Movie Discussion: Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea (1999)

  • Monthly Theme: Giant Monsters222
  • The Film: Deep Blue Sea
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: July 28, 1999
  • Studio: Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, et al.
  • Distributer: Warner Bros.
  • Domestic Gross: $73.6 million
  • Budget: $78 million (estimated)
  • Director: Renny Harlin
  • Producers: Akiva Goldsman, Bruce Berman, et al.
  • Screenwriters: Duncan Kennedy, Donna Powers & Wayne Powers
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Stephen F. Windon
  • Make-Up/FX: Ty Boyce, et al.
  • Music: Trevor Rabin
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. Hollywood star Samuel L. Jackson. Character actors Stellan Skarsgård, Saffron Burrows, Michael Rapaport and Thomas Jane. Rapper LL Cool J.
  • Awards?: Music Award at the BMI Film & TV Awards. Favorite Supporting Actor [LL Cool J] at the 200 Blockbuster Entertainment Awards.
  • Tagline: “Bigger. Smarter. Faster. Meaner.”
  • The Lowdown: Deep Blue Sea was the first movie made by Renny Harlin, the Finnish émigré and commercial Hollywood movie director, after his divorce from Geena Davis in 1998. He had directed Davis in both the well-loved spy thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and Cutthroat Island (1995), which still holds the title of the biggest box-office bomb in history. The movie stars Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skarsgård, Jacqueline McKenzie and Aida Turturro as scientists who are trying to convince a corporate investor (played by Samuel L. Jackson, in a role created especially for him when his agents rejected the idea of him playing the “cook” role that then went to LL Cool J) to continue funding their Alzheimer’s research at a remote underwater research station. Their work involves genetically modifying the brain tissue of gigantic Mako sharks in an effort to regrow healthy human brain tissue. We later learn that one of the leaders on the project, Dr. Susan McAlester (Burrows) had violated genetic ethics codes, leading to the sharks developing super-intelligence. The sharks infiltrate the research station after an accident damages the structure, leading to a cat-and-mouse game between the human survivors and the sharks. Equal parts The Poseidon AdventureJaws and Alien Resurrection, the movie was a modest hit and has developed a cult following.

If you haven’t seen Deep Blue Sea our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Kristine: I did a tiny little bit of research into this movie, and what I discovered shocked me.

Sean:  What?

Kristine: I think I have finally watched enough horror movies that worlds are colliding and connections are happening.

Sean: Amazing.

Kristine: When we were watching Deep Blue Sea (and by the way, how weird is it that we watched this just when that art house movie The Deep Blue Sea with Rachel Weisz comes out?).

Sean: Oh god. Her and her “feelings.”

You can’t see because it’s underwater, but the shark is biting her vagina.

Kristine: …there were two scenes in the movie that totally reminded me of a different movie. And it surprised me, because I only saw this other movie once, and don’t recall it making a huge impression on me or anything. So I looked up this other movie on imdb.com… And it was directed by Renny Harlin, the same director. It was… can you guess? I had no idea this was directed by him. He is not in my movie world.

Sean: Um… A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master?

Kristine: No. Cliffhanger.

Sean: Oh Christ. Stallone and the bush pilot from Northern Exposure. Who, by the way, comes off as such a tool in interviews.

Kristine: The first thing that reminded me of Cliffhanger was the very opening scene of Deep Blue Sea when the teenagers are on the boat and the shark attacks and the teddy bear sinks into the ocean? And it’s ridiculous?

Sean: Right… I am dying that this reminded you of Cliffhanger. I mean, what the hell?

Kristine: The opening scene in Cliffhanger is a chick falling to her death, and Stallone tries to – but doesn’t – save her, and his guilt is like, the conceit of the whole movie. Before she plummets to her death, her teddy bear falls out of her backpack and the camera watches it fall to its death. Like, identical to the image in Deep Blue Sea.

Sean: That is fucked up. Who brings a teddy bear rock climbing? That is so infantilizing to the woman climber. Is that Renny’s version of the Hitchcock cameo? The teddy bear plummet? It makes me lose respect for Geena that she was married to him.

