Oh, the sea, how I truly hate thee. Living in coastal New England, with its miles upon miles of sandy beaches, storied boating culture, and its association with all things ocean-related, one would think I’d have at least a semblance of love for the salty, black pool of death we call the Atlantic Ocean, but one would be wrong. Dead wrong. I refuse to step foot on any boat smaller than a cruise ship, and, on the rare occasion that I even go to the beach, the farthest I’ll venture out is up to my kneecaps, and, even then, I’m wary of what lurks beneath the churning surf. At the same time, however, I’m fascinated by the ocean’s most notorious denizen; the shark. This guided missile with teeth has served as both my biggest fear and my favorite film subject, hence why films such as the new Australian man-vs-fish survivalist tale, The Reef, seem almost tailor made for my rather paradoxical sensibilities.
Matt (Gyton Grantley) and Suzie (Adrienne Pickering) head out for a sea-faring holiday on their friend Luke’s (Damian Walshe-Howling) boat, with Matt’s sister (and Luke’s ex) Kate (Zoe Naylor) in tow. There’s a tension between Luke and Kate, who had put their relationship on hold so that she could move to the city, but it’s obvious that the two still care a great deal for one another. The quartet set out to sea, accompanied by deck hand, Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith), to the far off Turtle Island for some snorkeling and snogging, which Luke and Kate get to almost immediately upon arriving at the island (see? I told you they still cared for each other). After a mishap involving their inflatable dinghy (the tide rolls out, and the raft is irreparably damaged), the group move on from Turtle Island, further out to sea where another run in with the razor sharp coral reef punctures the hull of the ship, causing it to overturn.
Luke insists that their best chance for survival is to swim the twelve miles back to Turtle Beach and wait for help, but Warren, a fisherman who knows what lurks in these waters, dismisses the idea outright. Luke is convincing in his argument, however, and Matt, Suzie, and a reluctant Kate decide to go take their chances with him and leave Warren alone on the overturned boat. Knowing that this is shark territory, Luke (the only member of the group with a diving mask) monitors the depths while the rest paddle along, increasingly wary of predators. Soon enough, one arrives in the guise of a great white shark, whose curiosity has been piqued by the all-you-can-eat buffet that he’s happened upon. While the shark circles them, Luke tries to maintain calm, hoping that bunching together will dissuade the shark from attacking, but, ultimately, the shark claims his first victim, leaving the rest to hope it’s had its full and moved on. Unfortunately for them, this is one hungry fish, and they’ve got a long swim ahead of them.
The first thing that popped into my head when I’d read the synopsis of The Reef was Chris Kentis’ 2003 low-budget hit, Open Water; a film that, to me, is a colossal downer, and not nearly the sort of grisly shark porn I gravitate to (I actually prefer that film’s unofficial sequel, Adrift, in a lot of ways). I’d have probably dismissed The Reef outright were it not for the fact that I am a huge fan of writer/director Andrew Traucki’s Black Water, a truly excellent killer Croc flick that sadly got overshadowed by his fellow countryman, Gregg Mclean’s bigger-budgeted and less-effective crocodile movie, Rogue. Knowing Traucki’s ability to generate oodles of suspense with little more than sound effects and frightened expressions (and a really big plastic crocodile head), I was excited to see how his style would translate from brackish swamps to the deep blue sea. As with Black Water, Traucki assembles an impressive cast of fresh (to American audiences, at least) faces, lends them enough backstory to make us care about them, and then almost instantly plunges them into a horrifying-yet-realistic survival situation. It’s a simple formula that works a treat, and, in the case of The Reef, worked even better for me, given my innate fear of not only the things that lurk in the ocean, but the sea, itself. Mixing water-meets-the-sky and eye-level shots, Traucki manages to create a sense of openness and claustrophobia all at once, throwing in lots of nerve-jangling splashes and “did I just see that?” shadows to generate palpable levels of suspense and terror. I watched this with a group of beach-loving sadists who laughed at me every time I shouted out or jumped in horror, but, after a fashion, it became obvious that, they too, were heavily invested in our heroes’ plight.
As he did in Black Water, Traucki and his team somehow manage to make the “interactions” between predator and prey nearly seamless, blending actual shark footage with a touch of convincing CGI and editing it all together in such a way as to make it all look and feel unnervingly realistic. Yes, there are a couple of scenes where the CGI is a bit obvious, but I was too busy weeping and curling up into the fetal position to notice.
The cast is uniformly excellent, but Walshe-Howling stands out as someone with true superstar potential. He has this “Stathamesque” quality about it – a sort of rough around the edges vibe and super-cool demeanor that, when combined with his thick Aussie accent and casual/whispery delivery, screams ACTION HERO. Nearly as impressive is actress, Zoe Naylor, who, in addition to being one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, does a wonderful job as the conflicted Kate, although, admittedly, by the third act, she’s not given much more to do than look absolutely terrified, which, given the circumstances, is about all anyone could do.
The Reef comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Image Entertainment. The film is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the image quality is absolutely scrumptious. This is a vibrant and beautifully shot film, with some stunning scenery early on, although, by the time the action rolls around, the primary colors are blue and…er…sky blue. Still, it looks fantastic, with an exceptional level of fine detail, especially in faces, which is a good thing seeing as how much of the film is spent focusing in on the harried/horrified expressions of the actors. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is equally impressive, with distinct and well-articulated sound effects spread all across the spectrum, providing a mercilessly immersive experience. Everything from the gentle lapping of the waves to the pants-soiling sound of a shark fin breaking the surface and zipping past is implemented in such fashion as to have you feel as though you’re bobbing right alongside the quartet of shark chow. It’s scarily good stuff.
Image skimps a bit on extras, including only a short-yet-informative making of piece (SD), as well as the film’s theatrical trailer. I’d have appreciated a commentary, or a mail-in voucher for a date with Zoe Naylor, but, alas, twas not in the cards.
If you’re as much of a paranoid, sea-hating, shark movie enthusiast as I am, The Reef will certainly deliver more than enough thrills and chills to lend credence to your stubborn refusal to do any ocean-related activities with friends and family. Even if you’re not deathly afraid of these foul creatures (which you should be) and enjoy the sea (which you shouldn’t), The Reef will at least make you think twice before diving into the beast-filled briny hell pit that is the ocean.
In closing, enjoy your summer, kids. Me? I’ll be floating in the pool, confident in the knowledge that the only horrors beneath this particular surface are carcinogenic chemicals and trace amounts of urine. Ah yes, this is the good life.