It is sad that all shark films are judged against Jaws. Sad, but inevitable.
And yet we don’t judge Stallone’s Lock-up against the derring-do ensemble of The Great Escape. Or Eastwood’s demythologising Unforgiven against the Duke’s dark avenging The Searchers. Or the modern-day torture-porn of Saw against the shocking cruelty of Karloff's The Raven. Shark films, though, are considerably more limited in scope and theme. You go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our shark. Basic. Primal. Effective … at least when stripped down to its essential factors – the confrontation between humbled man and indomitable predator. Jaws was about much more than that though, whereas each and every “shark” film that has broken the surface since Spielberg made us afraid to go in the water has been primarily and distinctly about nothing more. But, even at this level, the idea of people pitted against a shark in the shark’s own environment is much more profound than it sounds, and yet boiled down to its basic and inescapably impulsive credentials, it is one of the simplest tales to be told. We, as a race, are afraid of the sea – an environment that we cannot control and cannot survive in for long – and naturally, and probably more fundamentally, we are afraid of being eaten alive. It is simple. It is irrevocable. It is nature and the way things are.
And it will be an endless seed-bed from which to grow such nightmares as Andrew Traucki’s riveting maritime horror, The Reef, which comes snapping to the surface on Blu-ray courtesy of Image Entertainment on this US region A-locked release.
A group of five endeavour to voyage out over the Great Barrier Reef for a few days snorkelling, sight-seeing and relationship-rebuilding. We’ve got one committed couple and one pair who have had their difficulties in the past but who might just get back together if things pan-out in the sunshine. And there’s the mostly relaxed skipper who just wants to fish and laze about on-deck in the tranquillity of the open azure sea. So far, so clichéd.
After an idyllic sojourn on a white sanded island, spent just staring out at a horizon that you wish you could bottle-up and sell, it becomes clear that the group will have to set sail again if they don’t want their yacht to get stranded out on the coral reef. But, just when everyone thinks they’ve got clear and made it far enough into the open sea, calamity strikes and the yacht’s hull is sheared open. The boat overturns in seconds and the group find themselves huddled together on its upturned belly at the mercy of what was once a beautiful setting. With an outdated distress beacon that will only attract a plane if it is passing directly overhead, big Boy Scout Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) works out which way is North and advises his mates that they make a swim for where he reckons the nearest island to be. If they stay, they are likely to starve to death or simply drown when the damaged boat eventually sinks. It is Catch-22. Should I stay or should go, now?
This is the early dilemma that we face and the thing that sets up the bravura second half. Four people slink rather dubiously into the sea, leaving one behind. Nervously they swim slowly off towards the horizon, all clumped together like one of those “squares” that Robert Shaw’s salty old Quint so eloquently described in Jaws. And we all know what happened to them, don’t we? “Sometimes the shark, he’d go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away.”
And, yes, when the inevitable happens and a ravenous Great White Shark pursues them with a relentless savagery, the ocean does indeed “turn red” as the safety of that island proves maddeningly elusive to the terrified fugitives.
Purporting to be derived from a harrowing real-life event, Traucki’s film alters the names of the characters and the number of people involved – apparently to avoid being sued. Somehow this doesn’t quite ring as truthfully as it should. Is this just a marketing ploy? Or is this a way of simply remaking Open Water and improving it considerably without being accused of ripping it off? In the end, this matters not a jot, and the legend at the start that proclaims it is “Based on a True Story” neither enhances nor hampers the film in any way. Traucki loves outdoor adventures and this one is his most nihilistic and grim. It is not so much the survival of the fittest. Just of the luckiest.
Never before have I encountered a film of this type that actually makes me pull my hand in from its perch hanging over the arm of the chair, or to draw my legs in from over the edge of the seat in irresistible and pure nerve-jangling dread and unease. Jaws is simply terrifying. You will never, ever hear me say otherwise. In fact, Spielberg’s all-time classic is very possibly my favourite film ever made – if you can accept a double top-slot with Gladiator, that is – and a film that I grew up with, saw on its initial UK cinema run and upon every re-release ever since, and have watched and enjoyed, more and more, with almost religious regularity ever since. It is the ultimate benchmark for the terror/suspense/adventure/monster movie and, taking that little stock-list of unparalleled credentials into consideration, nothing can really come close. But The Reef isn’t aiming for that. It is not an iconic, character-based story. It doesn’t rely upon the three-act structure. It doesn’t create a big, ultra-natural (as opposed to supernatural) bogeyman and it doesn’t set out to define the true nature of Man against Beast heroism.
