow overpowering Sylvester Stallone with a headlock in Cliffhanger (1993) and is responsible for the biggest box-office flop of all time, Cutthroat Island (1995).
Harlin then decided to wave the 20th century goodbye with an elaborate science-fiction/horror/action hybrid starring an ensemble cast made up of Tom Jane (in one of his earliest leading roles), Saffron Burrows, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, pop-rapper Ladies Love Cool James and some genetically engineered CGI sharks.
L. Jackson plays Russell Franklin, a corporate executive whose company is bankrolling an ocean based science lab called ‘The Aquatica Project’ in the hope of finding a cure for alzheimer’s disease by testing on sharks. Aquatica is headed up by ambitious scientist Dr. Susan McAlester (a pouting Saffron Burrows) and the sharks are kept in touch by good-at-heart criminal Carter Blake (Tom Jane) who is made to herd the underwater predators as part of his parole conditions.
It turns out Burrows has been using illegal made-up sciency stuff on the sharks which increase their brain capacity making them capable of hunting in packs and also gives them the super-power of swimming backwards (there’s even a collective gasp among the cast when this is first noticed). Cue an underwater Frankenstein rollercoaster ride of creation rebelling against creator which starts with Stellan Skarsgard having his arm bitten off by one of the test subjects and then, while being airlifted to a chopper the unlucky Swede’s rescue is first scuppered by adverse weather conditions and finally (and fatally) by the leader shark who slams him into the main window, thus breaking it and securing entry to the facility.
Australian screenwriter Duncan Kennedy was inspired to write Deep Blue Sea by witnessing firsthand “the horrific effects of a shark attack” on a beach near his home which onset a recurring nightmare of “being in a passageway with sharks that could read his mind”. The only way Kennedy saw fit to alleviate his subconscious mind of those terrible dreams was to thrash out the basic plot of what would eventually evolve into Deep Blue Sea. He also noted that Harlin wanted to go one better than Jaws which has a 25 foot killer shark so the big one in Deep Blue Sea reaches a length of 26 foot. Take that Spielberg.
In a neat and surprising twist the film’s biggest star is killed off about halfway through while delivering a rousing speech proving that Deep Blue Sea is much more than just a standard-fare guessing game of who gets got and in what order, in fact Deep Blue Sea showcases a broad range of technical competencies that made the Finnish filmmaker such a highly-rated genre director throughout the decade. Bonus points too for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo from Ronny Cox as the head of the corporation behind it all.
Like most of Harlin’s previous work it’s packed full of slick, suspenseful build-up and thoughtful and wholly original action set-pieces, in one scene he even manages to blow-up water which even his closest challenger for ridiculous action sequences, John Woo, never achieved and he blends the serious with a good dose of humour as one of the clever sharks turns on an oven that LL Cool J is hiding in reminiscent of old Looney Tunes cartoons. Harlin plays it straight throughout the film no matter how ridiculous it gets (and it gets very bloody ridiculous) and it’s this tongue-in-cheek approach that appeals to me kind of like a subtle, marine version of Police Squad but without the Zucker’s zany humour. One feels it could’ve too easily descended into farcical parody territory had he taken a lighter route.
This film along with countless others throughout the 90s emphasises just how much filmmakers were getting away with and how big budgets were being blown on any and every idea no matter how far-fetched, fantastic or just plain weird they were. However coming into the following decade Renny Harlin soon fell out of favour in Hollywood, maybe this simply coincided with the belt tightening of the 2000s or maybe it’s just because he was making tosh like Deep Blue Sea.
– Greg Foster