Kristine: Remember when the character Janice (who – oh my god – was played by fucking Russell Crowe’s Nazi girlfriend from fucking Romper Stomper and I am dying about that) in Deep Blue Sea falls off the ladder to the sharks below?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: That is also a direct “homage” to Cliffhanger. Because in both the women are screaming, “I don’t want to die!”

Sean: Oh god. Jacqueline McKenzie (the Romper Stomper chick) just reads as “bad TV actress” in this movie, like someone from Babylon 5 or Friday the 13th: The Series or some other syndicated trash. Should directors be “paying homage” to their own movies? That seems weird.

Kristine: They’re identical, Sean. And here is the kicker… the girl who dies in Cliffhanger? Her movie boyfriend, who watches her fall when Stallone fails? Is… Michael Rooker. Henry! I fucking died.

Sean: Crazy.

Kristine: I died.  Worlds are colliding in my brain and I can’t handle it. Did you do this on purpose?

Fish tantrum.

Sean: No.

Kristine: Yes. I think you did to blow my mind.

Sean: I did not do this on purpose.

Kristine: My last opening argument is I cannot believe you don’t see how Saffron Burrows, the actress who plays Dr. Susan in this movie, is a stand-in for Renny Harlin’s ex-wife, Geena Davis. They are identical, and the Internet agrees with me. That was the other thing I had time to research: Geena and Renny divorced a year before this movie, and then he creates this character who is her doppelganger and also an icy bitch who dies horribly. I think Ren is a wicked misogynist based on this timeline alone.

Sean: Yeah, Dr. Susan’s death at the end is troubling, even though part of me likes it just for being really unexpected and bleak. I actually think that opening boat sequence you started your argument with is really important to the movie: it is the most cheesy “horror movie” cliché opening but then when Thomas Jane shoots the shark with the harpoon gun, the whole movie pivots and switches genres. It’s the movie’s first big “wink” and also sets the tone that this movie might do some unexpected things.

Kristine: Right, and the opening is also the first of several homages to Jaws.

Sean: Oh god right? And the electrocution sequence that comes later is just a totally restaged version of the climax to Jaws 2.

Kristine: We need to discuss that electrocution scene. Jaws is one of the very few horror movies I had seen before this club.

Sean: Well, did you enjoy watching Deep Blue Sea?

Kristine: Yes, it was fun.

Sean: Do you agree that it’s more of an action thriller, with a male audience in mind?

Kristine: Yes, yes.

Sean: I mean that the imagined audience is a male action audience, not necessarily a male “horror geek” audience.

Kristine: I don’t think Deep Blue Sea gets to be a cult classic though.

Sean: I was wondering what you’d think about that. Why not?

Kristine: I vote no.

Sean: Why does it fail the cult classic test?

Kristine: Because it is too “wink-wink nudge-nudge” and also I hate Renny. I think it has classic moments but is not a classic film.

Renny to TJ: “And the eye will be drawn to your long, muscular arm glinting in the sunlight… In the background will be the monstrous fish, foreshadowing the violence to come, as your deltoid quivers…”

Sean: I just think this movie is trying to be bad and I’m not sure what to think about that.

Kristine: I don’t think it is trying to be bad, I think it is trying to be… something. And sometimes it achieves it.

Sean: You know this new fad of the SyFy Channel doing these really purposely terrible made-for-tv horror movies? Like, starring Debbie Gibson and Tiffany? Dinocroc vs. Supergator. I feel like this movie is just a big-budget version of that.

Kristine: I don’t like that. Okay, this is the thing: you can’t try to be a sincere, ridiculous low budget movie, because camp is largely based on heart and the sincerity of the actors and the script. You can’t fake it.

Sean: This brings us back around to our From Dusk till Dawn discussion.

Kristine: Right you are. There is no po-mo camp. It becomes something else.

Sean: Did you like Deep Blue Sea more than that?

Kristine: Did I like this more? Hmmm….

Sean: I mean they both have all-star casts: Samuel L, Stellan, Rapaport, LL Cool J…

Kristine: It was kind of the same. Repugnant characters all trapped in an insane place, mayhem ensues and then most of them die. They are kind of equal to me, except the sharks are a more original idea. I was more over this concept of “manufactured camp” this go-round.