In this respect, The Reef is infinitely more realistic … simply because there is not much scope for breakneck set-pieces, thunderous episodes of action, colourfully detailed characterisations drawn up on-the-hoof or a bravura large-scale angle of greater peril to be exploited. This is close, personal and painfully intimate, and massively skin-crawling as a result. It’s just a bunch of people stuck in the middle of a very big sea … with something that wants to eat them.
We might not like the characters all that much, although they are hugely more charismatic than the irritating couple in the utterly drab and boring Open Water from 2003, which treads very similar water, and once they enter the unforgiving sea we can’t help but slide into the sinister blue beside them. Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis still aggravated us throughout their horrific plight and the insurmountable thing was that we didn’t care about them at all. We wanted them to get chomped, and that is not the case with these guys. The brilliantly named Damien Walshe-Howling is actually very good as the believably courageous Luke. His attitude towards Kate is genuine and even moving in a naturalistic way. There’s no need for soul-searching once they enter the water, the raw and immediate and ongoing desire for survival is the key. Bad things happen, but Luke knows that they just have to keep on going because there simply is no other alternative. His faltering romance with Kate will obviously be referenced during the ordeal, but it is never made a suspense-sapping issue of. I mentioned courageousness, but he is basically just suppressing his own fears so that he doesn’t make his party feel even worse, and this is a very likeable, selfless quality. When things turn from bad to worse, he doesn't give up and collapse into self-pity. There is admittedly very little that he can do to alleviate the situation, but simply by being there and donning those goggles to go on the lookout, he becomes amazingly reassuring even though we know that he could just as easily be the next dish on the menu.
And, likewise, Zoe Naylor is excellent as the incredibly attractive Kate. It is made increasingly apparent that her gorgeous form is not there for mere titillation and that Naylor, who used to host the Aussie Gladiators, is not simply playing on her looks as the “fit babe” of the party. The poor girl gets to perform what must be two of the most embarrassing of emotions that the camera has to record – immense, face-rictoring shock and inconsolable grief during long voyeur-like takes that don’t allow her a breather. Now, I buy into films and their characters and situations lock, stock and barrel providing they are done well and convince me that the performers are not merely “acting” but actually there as genuine characters undergoing a real situation. When I watched this for the first time, the people around me actually laughed at Zoe Naylor’s depiction of a woman consumed with pain, absolute terror and profound shock. “She’s laughing!” a friend of mine said. Well, having seen people go into shock and sobbing incoherently for real, I have to say that the woman pretty much nailed the disturbing sight of someone going through the emotional and psychological Wurlitzer in-extremis. There is a scene when her face absolutely locks into a grimace of almost comical, wide-eyed and frozen fright … but, once again, this is how people do react to the most horrific of situations. And we have to remember that she is deeply cold and achingly, physically vulnerable at the same time. I think Naylor does a tremendous job of someone caught in this inconceivably doomed predicament. But, yes, it does help that she is very, very attractive too. But then so was Blanchard Ryan in Open Sea … and I couldn’t stand her at all.
Happy couple, Matt and Suzie (Gyton Grantley and Adrienne Pickering) are both very amiable and manage to sustain a presence that doesn't outstay its welcome. Ostensibly providing the loving and romantic ideal that Kate and Luke should aspire to, it would have been easy to have allowed the pair to clog up the dramatics by being too damn nice and saccharine. Matt, who is also Kate's brother, is the affable idiot that we all know – irritating at times but inordinately necessary to any group dynamic. Grantley doesn't push the roguish charm too far, which makes him neither too brash to care for, nor too invaluable to lose. And ex-Home and Away girl (aren't they all?) Pickering acquits herself well as the one who first gets spooked in the water at something she thinks she's seen and simply never recovers. After their first encounter with the toothy monster, she is excellent at putting across the total body-freezing terror that any one of us would feel. It is worth mentioning that the cast look totally credible as people who have been adrift in the sea and under the harsh sun for too long. Their eyes are red-ringed and haunted by a thousand-yard-stare. Their skin has turned the ghastly pallor of a waterlogged cadaver. It's stuff like this that anchors their torments in reality.
