Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: The Reef (2010) [Reviewed by Stuart Wahlin]

Starring: Adrienne Pickering, Zoe Naylor, Damien Walshe-Howling, Gyton Grantley, Kieran Darcy-Smith
Director/writer: Andrew Traucki
Grade: B+
Yes, I’m one of those folks who chomps at the bit 51 weeks out of the year, eagerly anticipating the arrival of Shark Week, which I watch from below a huge oil painting of a Great White stalking the depths, hung in a position of honor above the fireplace. The bar in my home, nautical in theme, is adorned with shark jaws and other maritime treasures. Hell, there’s even a baby shark in a jar. It’s fair to say I love sharks, man-eaters especially.
I thank Jaws for that, and Spielberg’s masterpiece is the standard by which all other shark films are judged. Despite how far the Jaws franchise has fallen since, the original film remains not only a horror classic, but a great film, period. It is one of those rare exceptions in that the film version is actually better than the novel. 
Naturally, I perk up every time I catch wind of a new shark movie hitting theaters or DVD. Subsequently, I’m always disappointed. One of the most popular and successful in recent memory, Deep Blue Sea, was just plain awful, in my opinion. Few things irk me more than CGI sharks. They don’t look real and they’re just not scary. If I wanted to watch cartoon sharks, I’d stick with Jabberjaw. Even Spielberg’s “Bruce,” the mechanical shark that never seemed to work during the filming of Jaws, was scary--because you could tell it was a tangible thing in the water with the actors.
Bruce’s lack of cooperation with the filmmakers resulted in what I call a fabulous disaster, though. As much as Bruce’s aversion to salt water made Spielberg question his future in movies, the result was seeing much less of the shark in the first hour of the film, thus heightening the suspense--that same suspense one might feel while treading water in the ocean, wondering what is lurking around you beneath the surface. Weave that with a little footage of real sharks, and you’re halfway to something that will scare people to the safety of hotel swimming pools, rather than playing Russian roulette with Mother Nature by venturing into the surf.
A 2010 Australian film called The Reef, apparently based on a true story, is about as close as anything has come to touching Jaws, and it’s worth watching. If you’re just looking for a recommendation, you’ve got it. Stop reading, and check it out. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The Reef is director Andrew Traucki’s second feature film. Pleased with the job he’d done on his first, Black Water, an effective crocodile flick also based on true events, I suspected it would be worth seeing.
The story: Luke delivers sailboats for a living. Nice, huh? He and his first mate, Warren, are joined on a delivery cruise by three of Luke’s pals, Matt, Suzie and Kate, one of Luke’s old flames. Along the journey, Luke decides to impress his friends by taking the boat toward a reef for some snorkeling. 
A sense of foreboding belies the frolicking as schools of fish are seen to scatter. Meantime, the boat drifts dangerously close to disaster as the reef threatens to tear open its hull. The four friends hastily take their raft back to the boat. After some tense moments, Luke seems to have maneuvered the craft out of danger. But then, of course, they destroy their keel on some coral anyway, and quickly begin taking water, which capsizes the boat. Warren, knowing that large predators could be nearby, is quick to get out of the water. 
As the five ill-fated travelers collect their thoughts and supplies atop the capsized vessel, Luke determines that not only is the boat sinking, but that it’s drifting farther from land as it does so. He estimates they could reach an island after a 10-12-mile swim. The five must now decide whether to remain on the boat, hoping for rescue, or to swim for it. The sense of anxiety escalates as a large shadow is seen looming in the water.
Warren wastes little time deciding that he’ll take his chances on the boat. Meantime, Luke retrieves wetsuits from an air pocket inside the disabled boat. As the other four put them on and prepare for their long swim, Warren reminds them that the wetsuits make them look like seals, a favorite meal for Great White sharks. Still, the others are committed to swimming for land, and Warren and the boat disappear on the horizon behind them as they embark on their journey. According to an afterword, no trace of Warren was ever found.
The swimmers soon see a hump in the water. As they get closer, they realize it’s a large sea turtle. Approaching it, they discover the turtle has become a snack for Mr. White. Around this time, the group begins catching glimpses of something else in the water with them. They are being stalked, and start to get picked off, one by one. When the first victim’s leg is bitten off, Matt’s companions rush to his aid, but he urges Luke and the two girls to leave him to die, for their own safety. Not having to be told twice, the remaining three swim on as night begins to fall, but there are constant reminders that they are still being followed.
Hysterical and hopeless, the three somehow manage to fall asleep in the open water. When dawn arrives, Luke is the first to wake and notice an island on the horizon. With renewed hope, the three continue toward it. Between themselves and shore, several rocks can be seen jutting from the surface. 
They reach the first one and perch themselves atop it, taking a brief rest before heading for the next. The tension rebuilds as we see schools of fish scattering once again. Oh, yeah, there’s also a fin slicing through the water, but it turns out to be a dolphin. Just when the mood seems about the lighten, another fin appears, and the Suzie is savagely taken by the stalking shark. Luke and Kate, who’ve managed to rekindle their romance during all of this, make it safely to another rocky perch.
Before making one last dash for the nearby island, however, Luke opts to swim back to where their devoured comrade has left a floatation device. This is where everyone watching the film does a face-palm, but Luke safely retrieves it before they embark on the home stretch to land. Using his diving mask first, Luke surveys the sharp drop-off that lies between them and the rocky island. He sees only blackness.
More tense moments ensue as they struggle to climb the rock wall that stands between them and the safety of dry land. Long story, short here, she makes it, but Luke is devoured.

Final thoughts: Now, although this film is supposed to have been based on real events, I’m willing to bet liberties were taken with the story, because they always are. The climax works, but I prefer my own idea for an ending: As they make their way closer to the island, reaching the final rock standing above the surface of the water, they should have discovered the island is actually a seal colony, where Great Whites feed at will. So, instead of moving toward safety, they would learn they’ve actually been headed into even worse danger. That point of hopelessness, when they’d be left to decide between staying on that rock, or dashing for the island they’d assuredly be eaten before reaching, is where the film should end. Still, The Reef is good nail-biter I’m happy to recommend, especially to those who share my craving for stories of sharks with a taste for human flesh.