For no particular reason other than sharks being awesome, we take a look at two of the many films starring these aquatic terrors – the all-time classic Jaws, and the rather less classic Deep Blue Sea.
So, Jaws. Do I really need to explain the plot of this? Is there anyone who doesn’t know? Well, I suppose that, just in case, I should give at least a brief recap.
There you go.
OK then, cello-playing shark.
Really, the setup of Jaws is very simple, and is a large part of why it’s so successful. It’s your classic story of girl meets shark, shark eats girl, girl loses life, shark meets meat. Roy Scheider is Martin Brody, the police chief of the small beach community of Amity Island in New England. When a girl dies in an apparent shark attack, Brody wants to close the beaches until the creature is dealt with, but is persuaded not to by the business-oriented mayor and a medical examiner who has recanted his initial cause of death and now claims the girl was killed by a boat propeller.
Needless to say, Mr Bitey is soon back, snacking on the holidaying humans kind enough to put themselves in the ocean for his dining pleasure. The island then sees an influx of reporters and shark hunters, and one of the latter captures a specimen large enough to put everyone’s mind at ease that the man-eater has been dealt with. Everyone, that is, except Chief Brody and shark fanatic Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), but their protestations are not enough to persuade the mayor to permit the closure of the beaches on the monetarily important 4th of July weekend. Cue more chompiness, and the beaches are finally closed, and Robert Shaw’s gnarled fisherman Quint employed to hunt and kill the fish.
Jaws, based on the bestselling 1974 novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, who also gets a writing credit for the film, is only Steven Spielberg’s second theatrical film, but it’s a masterpiece, and I’d argue still has a strong claim to being his best film.
One of the most remarkable, and successful, features of Jaws is just how much restraint is shown in so many aspects. The people of the town, while shocked by the events, never become hysterical. While certainly there is gore, the severed limbs are seen relatively sparingly and the camera tends not to linger: while 40 years has had a lot of effect on the number of grisly images we can see without blinking an eye, the more modern tendency to splatter the gore and really linger on mutilation would add absolutely nothing to Jaws.
While the mayor is a fool, and far too ready to accept the first shark caught as that responsible for the killings, his motives are at least understandable; Amity Island is a resort, and the vast part of the community’s annual income arrives during the summer. He may take time to realise what’s going on and do the right thing, but other films would have had him bury his head in the sand entirely, probably right up to the point where the shark swam up and swallowed him whole.
Then there’s the sound. I often find that John Williams’ scores can be very prescriptive, but his music is used surprisingly sparingly here, but to such fantastic effect. Because, boy! can Williams write a memorable theme. It’s a fairly simple thing, but those notes on the cello instantly conjure up a feeling of dread and danger, and match perfectly the menace of the planet’s oldest killing machine. And is there anyone who doesn’t know it, or who can hear those chords and not immediately conjure up the image of a dark fin gliding through the water?
Acting-wise it’s less remarkable – most of the smaller roles are OK (though the mayor’s well, a bit crap, really), but little stands out. The central trio of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw are much stronger, fortunately, and they really come into their own in the final third, when it’s just them, a boat and Toothy McGee. And it’s Shaw who’s the real standout. The man from Lancashire is in my favourite Bond film, and two of my favourite films from the 70s (the other being The Sting), but this is his finest hour. He’s endlessly watchable as the crotchety shark hunter with the dry sense of humour and the tragic back story. His demise is rather disappointing, because every time I want to see him go toe to toe (toe to fin?) with the shark, and punch it in the face.
And then there’s the shark (or Bruce, as it was affectionately named during the filming). Or rather, there isn’t the shark, which is seldom seen, but whose presence is always felt. Part of that is due to the legendarily troubled production, with the giant rubber shark refusing to do what was needed of it most of the time, but, in the tradition of the best monster movies, less is more, and we never need to see more than the triangular fin, or the shadow in the water, for that prehistoric dread of things with big teeth to present itself front and centre in our minds. (It must be said that it is the fake fish that has aged worst about Jaws, looking as it does almost comical in places, but it’s what they had to work with).
Jaws is a true classic.
In rather stark contrast, Deep Blue Sea has no problem showing you its wares early on, opening with a shark attack on a group of teens foiled only by the quick thinking and rugged good looks of Thomas Jane’s Carter Blake, Shark Wrangler extraordinaire. But who would have sufficient sharks as to require a full-time wrangler?
That would be Saffron Burrows’ Dr. Susan McAlester, a researcher into potential cures for Alzheimer’s disease who we’re introduced to as she’s being hauled over the coals by financial backer Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson), who threatens to shut her down due to the negative PR something like shark attacks cause. She convinces him to give her one last shot – come with her to the offshore research complex and witness first-hand the experiment’s success. Franklin agrees, and they chopper off to the island for the weekend, passing the bulk of the base’s personnel going in the opposite direction, home for the weekend.
A skeleton staff remain, but apparently still all that are required to actually do experiments are here, so I think there’s some degree of overstaffing here. Aida Turturro’s Brenda works in the comms tower, Michael Rapaport’s Tom Scoggins seems to handle all the engineering duties, while Stellan Skarsgård’s Jim and Jacqueline McKenzie’s Janice assist McAlester with experiments. LL Cool J’s Preacher rounds out the team as the chef.
The facility is being used to harvest brain cells from sharks in order to treat human neurones, however McAlester hides the secret of quite how she’s able to harvest so many brain cells. It seems that their experiment has worked, but Jim lingers a little too long and a little too close to an irritated shark, losing an arm for his carelessness.
His evacuation by chopper comes a cropper when, due to an unfortunately timed wild storm, the helicopter crashes into the facility, causing enough damage to uncage the facility’s three sharks. They soon appear to be behaving smarter than your average shark, but the pickinic basket these aquatic bastards are after is made of scientist flesh. Fictional doctor McAlester has been genetically modifying the sharks, in direct contravention of the fictional Harvard Compact, which I think was the original name for Facebook.
Can Carter and company escape the rapidly deteriorating facility and the ultra-smart sharks that are out for vengeance, or will most of them reap their gene-meddling harvest, those God-defying arrogant sciencefolk, evilest of all the evils?
And so it goes, in a fashion closer to generic explicit slasher film than Jaws more reserved, suggestive take. Deep Blue Sea does not skimp on the violence, and from a modern standpoint I’ve no idea if this as ever to be taken seriously. I’ve only ever seen this as a Scream-like parody of the genre, and as such find this quite funny in a number of places.
If, however, I was supposed to be taking LL Cool J killing a shark with an oven because it ate his parrot seriously, then Deep Blue Sea fails hard. Now, I’ve given this film the level of research it deserves, which is to say cursory, but what interviews I’ve seen imply that this was a serious attempt at a thriller. I reject this reality and replace it with my own, which is that it’s a collection of entertainingly ludicrous set-pieces with a similarly ludicrous concept, and as such find this rather amusing indeed.
The cast are fine, although no-one’s being stretched, apart from their CG doubles when the CG sharks get them. This is perhaps the element that ages it most, as while I lose track of convincing it would be compared to its contemporaries, it’s charmingly naff now. Still better than the likes of Sharknado, though. It’s saved from being entirely laughable by some pretty decent water tank work, proving that there’s really no substitute for nearly drowning a few stuntfolk in the convincingnessicity stakes.
This is a dumb film, and I’m not going to tell you it’s good. But it is entertaining, and that’s enough to make it worth watching. The likes of Sharknado and Megashark vs Whatever may have hammered the joke into the ground, but Deep Blue Sea got there first and did it better. Possibly entirely by accident, but who cares about that?
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