Summer’s right around the corner, but we bet you’ll think twice before taking a swim after checking out these underwater thrillers. Come on in, the water’s not fine…
Steven Spielberg‘s Hitchcockian treatment of a trashy Peter Benchley novel ended up being the first true summer blockbuster, setting the director down the path of becoming the most popular filmmaker on the planet and keeping almost everyone out of the ocean for at least one summer. The shark scenes are terrific, but it’s the human element that really makes this story work: Roy Scheider as the small-town sheriff who’s not going to let the fact that he’s in over his head stop him from eventually telling that son of a bitch to smile; Robert Shaw as the veteran shark hunter who’s finally met his match (indeed, the Moby Dick to his Ahab); and Richard Dreyfuss as a marine biologist who probably went on to supervise the design of a considerably more robust water cage. Jaws is one of the best horror movies of all time, and just great moviemaking, period. Avoid all sequels like the plague, especially 1987’s Jaws The Revenge, unless you want to watch Lorraine Gary’s truly bizarro performance as Scheider’s half-insane widow.
The opening scene of The Deep (based on another Peter Benchley novel) features Jacqueline Bisset swimming around in a see-thru T-shirt and bikini bottom — producer Peter Guber went on to admit that “that T-shirt made me a rich man.” That should give you an idea of just how shameless and juvenile this silly adventure yarn really is, but it certainly looks gorgeous (and that goes for the scenery, the underwater sequences and the cast). Bisset and Nick Nolte play a vacationing couple in Bermuda who run afoul of a local drug kingpin (Louis Gossett, Jr.) when they discover both a shipment of WWII morphine and lost Spanish treasure whilst scuba diving ’round a shipwreck; Robert Shaw is back on board to play another salty, squinty Benchley mentor-type. As dum-dum as it is, The Deep makes for sufficient summer entertainment, especially for the scene where everyone is attacked by hopped-up tiger sharks.
Director Stuart Gordon’s five hundredth attempt to do good by H.P. Lovecraft is another case of close but no cigar. It’s Gordon’s theatrical roots that keep him from completely pulling this stuff off; he still thinks he’s putting on some over-the-top, grand guignol stage show every time he makes a movie, allowing his crazy visuals and his cast’s too-stylized (and sometimes just plain bad) performances to overshadow Lovecraft’s knack for creeping, subtle dread and atmosphere. Dagon is a freak show, featuring travelers who come across a fishing village where the denizens have been mutated into some sort of half-human, half-fish hybrid (or something); more trouble comes from them worshipping an angry fish-god that demands sacrifice. Gordon’s going to nail it some day; he just needs a good producer to show him the way… and tell him “no” when necessary.
Sphere isn’t a very good movie, but it’s based on a Michael Crichton novel that’s not very good either, so really it was half-doomed even before anyone got in the water. There’s a lot of talent both in front of and behind the camera with this thing, and everyone tries their damnedest, so it at least gets an A for effort and a gold star for participation. Barry Levinson directs the bizarro cast of Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone, Liev Schreiber, Queen Latifah and Peter Coyote as scientists investigating an ominous alien spacecraft at the bottom of the ocean… where strange things start happening. Dear lord, can you believe that cast? Why not throw in Huey Lewis as a helicopter pilot while you’re at it? Unfortunately, not even the addition of the man who taught us it was hip to be square can save this flick from Squaresville.
This movie could’ve been pure genius… if it had had a cast and crew that actually cared. Really, think about what a director like Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling) could’ve done with material like this, and if he had brought along his usual goon squad of Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo and Dick Miller — you’d have a B-movie delight along the lines of, oh, say, at least Piranha. Alas, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, despite its certainly playful title, is an exercise in lazy, lazy filmmaking, the only real thrills being the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments of the shark biting the Golden Gate Bridge (why not?) and leaping out of the water and biting an airplane (why not?). The cast obviously doesn’t want to be there, but former pop star Debbie (now “Deborah”) Gibson gives it the old cheerleader try. Dammit, why isn’t this movie truly great?