Face-Off: Deep Blue Sea vs. Shark Night

THE SHALLOWS and 47 METERS DOWN enjoyed box office success the past two summers and THE MEG just made $150 million worldwide its opening weekend, so it's pretty clear that moviegoers are hungry for theatrical shark thrillers. In honor of cinema's continuing fascination with toothy fish, this week's Face-Off is focused on two theatrical shark thrillers of the past - Renny Harlin's 1999 film DEEP BLUE SEA and the 2011 release SHARK NIGHT (a.k.a. SHARK NIGHT 3D), which was directed by David R. Ellis. None of the films mentioned can hold their own against the ultimate shark film, JAWS, but how will these two do when put up against each other?
Out in the floating laboratory Aquatica, a group of scientists have made a terrible mistake while attempting to find a cure for Alzheimer's. They thought that enhancing the brains of mako sharks would allow them to extract from those brains more samples of a protein they believe can reactive human brain cells. Unfortunately, the genetically engineered sharks are too smart and too hungry, and they're not interested in being experimented on anymore. This is classic creature feature stuff; scientists with lofty goals have accidentally created monsters.
SHARK NIGHT is basically a backwoods slasher movie where the bladed weapons are replaced by man-eating sharks. When a group of college students head out into the countryside to spend some time at a vacation home that sits on the edge of a salt water lake, they're greeted by a trio of psychotic locals who have filled the lake with a variety of sharks. Their plan is to cash in on the popularity of Shark Week by filming shark attacks and selling the video. It's ridiculous, and yet I also find this blending of sub-genres to be kind of brilliant.
The characters in DEEP BLUE SEA aren't an exceptional bunch, but they're brought to life by a solid cast that did their best with what they had to work with. You've got Thomas Jane as the shark wrangler with a sketchy past, Saffron Burrows as the overzealous scientist, Stellan Skarsgård as a hapless scientist, LL Cool J as the comic relief chef, and Jacqueline McKenzie, Michael Rapaport, and Aida Turturro as other potential victims. As the wealthy financier of the research at Aquatica, Samuel L. Jackson carries a stretch of the film before making his exit in a very memorable fashion.
The college students in this film aren't very interesting. They're mostly the same characters you could expect to see in any horror movie about a group of college kids. There's Joel David Moore as the wacky party guy, Katharine McPhee as the wild girl, Sinqua Walls as the devoted boyfriend to a girl (played by Alyssa Diaz) who barely registers as a character. Sara Paxton is our heroine because she has a past with the shark collecting maniacs. Chris Zylka's vain nude model does turn out to be surprisingly caring, and making Dustin Milligan's character a med student was a nice touch.
Most of DEEP BLUE SEA involves the characters trying to evade the sharks that have infiltrated the sinking Aquatica, allowing for a good amount of harrowing shark attack sequences. Limbs are ripped off and bodies torn to pieces; this film doesn't hold back on showing us exactly what the sharks do to their prey. Sometimes the kills are sneak attacks, other times characters are sent plunging into water when they know a shark is right there waiting for them. These sharks are badasses that even manage to down a helicopter, setting off a massive explosion.
SHARK NIGHT is hampered by its PG-13 rating, which doesn't allow it to go as far with its shark attack scenes as it should have. It's somewhat effective when people thrash around in the water as they're attacked from below, it's less fun when sharks just come flying out of the water to grab people and pull them under the surface. Or go flying right into the camera. A character does lose a limb, though, and there's a standout scene where someone is eaten to death by a bunch of creepy little cookie-cutter sharks.
The sharks of DEEP BLUE SEA were brought to the screen through a mixture of practical effects, real shark footage, and CGI. The animatronic sharks look really great, I can totally buy those things as being real sharks. The digital effects have not aged well. I can't remember what I thought of them in the past, but today those CGI sharks and their thrashing victims don't look very good. It takes me out of the movie a little bit when I see them.
SHARK NIGHT prefers to go with CGI over practical effects, and that's another strike against it - its CGI sharks are terrible. Maybe these things looked better when they were jumping off the screen in 3D viewings at the time of release, but in 2D seven years later it's unbelievable that they were considered worthy of being in the movie. The sharks in a shark thriller shouldn't be evoking laughter because they look like cartoon characters.
Director Renny Harlin has some stinkers on his résumé, but in general he's a filmmaker who knows how to entertain his audience. One of his favorite ways to entertain is to have things explode, and plenty of stuff blows up in DEEP BLUE SEA, from the research facility to the sharks. Harlin kept things moving forward at a quick, exciting pace, and brought a fun adventure feeling to the film. Sure, people die in awful ways in the midst of all this fun, but that's something the viewer is there expecting to see.
David R. Ellis was the second unit director on DEEP BLUE SEA, and when he got the chance to direct his own shark movie with SHARK NIGHT he brought a similar high-energy fun to the proceedings. He also captured a tone that feels similar to PIRANHA 3D... but his movie falls short of that nudity and gore classic because it couldn't have nudity and gore. The film is knuckleheaded entertainment that doesn't reach its full potential. It feels like a tease, like it's always saying, "Imagine how much cooler this could have been!"
This was a pretty brutal fight, with DEEP BLUE SEA mostly beating the hell out of SHARK NIGHT. Watching DEEP BLUE SEA, it's easy to see why it gets held up as one of the few awesome shark movies aside from JAWS. Poorly aged effects aside, it's still a good time. That movie is exactly what it needed to be. Meanwhile, SHARK NIGHT feels compromised, like a squandered opportunity. It's fun to watch, but it could have been better if they had gone with an R rating and amped up the exploitation elements.

So DEEP BLUE SEA takes the victory in this one. Do you agree with that outcome, or does SHARK NIGHT work better for you? Let us know what you think of these films by leaving a comment below. If you'd like to send in suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can contact me at [email protected].



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