Sean: Right. So who is the Clooney here? Thomas Jane, right? Which makes LL Cool J the Juliette Lewis character.

Kristine: No, Saffron is Clooney.

Sean: No she is Keitel.

Kristine: No, she isn’t.

Sean: Um, she’s the doomed character who dies to save the others. That is the Keitel role.

Kristine: See, I disagree with that reading.

Sean: You have got to be kidding.

Kristine: I don’t think that is why she sacrifices herself to lure the shark so Jane can kill it I think… Are you ready? I think she does it only because she knows her research is lost. If her research was not lost, she would do anything to stay alive and continue her research, even if it meant letting the last shark escape. And I actually like that about her character. She feels kind of bad about what she did, but not that bad.

Sean: See, this is where the gender politics get confused, because she is a woman who would rather have her legacy of scientific greatness than Thomas Jane’s hot body. That is sort of… something, right?

Kristine: Yes. Agreed 100%. Like, she sort of feels bad about Janice and Whitlock and the others getting eaten, but not that bad.

Sean: Right, she’s the RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority]: Mad Scientist Edition, and she’s female. I wouldn’t change it to RIFA because I think she is very masculinized, despite her Red Shoe Diaries-style prettiness. [Editor’s Note: For the backstory on RIMA, see our discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy.]

Kristine: Exactly. And she is a stand-in for Geena Davis. I think Renny is saying that Geena is a career-minded ice queen. And that he thinks he is Thomas Jane.

It’s called “bra diving” and its very popular in Australia.

Sean: I love that you are reading this as a referendum on the Geena/Renny marriage.

Kristine: Oh, I totally am. Also, how much does this movie fetishize the male body??? Even with the ridic Saffron strip-down scene, this movie is about Thomas Jane’s wet bod all riding sharks.

Sean: Thomas Jane: he is hot, but I hate myself for thinking so. There is something repellant about him, but he’s also a type that does it for me.

Kristine: Well, Renny thinks he is hot, that is for sure. Speaking of gay, I want to ask you something. More then anything else in the movie, even the jigaboo-ing of LL Cool J, I was so weirded out and offended by one very short scene, though it was in the context of a larger something.

Sean: What?

Kristine: Which was the emasculation of Tom, Michael Rapaport’s character, culminating in him fluttering his hands and asking LL to zip up his wetsuit like it was a lady’s dress. WTF was that???? Remember? In a sing-song voice?

Sean: Oh my god right?

Kristine: I was like, ‘No. No to this.’ Like, since his character becomes less powerful since he is afraid, it means he must become a girl? Fear = lady? I just thought about that stupid scene getting a big laugh in the theatre and it made me feel gross and unhappy.

Sean: Yeah, we love laughing at swishy men. I actually kept thinking about hip hop culture in this movie, because Rapaport is so a part of the hip hop scene and such a fan.

Kristine: Explain.

Sean: He must know LL outside of the movie world and might even be responsible for that casting decision? But I kept reading into their interactions as some weird meta-commentary of the place of the white fanboy in black hip hop culture. There’s something vaguely emasculating about the white fanboy, right?

Kristine: That is interesting. I think that yes, there is.

Sean: Yeah… I mean, it’s a problem. But we love Mikey.

Kristine: Yes, I love him although he’s not the best actor. Why would MR want to perpetuate that stereotype?

Sean: He is a type and he is good at that type. I think the answer is: paycheck. Also for LL: paycheck.

Kristine: LL wins the award for more watchable character, even though it was a sucky, offensive character.

Sean: LL in this movie reminded me of Jennifer Hudson in Sex and the City: The Movie playing the role of “A Black Person” (as Tara Ariano on Extra Hot Great pointed out, hilariously).

Kristine: I just did a Google search: “The Emasculation of Michael Rapaport by LL Cool J.” Hip hop album title of the year.

Sean: I mean, what about that scene when LL is tending bar and Samuel L. orders a drink and is then disparaged for being an arctic explorer? And LL was like, “Why a black man be all up in the arctic? Stay in the hood, homey!”

Kristine: My eyeballs were rolling.