What counts in large amounts is that this bunch does not have any tension-sapping sparring matches. We’ve only had one major decision-making dilemma – and it is a truly emphatic one, at that – and the rest of the time is spent in pure reaction-mode. Kieran Darcy-Smith, who plays Warren, is creepily good at giving us the complete heebie-jeebies. “I’m not getting in the water,” he states adamantly. “I’ve fished these waters … and I know what’s in there.” There’s no persuading the bloke either. It’s hardly a reassuring development. We’ve seen the rows of cleaned shark jaws on display in the surf-shop, something that our barnacled old friend, Quint, would no doubt scoff at as “kiddie’s class” stuff, and that was a heavy-handed moment of ominous portent. When Warren’s confident demeanour crumbles so completely we really comprehend that swimming for it may not be the best of ideas. But what else can you do? This is great stuff. What a dilemma to be faced with! There’s no right or wrong, is there? Do you stay on top of a capsized vessel and just pray for the unlikely event that someone comes by? Or do you become proactive and try to save yourself by heading off towards land? It’s being caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea – quite literally.
Detractors love to denounce the repetitious nature of each encounter. And there is, indeed, a format that is followed. We get a vague sighting of something breaking the surface and then Luke immediately dons his goggles – he’s the only one who has a pair - and dips his head underwater to scan around whilst the others nervously tread water and await his verdict. We then see either a sinister but obscure shape in the far-off murk, the shark cruising around them from a distance, or a vision straight out of hell as it comes hurtling towards them with snack-time on its mind. This cycle naturally becomes the pattern that we must adhere to. Sometimes it’s nothing, just a false scare, or a red herring, if you will. But sometimes … well, sometimes, things just go bad. We only see and hear the things that the huddle of human flotsam see and hear. We only know what they know – which, for the most part, is nothing beyond their immediate and ever-present danger. I don’t see how Traucki could have added anything to this format without it being daft, shoehorned-in or just totally ridiculous. Passing trawlers or helicopters swooping in and getting chomped would have been akin to a nautical nuclear fridge a al Indiana Jones. They’re stuck in the middle of a very big and very empty sea. Rescue is not exactly on the cards, and this is made quite abundantly clear right from the minute that disaster strikes. And how people react in the grasp of such soul-blighting futility is the very point that is being explored.
The shocks are brilliantly done. The doom-laden sight of a mutilated sea turtle. The sudden darting into view of a non-deadly fish. But the big stuff comes out of the blue with alarming speed and aggression. Early moments inside the capsized yacht as Luke rummages about for anything useful that he can salvage are full of taut suspense. The muffled noises he can hear from those sitting on the upturned hull filtering down to him with an indistinct and otherworldly, yet decidedly menacing quality. There is an air of a topsy-turvy haunted house about this edgy investigation. But there is possibly more mileage to be had from the extensive scenes when nothing is happening. Like the tide itself, the movie needs to ebb and flow, rolling with the steady momentum of escalating paranoia. Traucki doesn't quite succeed in these moments though. A few more shots from underneath the four, or from above, that then pull back or deeper away from them to emphasise their incalculable isolation in the sea would go a long way to entrenching our own numbing sense of hopelessness. And the four need to be seen to actually move a little bit more. They seem sedentary far too too often. But then again, on a brighter note, he doesn't screw things up with pointless arguments and boring reminiscences. Thus, although we could perhaps do with some more knuckle-gnawing scale being evoked, he keep things tight and focussed where it really matters.
