Director: Andrew Traucki
Writer: Andrew Traucki, James M. Vernon
Genre: Horror, Shark
Genetic Links : Jaws, Open Water, Black Water
Recommended to: Almost anyone who is not deathly afraid of the ocean or sharks in particular.
Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling): Captain of the boat, Kate’s “on a break” boyfriend
Matt (Gyton Grantley): Luke’s friend, Kate’s brother, Suzie’s boyfriend.
Suzie (Adrienne Pickering): Matt’s girlfriend.
Kate (Zoe Naylor): Luke’s “on a break” girlfiend, Matt’s sister
Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith): Luke’s first mate
Five people are stranded in the middle of the ocean when their boat is overturned. One remains on the sinking vessel, while the rest choose to swim through shark infested waters in hopes of reaching a distant island. Based on a true story.
If fear is the oldest of all emotions, then it is almost certain the first emotion ever felt by any creature was a fear of being eaten. Though humans have eliminated the cause of this fear from our daily lives, the primal terror still lurks within us. It is this fear which The Reef most effectively taps into, creating anxiety as we watch a quartet of people who have found themselves on the wrong end of the food chain.
The Reef is the latest film by Australian director Andrew Traucki, who last gave us the similarly themed Black Water. Both films center on a small, tight knit group trapped in an aquatic wilderness, stalked by a hungry predator, and, as a fan of this subgenre, I would rate both films as among its finest entries.
The films moves quickly, with all cast introduced and the boat on the water in 10 minutes, and the same boat capsized before another ten have passed. The remaining hour is one of the most harrowing I can recall. Where Jaws kept the audience on edge with an ominous score and shots from the shark’s point of view, The Reef builds suspense by keeping the audience in the dark. Traucki largely sticks to the characters’ POV, especially Luke’s, who Traucki has wisely equipped with a pair of goggles to survey the water below. Often there are indistinct shapes just in our peripheral vision, and we often can’t tell if its a shark or a fish or nothing at all. When the shark does arrive, it dances on the periphery, fading in and out of the blue. If the shark breaks the surface is it for just a moment – there are no lingering shots of a dorsal fin knifing through the water. Jaws conditioned us to link the shark with the musical cue – we knew when to be nervous, and when to relax. By keeping the shark hidden, The Reef never gives a moment to exhale. We are all too aware that the final blow might come at any moment, without warning.
“You look like a seal in that. Sharks love seals.”
The film plays fair with its monster – the shark (or sharks – one hysterical charatcer insists it is the same shark following them, but she lacks credibility) is frighteningly mundane. Yes it is a great white (white pointer in Australia), which I found sadly cliched (how about an oceanic whitetip?), but it is not of record proportions or keenly intelligent. It is an animal and acts as sharks act, curiously investingating a potential food source before moving in for the kill. And I was relieved to see there was no grand royale at the end, not final battle between man and beast, as so often happens in these films (Black Waterincluded). The camera work with the shark is well done – it is a real animal, captured in its native habitat. Many of the shots place both fish and actor (or stunt person) in the same frame, which effectively hightens the tension and reinforces the peril the characters find themselves in
“Hey guys? Not so much splashing…”
Traucki is adept at shooting landscapes, and the everpresent expanse of ocean constantly reminds the viewer of the hopeless scenario the characters are in. Early on in the film, a character snorkeling gazes over the edge of the reef into the deep blue abyss. The message is clear – this is not her world, and she does not want to be part of it.
One other thing The Reef shares with Black Water is that each film treats death seriously, and neither ignores the emotional toll on the survivors. Both films keep the cast confined to a few characters connected by blood or romance, and as a result the surviving characters cannot ignore their losses. As the deaths mount, you can see the burden is getting harder to bear.
A moment to comment on the blood and gore in the film. Though the has an R rating, don’t expect to see much viscera on the screen. As one would expect, the injuries inflicted on our characters remain unseen below the water, though the sea does tinge red after an attack (and there is one particularly effective shot of a blood trail disappearing into the abyss). There are no imaginative kills to be found here, and those looking for thrills would be better served by Deep Blue Sea or Piranha 3D.
To say (as some have) that this is the best shark film since Jaws is overselling it, simply because the competition is so damn thin. I do feel the film is hamstrung by its paper thin characters – again the action starts about 20 minutes into the film, and by that time only 2 of the five characters have had any substantive dialogue. You don’t have to be a horror veteran to figure out who the first to go will be (though, to its credit, it did have me guessing as to which, if any, of the four would make it out alive). The film worked for me because I could put myself in that situation, ask what I would do, wonder if I would have the stamina to make it (I wouldn’t), but if you need deep characterization to care whether or not Suzie is eaten by a shark, the film may not have the same impact. For me, the weak characterization is The Reef’s most notable black mark, but the harrowing final hour more than makes up for it.