Jaws is the best shark film of all time. You cannot touch the nigh-on perfection of Steven Spielberg’s culturally defining film that is considered as the first summer blockbuster. Many have tried since 1975 to mimic the success of the shark film, but no one has come close. Sharks have generally become an easy target for B-movies in recent memory, with films like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, Jurassic Shark, and the infamous Sharknado franchise. It took 24 years after Jaws for the shark to regain some sort of cinematic respect (I use that term very lightly) with 1999’s Samuel L. Jackson starring Deep Blue Sea. A film that, for my part, is the best shark film not called Jaws.
Before we get too deep (ahem) into it, Deep Blue Sea is firmly a B-Movie, it has a rare bit of A-list prowess to it, but it’s still a cheesy film that a shaky internal logic and dodgy CGI. That said, it does what it does extremely well, and it it does that necessary thing that all shark films should aim for – it makes the sharks frightening.
Along with Samuel L. Jackson, Deep Blue Sea stars Thomas Jane, LL Cool J, Stellan Skarsgard, Saffron Burrows, and Michael Rapaport who all fill some sort of necessary sharketype. Jackson is the billionaire who bankrolled the film’s underwater shark facility; Jane is the deep sea diver who has an unspoken connection with sharks; Stellan Skarsgard is the lead scientist on this shark experiment; Saffron Burrows is the sexy scientist on this shark experiment (no offence to you, Mr. Skarsgard); Michael Rapaport is the nerdy data man brought on to analyse the results; and LL Cool J is…the facility’s chef. We’ll get to LL Cool J later, who deserves his own little section.
The plot of the film is ludicrous, but it has some sort of basis in reality. Our team are researching whether we can use shark brain cells to aid in re-activating the dormant human brain cells found in patients with dementia. What doesn’t have a basis in reality, however, is their research activating the shark’s dormant brain cells and making them smarter. The first shark responds poorly and bites the arm off Dr. Whitlock (Skarsgard). A sequence of disasters follows – a hurricane hits the facility, the helicopter tasked with taking Dr. Whitlock to the hospital struggles with the hurricane and drops Dr Whitlock into the ocean, who is then grabbed by the biggest of the smart sharks and launched into the window of the laboratory, which cracks the window and floods it, while the helicopter struggles so badly with the hurricane that it crashes into the observation tower and renders the elevator incapacitated. Good God, there’s so much that happens in about 5 minutes to set up the main disaster.
It’s one of those sequences that’s part and parcel for a B-Movie but it’s in no way less ridiculous than it sounds. And yet, that’s why I love it. It’s unashamedly ludicrous; the sequence of events is so hilariously specific that the odds of it all happening back to back are a billion-to-one. Fortunately, that’s not the point – it doesn’t matter how it happened, we’re in a disaster that needs to be escaped, and it’s all systems go before we all die. Beyond that, in an analytical sense, Deep Blue Sea does have something to say about the arrogance of man with the creation of a super-being when effectively trying to play God. That’s for a different essay. Let’s talk sharks.
The sharks are brutal. Deep Blue Sea puts terrific use of its R rating with some brilliantly violent sequences; people are physically torn apart, limbs are ripped off, blood fills pool after pool of water. Despite its heavily CGI nature towards the end of the film, the catalyst for the rest of the film is Dr Whitlock’s arm being bitten off. It’s done practically with an animatronic shark and blood quirts all over the wet laboratory floor. It’s a necessary, shocking introduction to our shark villains that shows these aren’t to be messed with. It establishes their power immediately and makes them seem genuinely frightening. Add their unbiased violence onto their newly gained intelligence and you have a shark force to be reckoned with.
Beyond this, Deep Blue Sea is filled with shark set-pieces that are as fun as they are scary, because there is always a sense that the sharks could be around any corner as the facility slowly fills with water. I have a soft spot for the ladder sequence in which our team attempt to climb up the elevator shaft via the emergency ladders, but disaster strikes as some falling debris from the destroyed observation tower above breaks the ladder which gets stuck across the elevator shaft. Below, one of the sharks is circling as the water is rising quickly towards them. It’s tense, it’s exciting, and it ends in a fountain of blood as one of them falls into the water to be eaten by the shark. You think it’s over, but the shark launches out of the water – again, with an animatronic shark! – as if to flaunt its successes in front of his human prey. Corny, graphically violent, and oh so silly. It’s a B-Movie!
Deep Blue Sea has a couple of standout scenes that have survived the test of time and remain some of shark cinema’s most memorable moments; Samuel L Jackson’s motivational speech and LL Cool J’s kitchen scene.
LL Cool J’s religious chef called Preach (yes, seriously, don’t question it), for much of Deep Blue Sea, appears to be in a completely different film. The film wants to explore what happens to those not part of the initially disastrous experiment, and Preach is the embodiment of that. Innocently making desserts when disaster strikes, he’s forced to look for a way out with his pet parrot. One of the smaller sharks corners them both in his kitchen. Preach locks himself into an oven, the oven gets accidentally switched on, releasing gas into the air, Preach’s parrot gets eaten, and Preach explodes the shark with his lighter. Again, a completely bonkers sequence but it’s B-Movie gold in its execution. Preach even delivers a glorious one-liner before his small victory by announcing “you ate my bird!” What a scene.
Finally, the film has its big scene. Team morale is at an all time low. They feel trapped, about to embark on a near suicide mission to swim from the bottom of the facility all the way to the top, and Big Sam steps in to save the day. He rallies the troops. He’s the President from Independence Day declaring that they will not go quietly into the night. And then he gets eaten. It’s one of my all-time favourite jump scares because it is such a surprise. You don’t expect the film’s biggest star to die, and it nails the timing by happening while Big Sam was mid-sentence. Sharks don’t wait for you to finish, folks. That’s one of the big lessons learned from Deep Blue Sea. Sharks wait for no man.
I unashamedly adore this film. It’s brash, it’s loud, it’s bonkers, but it’s, above all, so much fun. The characters were all written to be eaten, it has given itself a hilariously specific set of circumstances to achieve its graphic shark violence, it has a fully on-board cast that no doubt is aware of the film’s lunacy but goes with it, and it truly does make sharks scary again.
As an important final point, Deep Blue Sea is a 90s film, and no 90s film is complete without its own theme song. LL Cool J stepped up to the plate and delivered us a theme song for the ages with Deep Blue Sea, so I’ll leave you with LL Cool J’s iconic words; deepest, bluest, my hand is like a shark’s fin. You nailed it, Mr. Cool J. My hat truly is like a shark’s fin.