Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Film Review: The Reef (2010)

Directed by: Andrew Traucki

Starring: Damian Walshe-Howling
Gyton Grantley
Zoe Naylor
Adrienne Pickering

Synopsis: A great white shark hunts the crew of a capsized sailboat along the Great Barrier Reef.

My thoughts: A few weeks ago I was researching for my uni supervisor when this film came up. Usually I find myself pretty disappointed with shark films. Jaws, obviously, is a classic, but more often than not shark films tend to lean more towards the ridiculous (Deep Blue Sea, Shark Night) than the realistic. When a film does try to be realistic, like Open Water, I find myself bored by the shitty characters and slow pacing. That being said, for some reason I decided that perhaps this film would be different and maybe, hopefully, stand closer to Jaws than Raging Sharks.

The Reef follows Kate, her brother Matt, his girlfriend Suzie and Kate's ex-boyfriend Luke as they head out on a boat island hopping their way to Indonesia (or so one review stated, the film itself is less specific). Along with the group is Warren, the poor guy stuck navigating and sailing the boat while the other four lounge around in swimsuits and snorkelling along reefs. Aside from Warren and Luke, who both work on boats, none of them have any real experience in the water, and from the outset it seems as though they're a little unprepared for their journey.

After a luxurious day snorkelling on a small island things take a turn for the worse. As the four make their way back to the boat on a dinghy, it springs a leak after catching on some coral in the shallow water. Back on the boat, the engine has stalled and they have to sail their way out of the shallow coral infested water without its assistance. Then to top it off, after thinking they'd made it back out safely, they're woken with a shock the next morning when the boat strikes more coral and capsizes. When they make it out from under the boat and atop the floating hull they're faced with two options. Stay on the boat and face certain dehydration, starvation and sun-stoke as they float further out to sea, or take to the water and attempt to swim to an island that is 13 miles (20 kilometres give or take) away. Warren, the experienced boat hand, is certain he won't be getting in the water and he makes it crystal clear to the others that in their wetsuits they're going to look like juicy fat seals and the sharks which are definitely swimming around these waters will be only too eager to eat them up. Luke then rebuts this sensible statement by saying it'll only take them 3 hours and he can navigate with the sun and his watch. Warren stays put and Kate intends to stay with him, but when she sees the other three swim 50m she jumps in and decides to take her chances out in the open. This all happens within the first 25-30 minutes of the film. The next hour shows their struggle to swim in the open ocean, and a sudden unwelcome visitor spending far too much time splashing around near them.

Le sigh. OK, this movie wasn't bad. The splicing of real footage of great white sharks amongst the panicked swimmers was well done. Some of the composition probably could have been worked on for a little longer to clean up the edges, but overall it was far more effective and realistic than the traditional robot or CGI options. Unlike other shark films, there aren't prolonged scenes of the shark snapping at the swimmers. Instead they use (far more effectively in my opinion) longer shots which show the murky blue waters and the shadow of the shark swim into view, then out of view again, only to reappear closer on another side. It really emphasised the claustrophobic and hopeless trapped atmosphere that would be overwhelming if you ever found yourself in that situation. The only shot missing was of it's large shadow slipping down below their feet. That's such a classic shark film shot it seemed crazy for it to be absent, and it would have helped scale the size of the shark too. The acting, though a little wooden in the scenes before the shark attacks, was fairly realistic once the terror mounted. Sure it was mostly screaming and crying, but let's be honest, that's what we'd all be doing in their flippers.

OK, now on to the problems. First I should preface this by saying this was based on real events. Three trawler workers decided to risk the swim to a nearby island/reef when their boat capsized off the coast of Townsville. Along the way they were picked off by an aggressive tiger shark leaving only the one survivor who was picked up moments before his own certain death. The film takes an unbelievable but factual story and teases out all sense of reality. They seem completely unprepared for a voyage out on the open sea. When Luke goes to make breakfast on the second day he's faced with an empty cupboard. Exactly how long were they planning to be out on the water for? Then when Luke returns to the capsized, underwater cabin to try and find supplies he doesn't seem to be able to locate any life jackets or other necessary life saving devices found on boats. Then there's Luke's assertion that four weak swimmers would be able to swim 12 miles in under 3 hours in open water, with currents strong enough to drag their boat far from land. Then there's the scene when they all sleep in the water and somehow think they can pick up navigation the next day without having moved. Then there's the fact that the attacking shark is a great white which would almost never be found in Queensland waters. In this situation a tiger or bull shark would have been acceptable, and far more aggressive options that would also lend more accuracy to the story. Basically, the story is full of holes which I simply couldn't get past. I understand that your survival instinct kicks in and perhaps you don't think particularly rationally when your life is threatened, but most of the issues seemed like sloppy or slapdash research and writing by the production team.

Finally, there's the fact that the film is about 25 minutes too long. With these "realistic" animal attack or boat/plane/car accident films, I feel like shorter is always better. It was 45 minutes before the shark was finally more than a dark blur in the distance and attacked someone, but there was another 45 minutes after that which just dragged, even with added shark shots and attacks. There are so few options in these films, (stay on the boat or swim, drown, get lost, make it to island, or shark attack) and so little room for any sort of plot or character development, that they soon grow monotonous regardless of how successful and scary their FX are. Perhaps it was a fault of the movie (they are essentially one trick ponies), or just a symptom of my unbelievable impatience, but this film didn't have enough atmosphere or thrust to keep me interested for the entire film. I've heard the opposite from plenty of people though, so I guess it probably has more to do with me than the film in this case.

Overall, not a bad film, but not a great one either. Your enjoyment will really depend on your previous history with shark films. If, like me, you've seen all the dodgy shark-tacular films with the same CGI shark flipped and  stretched to 100 feet then this will probably seem a real winner. However, if all you have under your belt is Jaws, well...it could go either way. I've never seen more than 25 minutes of Open Water (there's that impatience again) but people have told me this is a similar but more successful version of that film. So then there's that to consider too. Ugh, I think this is perhaps the Schrodinger's cat of films, good or bad, success or failure, you won't know until you open the DVD box and chuck it in your player. Just don't blame me if you hate it. Or if it stops you from being able to dip your toes in the ocean for the next six months. Actually, I think that'd make it a success, so feel free to send me your thanks if that's your reaction!

3 out of 5 rotting sea turtle carcasses.