Review: The Reef

Roger Ebert once said that “a good movie is not what it’s about, it is how it is about it.” There are many shark and human vs. creature movies out there – some good, a lot of it mediocre and predictable. And then something like The Reef comes along.

Personally I don’t find sharks scary. They are predators and it is their nature to hunt for prey. That is not scary and it is silly to be scared of or hating on an animal that acts on instinct and whose nature is to be a predator. There is no volition and evil in the shark’s behavior. And the thing that in fact makes horror movie villains scary is the volition and perpetuation of evil. That is why zombies, vampires and psychos are scary. And that is why animals aren’t really.

I also understand that a lot of the fear about sharks is pop culture hype immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, where sharks, or the Great White to be precise, are portrayed as comic-book like, vengeful, villainous beasts out to get you.   The reality is more like that most sharks don’t even attack humans and when they do then it is because we encroached upon their habitat. Ultimately,  if you go out on the sea, swimming on a surfboard and looking like a delicious seal served on a platter, you can’t blame the shark for doing what comes natural and attack you.

So if you are trying to sell me a movie from the angle that there is a beastly shark involved that we all must run away from, I am the wrong audience. You don’t have to swim with sharks and if you are stupid enough to do, well then that is your fault. Don’t knock the shark.

The Aussie thriller The Reef understands this very premise and has, therefore, managed to create a truly scary and haunting experience without drifting into story-book mode. For the most.

The movie strands a group of friends in the middle of the ocean after they hit something that capsizes their boat. Subsequently, the protagonists are left with a difficult decision: stay on the overturned yacht, drifting further into the ocean or swim over ten miles due north until they hit land. What ensues after this setting of the stage is a frightening and terrifying journey of four people through the dark waters of the Australian ocean near the Great Barrier Reef.

The haunting sense of the unknown and that of an unrelenting menace create almost unbearable tension in this movie. Being adrift in the open ocean like that must be one of the most helpless and terrifying positions any human could find themselves in. You are completely vulnerable and exposed with no place to hide. You can’t even crawl up into a ball and hide away because it is the open water. That is extremely unsettling.

Watching all those scenes where these peoples’ legs are sort of dangling above the abyss surrounded by unknown creatures in the hostile Australian waters kept me at the edge of my seat at all times.

The idea of being confined in that dark water with miles of deep darkness and the unknown underneath you and having no escape route – no boat or rock or wall to hide under –  must be terrifying. Just writing it gives me goosebumps.

This movie does a great job at conveying that mood of the isolation and desperation but also the terror these people experience being adrift in the middle of the ocean.  There’s just something about the deep, dark, vast ocean (and what’s in it) that never fails to make the perfect setting for a truly unsettling horror film.

The great thing about The Reef is that it does not venture into gory shark-attack territory.  In fact, this movie works because, unlike Jaws – that feels like a Disney movie compared to this, by the way – this movie is one of the few great creature-features that focuses more on the situation and the horror the character experience rather than on the creature itself.

The directing and cinematography, right down to the soundtrack, further do an excellent job at conveying a sense of utter exposure and menace and there is no CGI but real Great White footage. Even the score in the opening credits gives you a preview of what to expect and sets the mood.

The underwater shots are menacing as well because much like the protagonist, you keep looking in horror into the darkness and its seemingly endless depths, scanning back and forth,  to see if you can make out any silhouettes. Since this is the deep ocean and the waters turbid, there is little visibility, further catapulting you into menacing depths surrounded by darkness.

Having said that, I don’t know if I, or anyone in their right mind, would have made that trip into the unknown like that. That is one of the things that irked me about this movie and gnawed at the believability. It didn’t seem realistic that these people really thought they could swim over ten miles in shark territory no less so save themselves. Then again, the other option would have been being drifted further into the sea and the boat sinking.

I hear the waters around Australia are home to some of the most exotic and strangest creatures. Some kind of a Cambrian effect. It is also home to some of the most poisonous and meanest sea life. Trying to swim over ten miles in that water is lunacy at best.

I also did not like the whole villainous shark/nemesis-who-can -track-them-through-the-ocean-like-a-bloodhound angle that this movie drifted toward the end. While most of the movie was not about that and we don’t encounter the shark until half-way through the movie, I thought inserting that formulaistic element into this otherwise truly menacing and terrifying movie took something away.  Animals aren’t mean or out to settle a score going so far as to chase you the last 10 feet to your destination while you are swimming for your life. That part seemed made up.

Other than that I thought this was one hell of a movie. Everything created the mood, even the soundtrack, and the cinematography was amazing. Good job Aussies.


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