Doesn’t the shark look like Jabberjaw here?

Sean: They gave Samuel L. the dumbest lines throughout the movie, too.

Kristine: Well, also, did you notice that LL stayed in his chef’s coat the whole fucking movie? Even when they were swimming to safety? Like you wouldn’t take off your chef’s coat… He had to remain the cook. It was so weird.

Sean: Yeah that’s a good point. I liked the oven sequence though. That was maybe the most suspenseful scene, and the one with the most inventive take on “manufactured camp.”

Kristine: Also, none of the scientists even mentioned him or were worried about him when the shit hit the fan.

Sean: I was thinking that, too. Not a single person was like, ‘What about “Preacher” (I mean, that name alone)?’ They were just going to fucking leave him to die there.

Kristine: I agree, but the Bible-quoting, Playboy-gawking, cooking-sherry-swilling behavior of his character was too much. And having Samuel L. in the standard rich powerful white man role does not make up for that.

Sean: The parrot. “You ate my bird!” he says to the shark.

Kristine: Oh god, the one-liners. “Sushi.”

Sean: That parrot was like, hanging over the pot while LL was cooking. Now that I have chickens I can attest, birds just poo whenever. The parrot was pooing in the food.

Kristine: Eww.

Sean: And then LL was like, idiotically whistling and stirring and it was gross and demeaning.

Kristine: I also found his last words – the fucking omelette recipe – to be stupid and offensive and not cute.

Sean: Remind me of his last words?

Kristine: Oh, when he finds the video camera, and he can’t think of anything deep and profound to say… then he grins real big and starts giving a fucking sassy omelette recipe. Also, no one cared about Brenda aka Aida Turturro aka Janice Soprano when she died.

Sean: No one cared. They were like, “The fat bitch is dead, fyi. Anyway…”

Kristine: I am also offended by him not taking his shirt off the entire movie. It’s LL Cool J and they are underwater.

Sean: That is true. At least the movie ends with LL and Thomas Jane as boyfriends anyway…

Kristine: Yes, it does.

Sean: They are lovers and they are in love.

Kristine: And it all happened one crazy weekend.

Sean: When LL stupidly shoots him and spears him to the shark’s dorsal fin, it was a sexual innuendo. He popped TJ’s cherry.

Kristine: Okay, now you are reaching.

Sean: So, were the sharks cool monsters?

See because he is this big man and the bird is little…. Get it? Now do you think it’s funny?

Kristine: The sharks were cool. I was on their side. But the effects were wretched, and no, passing it off as camp does not excuse it.

Sean: Oh the CGI was very bad, but it was the dawn of CGI so I am willing to let it slide.

Kristine: I like that the sharks getting human intelligence meant them gaining human attributes like mean-spiritedness, revenge, cruelty, and black humor. So I was wondering if we could talk about the two most insane death sequences.

Sean: Obviously, the Samuel L. death is ridic.

Kristine: Samuel L.’s death during his come-to-Jesus speech was pretty awesome. But the #1 most disturbing death is the gurney crash.

Sean: Oh I know it’s so sadistic. That gurney death was just… Wow. That is Eric Northman‘s poppa.

Kristine: I was wondering. For real?

Sean: Yes, in real life.

Kristine: I love it.

Sean: I was actually surprised he died so quickly, and I thought it was interesting that the ostensible “genius” died first and that left the field open for Saffron Burrows to be the crazy, obsessed mad scientist.

Kristine: I mean, it was dumb because there is no way that dude was still alive and breathing but it was still so…

Sean: Were you ever scared for a second in this movie?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: When?

Kristine: The very first shot. The camera pans back and you see the vast ocean. Vastness is scary. So is tightness.

Sean: Yes, because I was scared when TJ was alone in that tunnel at the start and the power goes off and he is out there alone with the sharks.

Kristine: Yes. And the cameras shut off. That was good. The sharks chasing the humans inside a man-made structure was good, but not scary. Thrilling. Dude, when I saw Jaws, I could not swim in a pool, and baths were iffy. Night swimming is still an issue for me.

