The closing of the decent (but not terrific) Shark Week 2011 seemed like a good time as any to grab some salty popcorn, settle back, and watch my beloved dorsal finned babies NOM NOM NOM their way through another group of dumb tourists/scientists/vapid locals/what have you. It’s not good for me in any way, but who cares right? So I settled on 2010’s Australian indie flick The Reef. I am happy to report that not only is this not another dumb by-the-numbers joint where sharks are vicious slasher-analogs, but it also manages to be intensely suspenseful and genuinely touching.
Comparisons to 2003’s Open Water are warranted, with both concerning stranded, floating survivors and opportunistic sharks. Before you go off half-cocked screaming about lack of originality in storytelling – both films are also based on true stories. Two different true stories. The Reef‘s tale is based on the gruesome real attack that happened to Roy Boundy and two of his friends off the coast of Australia in the summer of 1983. (Spoiler Warning: Don’t look this man’s name up if you don’t want to know the general outcome of the movie!) If you’re a shark lover you probably already recognize the name of Mr. Boundy – his is one of the more famously terrifying of the modern era, after all.
The Australian film respects the gravity of the story it’s telling, treating each of the characters as real human beings instead of caricatures. Damian Walshe-Howling plays Luke, an adventurer who has invited his brother and friends to sail to Thailand with him. Luke delivers boats for a living, something that carefree young guys like this really do. His brother Matt (Gyton Grantley), Matt’s girl Suzie (Adrienne Pickering), sailor and friend Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith) choose to tag along, as does Luke’s ex – and Matt’s sister – Kate (Zoe Naylor). While they’re on land, the movie plods along – it’s not very compelling, and a bit uneven. Something magical happens the moment the film’s plot converges with Roy Boundy’s reality – the whole film and everyone in it spring to life.
Their yacht capsizes near the Great Barrier Reef, when the hull scrapes against coral while most of the crew sleep. When they survive the capsize, each of them begin to grapple with the reality of their situation. It’s grim. Really, really fucking grim. Either they stay with the overturned boat and hope that they are rescued before it sinks, or they get in the water – known shark territory – and swim 12 miles or so (they hope!) for their lives. One stays while the others swim for it, but it’s not too long before they realize that they’re not alone – a believably large Great White shark is trailing them . . . and it’s hungry.
The scenes with the shark are intense, and some of the best shark footage I’ve seen in a motion picture. They’re damn realistic. The White circles them – ever the predator assessing its prey – in scenes so chilling and real that i was startlingly reminded why people are still so afraid of these amazing creatures. It is unnerving how helpless they are, and how much control the animal has over them. Somebody making this movie obviously watches Shark Week!
Delightfully, the footage never looks or feels like cobbled-together from various scenes of sharks attacking dummies or bait. The Reef looks exactly like one, bigass Great White swimming around – and sometimes right through – four floating, Aussie-style Lunchables. As the survivors get picked off, they finally spot some “land” (a small coral ‘island’) but they still have to make it there. Let me tell you – this is intense stuff, nearly every bit as good as JAWS in some moments. If sharks aren’t your thing, this is not the film for you. Three survivors attempt to swim from one square-foot of visible coral to another, so that they can rest weary muscles and hope to avoid the big fish below. The “safety” provided by the coral stopping points is a joke and only one person can fit on them at a time. So they swim to the next one, knowing they might be the next to disappear in a blur of silver-grey scales. There is no reprieve from this tension until the credits roll. Whew!
Good stuff! Gripes? They’re minor: At least *one* of the swimmers would have decided not to don the “seal costume”/black wet suit, especially after another character reminds them of this commonly accepted assumption; a visual afterward on the lone hanger-back would have been a better ending; and the first 20 minutes are a little weak. Other than those small complaints, The Reef is a gripping suspense film – and one of the best shark horrors to-date.
Further Shark-a-riffic reading on Gores Truly: