The release of Andrew Traucki’s self-produced, self-written and self-directed, Open Water-style, ‘it really happened!’ survival thriller “The Reef” in 2010, prompted various luminaires in the Australian tourism industry into bemoaning the film’s possible negative effects on an already hard-hit section of their business. But perhaps a greater obstacle for the film lies in the fact that it happens to share its name with a ropey “Finding Nemo” copycat, a 2006 animated comedy fantasy voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr. There are no cute animated sharks in this film though, nor even CGI ones. Although Traucki isn’t doing anything in particular with “The Reef” that you haven’t seen before, he succeeds in pulling out all the suspense stops, and keeps the audience in a state of constant nervous dread, encouraging the same sense of lurking fear of the unknown depths (or what might exist in them) that “Jaws” so memorably exploited back in 1975.
Andrew Traucki’s first film “Black Water” was set in the same ‘true life’ survival genre, but “The Reef” swaps the steamy mangrove swamps of Northern Australia for a sun kissed Queensland location that initially offers such a beautifully filmed portrait of the Great Barrier Reef and its environs that it is easy to see why all those Australian tourist officials have gone all ‘Mayor Vaughn’ on its ass. It’s foremost a film about beautiful, tanned & toned young people living in a gorgeous, sunny location, who are suddenly faced with the prospect of confronting their own mortality in the most starkly terrifying terms their environment has to offer, i.e. a fourteen-foot Great White Shark!
For the first half hour, the film does indeed look every inch the tourist information commercial. Although it has more in common with 2003’s “Open Water” in terms of its content, “The Reef” was shot in 2.35:1 widescreen with every intention of having it look as attractive and as slick as possible, with lots of swirling helicopter shots of the gorgeous deep blue splendour of the surroundings, before the camera descends to water level and plunges us right in amongst the fear and panic of the unfortunate protagonists of the movie, who come to find themselves adrift in the Australian ocean while being methodically hunted by a Great White, ten miles from land and without their capsized yacht for protection.
The film works well by grounding the central dramatic dilemma at the heart of the story in the emotional life of the five main characters. For Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling), a boating holiday around the Great Barrier Reef is a chance to catch up with old pal Matt (Gyton Grantley) and meet his new girlfriend Suzie (Adrienne Pickering). But it also opens up old romantic wounds when Matt’s sister Kate (Zoe Naylor) decides to come along as well, since Luke and she were once lovers whose split was never really formally resolved. As they set forth on the open seas and explore the region’s sandy islands, Kate is unsure if she wants to resume the relationship or not; and Luke is similarly suspicious of her motives for coming on the holiday in the first place. It’s clear that both still have something for each other, but neither is sure how to proceed.
All this is put into sharp relief, though, when the yacht is fatally damaged and capsized by a violent accident, and the life-dinghy is punctured and left useless. Luke’s sea-faring fishing partner Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith) is resolved to stay with the rapidly sinking remains of the yacht, and simply hope that someone happens by to rescue them before it sinks completely. Luke, on the other hand, is adamant that their only chance is to make the ten mile swim back to the nearest island. After initially opting to stay with Warren (whose deep knowledge of what actually lurks in the waters puts him off even thinking about trying to swim them) Kate changes her mind and elects to go along with Luke, Matt and Suzie, slowly making their way through featureless blue waters, hoping to find land they cannot even see. It is not long before paranoia and hallucination sets in after the group finds the carcass of a turtle adrift on the ocean surface; and not long afterwards, something large and machine-like in its merciless instinct also takes an interest in their progress, turning the expedition into a frantic race for survival that simply will not be completed by them all.
Director and writer Andrew Traucki clearly knows all the tricks of the genre for building up the tension and anticipatory dread, and the film’s greatest asset is that he is quite merciless in employing them all. The camera bobs and sways at eye level with the terrified characters for most of the film, placing us in among them and making us feel their predicament; we even begin to take part in their scared and paranoid rounds of ‘what’s that in the distance? Did you see that?’, as the viewer is also encouraged to consider the possibility of hallucination coming to add to (and amplify) the escalating fears and worries of the main characters. The camera occasionally plunges us below the surface of the waves into the vast, bottomless wilderness of blue, out of which we know will eventually swim that remorseless killing machine from the deep. An expectant atmosphere and a constant sense of anticipation are expertly evoked by Traucki, who also remembers to keep the characters engaging and sympathetic even as their panic increases. The small cast are very good indeed throughout, and the adverse shooting conditions (eight hours a day in the water) only seem to have added more realism to their performances. The music of Rafael May is critical in building up the tension, and the composer has to be congratulated on managing to do so without resorting to ripping off John Williams’” Jaws” theme once.
Perhaps the film’s most impressive feat belongs in the special effects department. I was worried we’d be assailed throughout with a unrealistic computer generated shark that, no matter how expensive the effect might have been, would never really be that convincing in a film that was aiming to encourage a sense of realism and identification in the audience with what was happening to the characters on screen. What Traucki and his team have actually done though, is to go out and film as much footage of real Great White Sharks in the wild as they could, and then work out and adapt their shooting script to fit the nature of the footage they were able to get in the can. The actors have then been coached to act around it, so that the shark could be composited in later. This may not sound like it would finish up being too convincing, but it really does work and it is utterly unnerving to see (something which you never really saw in “Jaws”, for instance) long, clearly visible underwater shots of a huge, very real shark emerging from below to share the same frame as the actors, and really looking like it is intent on having them for lunch! The blending of the two sets of footage is expertly done and never looks at all faked. If you do happen to have a fear of sharks, then this is the film that is really going to give you nightmares, even though it leaves the specific details of the victims’ fates to the imagination.
The emotional relationships between the two sets of couples and the relationship they have with each other becomes focused by their life imperilling situation, and we can really emphasis with all of them as they face the coming of not just their own death but the death of the people they’re closest to. Perhaps the only wrong note the film sounds comes right at the end; the climax feels curiously flat and incomplete, with Traucki choosing to emphasis the supposedly true-life nature of the story by making a sudden transition, just at a crucial moment, to a ‘what-happened-next’ text scroll just before the end credits -- something which actually just leaves you with the feeling that the film must have run out of money before it could be completed. There are other indications of a tight budget elsewhere, such as in the fact that we don’t actually get to see the Yacht capsize, for instance. Generally though, “The Reef” is a very specific genre film that gives you exactly what you expect and want from such material. There are no great surprises, but it does what it does extremely well, and serves up an entertaining, potentially sweat-inducing seventy minutes of shark-based terror.
The DVD from Momentum Pictures features a strong transfer, an excellent 5.1 audio track and a fairly standard but sometimes illuminating twenty-three minute ‘making of’ documentary, capped with a theatrical trailer.