Jaws is the best shark movie; this is not up for debate. What is up for debate is the still-prestigious mantle of the second-best shark movie. While the oft-cited Open Water and The Shallows are formidable contenders, my pick for the true heir to the post-Jaws throne is 1999’s Deep Blue Sea.
Though it certainly takes a fair bit of influence from its esteemed ancestor, in many ways Deep Blue Sea is the anti-Jaws: it’s an unapologetically silly genre outing with none of the high-minded pleasures that Spielberg’s classic offers. It’s also an unsubtle, almost maximalist affair, giving the audience three sharks for the price of one and putting them on full display well before the inevitable second-act chaos. While these deviations from Jaws’ indelible formula don’t make for a weighty movie, they ultimately work in Deep Blue Sea’s favor; the fact that there are no boats, beaches, or sunbathers in sight help the movie escape its predecessor’s shadow in a way that few shark movies have been able to. It also helps that the monsters in Deep Blue Sea are, functionally speaking, barely sharks. This is a killer animal movie only in the most literal sense; both the monstrous size and behavior of the sharks is so far removed from anything in reality that the movie arguably has more in common with sci-fi horror fare like Alien, a comparison supported by the deliciously bonkers plot.
Led by Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows), a group of scientists have been running experiments on the brains of massive Mako sharks with the goal of harvesting a protein that could help cure Alzheimer’s. The scientists, along with other personnel, live in Aquatica, a research base in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Other residents include streetwise, God-fearing chef Sherman “Preacher” Dudley (LL Cool J) and parolee shark wrangler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane). After Aquatica’s backers threaten to shut down the project if Susan can’t produce results within 48 hours, they send executive Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) to oversee a test that will prove or disprove the experiments’ viability. But unbeknownst to everyone else, the scientists have genetically enlarged the sharks’ brains to produce more of the protein, with the unintended side-effect of making the beasts hyper-intelligent and hell-bent on escaping.
As much as anything else, it’s that simple, ridiculous-yet-brilliant premise that’s key to Deep Blue Sea’s success. It kills two birds with one stone, giving the filmmakers an opportunity to stage tense, inventive indoor sequences that would have no place a conventional shark movie while also keeping things comfortably grounded in B-Movie territory. Though not serious-minded, Deep Blue Sea keeps an admirably straight face, refusing to resort to cheap self-deprecation. There’s something undeniably fun about watching a talented ensemble play such over-the-top material without the slightest hint of a wink.
Deep Blue Sea’s characters are all certainly type-y, but most of them escape complete caricature. Susan, the movie’s ostensible protagonist, is not an especially vivid character, but her motives give her a nice dash of complexity: far from a power-hungry mad scientist, her intentions are downright noble. She’s played admirably straight by Burrows, who conveys both Susan’s dangerous single-mindedness and her remorse for the suffering she’s caused. The fact that this brilliant geneticist is supermodel-gorgeous is just the icing on the B-Movie cake. Rounding out the main cast are Thomas Jane and LL Cool J, both playing working-class dispensers of common sense. Jane brings a nice brooding charisma to Carter, and LL nearly steals the movie, providing a wealth of star energy and good humor without ever clashing with the tone. Samuel L. Jackson gives the proceedings a bit of A-List credibility, and adds some gravitas to a stock role.
But like any killer animal movie, the success ultimately rests on the monsters themselves, and it’s hard to find much fault with Deep Blue Sea on this front. Admittedly, some of the CGI hasn’t aged well, but for the most part the fearsome predators are frighteningly convincing, especially when played by Walt Conti’s phenomenal animatronics. The look of the Makos is just different enough from the standard movie shark for them to stand out: they’re sharper and more streamlined, with sets of jagged hook-like teeth. While they may not inspire the sheer terror of the Great White, they look meaner and nastier than their iconic counterpart. The shark attacks are not only well-staged and satisfyingly gruesome, but also unpredictable in their selection of victims. Two deaths are particularly shocking: one at the midpoint (the movie’s most iconic scene) and one in the finale. Sure, it’s easy to spot the pure cannon-fodder among the cast, but the movie’s willingness to kill anyone off keeps it from ever becoming stale.
Deep Blue Sea may not be a masterpiece of cinema, but it’s a masterpiece of crowd-pleasing camp: efficient and pacey in its scripting, memorably stylish in its visuals and soundtrack, and viscerally thrilling when it needs to be. It’s a legitimately fresh take on the shark movie, while still delivering the monstrous entertainment that the genre promises.