We already know exactly what type of surprises are in store for us. That Great White is going to suddenly lurch out of the water. Somebody will be horribly dragged beneath the waves. There will be a slew of false scares and then a couple massively jolting real ones. Something like this really only has a few avenues to explore and exploit before it evolves into a different sort of film altogether, and Traucki must be applauded for just sticking to the basic and all-essential survival situation. Let’s face it, it doesn’t matter a jot if you are SAS trained or just a poor unfortunate drunk who fell overboard … when a very large and hungry shark comes nosing around you stand exactly the same chances. He draws us in with well-structured build-ups and then delivers immediately effective pay-offs. They won’t always be from the shark – our shark – but the heart-grabbing intensity of such paralysing stingers is pretty much spot-on. Whereas in Deep Blue Sea, many of the shocks were highly orchestrated and blindingly obvious (yet still cool!), The Reef is simple and realistic in terms of its ability to quicken the pulse and relocate the heart.
And then there’s the shark, itself.
Now this boy is real, folks. There’s no CG and no animatronic Bruce to play around with in the bath. What Traucki and his crew have done is to film a bonafide Great White from the Barrier Reef just doing his thing. He’s not the size of the barrelling behemoth from Jaws 2, nor is the whale-sized smart-Mako-missile from Deep Blue Sea … and he certainly isn’t that photo-shopped titan leaping out of the water to take down a helicopter that he positively dwarfs that we saw in the famously faked tabloid sensation from a few years back. But this fish is big, man. Really big and, more importantly, really real. The compositing that places the hapless humans in the middle of his feeding ground is seamless. We don’t see the shark all that often – a fin, a blurred shape, a flurry of swift and deadly movement – but when we do he is right there in the frame beside these waggling, ever-flavourful morsels with absolute visual integrity. The blending of the actor-footage with that of the shark is immaculately well done. His grin is genuine, his countenance one of such primal malevolence that to fake it would be starkly obvious. Seeing how well the compositing has been achieved, I wish that Traucki and his crew, who filmed the shark footage much further away off the coast of Queensland, had been able to capture much more usable material. As he has explained, however, it just isn't that easy. The sharks come in and nose around … and then they're gone, just like that. They don't respond too well to being directed. Thus, the actual shark stuff is all rather brief. But still very effective at the same time. And this only adds to the stealthy realism of the predators at work. First glance – nothing. Second – wham, it's got you. Third – it's vanished again. The film certainly embodies this sheer unpredictability, but the shark-fan in me really wanted more circling, and more attacks. There's only one shot when the live-shark footage looks like it was culled from some National Geographic documentary – the film seems to move differently for a second, and there is that silvery digital sheen to it that doesn’t retain the visual integrity of the surrounding film – but this has gone by in the blink of an eye, and should not remove anyone from the unfolding drama.
What I loved about The Reef is the simple bloody-mindedness of its scenario. What does it matter if Luke and Kate are going to patch things up? Who cares what anyone does if they make to safety? All we know and understand is that four people are up their necks in dire straits and that we are right there alongside them, bobbing up and down in the briny. The cinematography may be beautiful – even during the agonisingly slow paddle towards an invisible island, when there is nothing to look at but the deep blue sea and the powder-puff clouds up above, the film is simply gorgeous – but the fear of the bottomless abyss, the cold and endless horizon and the unpredictable helplessness of a nightmare without direction is absolutely acute. Traucki doesn’t go for the documentary style, The Reef is still a very cinematic experience, and we are on the edge of our seats for the majority of the time.
I didn’t particularly want it to end … but, in many ways, I’m glad that it did.
But, a potential downside I feel that I should comment on, is that repeatability could well be limited. This is a film that relies, much more so than many others, upon that paralysing fear of not knowing what is going to happen next. The situation is a sort of one-off affair that is, I feel, considerably lessened with each subsequent viewing – which you could say about any film, I know, but seems acutely pertinent to this one. Again, this is not a fault of the film, itself, but of the essential drama and narrative of its nightmare scenario.
This said, though, The Reef is a thrilling and perfectly well-wrought experience that really places you right in harm’s way.
With so many Sci-Fi Channel style monster-sharksploitation flicks circling-in for the kill, The Reef is a realistic reminder of what truly rules the ocean … and how pitiful we are when thrust into its realm.
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