Sean: The oven sequence made me bite my arm. The idea of being cooked in an oven is very horrifying to me. And the “rock and hard place” element of it was funny and terrible: Oven or shark?

Kristine: Agreed. I think you would want to choose shark, because fighting it out is better then cooking to death, but if the shark’s mouth was right outside the oven? You have to stay in the oven.

Sean: I would still try to fight the shark. I’d gouge out it’s eyes and punch it in the nose and stick my hand in its gills and tear it’s insides out, like Bruce Willis.

Kristine: Whose side were you on? Humans or shark?

Sean: Um…. I wasn’t on anybody’s side. I was on the side of Thomas Jane’s underwear.

Don't tell me I dropped my keys in THERE. Again.
Don’t tell me I dropped my keys in THERE. Again.

Kristine: I wanted the final shark to escape.

Sean: Well, here’s where the gender politics come back. The sharks are all fenale, so there’s a pretty undeniable “monstrous feminine” presence in the movie. It really does make this feel like the movie is a big, misogynistic belch from Renny after his divorce from Geena Davis. And some kind of mission statement that hirsute, eroticized, working class male bodies will always win and should win, and are the heroes. As is Cliffhanger no?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: And that is so weird from a director who was married to someone considered to be a breakthrough “feminist” trailblazer in movies.

Kristine: I was thinking about that.

Sean: And he directed her in The Long Kiss Goodnight as a female action star, one of the first and the few. With Samuel L., by the way, as her sidekick/buddy.

Kristine: Oh, really? The plot, it is thick now.

Sean: Yes, and that was a year after their epic pirate flop, Cutthroat Island, which she was also the action lead in. He tried to make her a bona fide action star. And then…. this movie? His next movie after Deep Blue Sea was a Formula One racecar movie starring Stallone and Burt Reynolds. I mean, Renny is obsessed with working class masculinity.

Kristine: I really think TJ is a stand in for Renny, in Renny’s mind since Saffron Burrows “uses” TJ in this movie and chooses career over love/sex.

Sean: Did any part of you identify or sympathize with Saffron?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: Yeah.

Kristine: Of course.

Sean: The most effective way to resist the movie is to put her at the center and refuse to hate or judge her like the movie asks you to.

Kristine: She’s doing her thang for the greater good, and also for glory and fame. It is… the human way.

Sean: She is “haunted by Alzheimer’s.” TJ’s character is a crass, snarky, stupid ass.

Kristine: I agree. He is like, ‘You are a stuck-up bitch because you won’t fuck me and you care about science.’

Sean: I love how the movie ends with a party boat full of men pulling up with like, a kegger on the deck.

Kristine: One crazy weekend.

Sean: They do kegstands after the credits roll and are like, ‘And then the shark did this. And I showed her, that bitch.’ So, is this movie “against science”?

Kristine: Only in the most superficial, excuse-for-a-movie way. Not in any deep or inventive way. I mean, do you think Renny is making a reference to Geena’s turn in The Fly?

Sean: Is The Fly a more successful exploration of the “science is dangerous” idea?

Kristine: Far more successful. But isn’t it curious that Renny would make a movie with the same themes, but a campy movie riffing on their tropes?

Sean: I would not be surprised to learn that the studio just gave him the script and said, “Do it. Now.” They were like, “Add a million Jaws references.”

Kristine: I see every decision as a personal insult to Geena.

Sean: I wonder if Geena saw it. Renny never made a movie with a female lead again after Deep Blue Sea, the movie in which he had a giant shark eat his female lead in the last ten minutes.

Kristine: I have deeply personalized this movie.

Sean: Did Renny and Geena have an amicable divorce? Do they keep in contact?

Kristine: Don’t know, but I doubt it. We didn’t discuss the shark pussybite. Do you remember the scene?

Sean: Who could forget?

Kristine: The shark was biting her pussy.

Sean: Oy vey.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s rating: This is a CAMP classic because…why exactly?

The Freak’s rating: Problematic but fun as hell.

17 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea (1999)

  1. I watched that yesterday as I was eager to read your conversation about it. That’s how hooked on your blog I am, in spite of the sometimes ridiculous, but also hilarious and entertaining, gender considerations that make the most part of it.
    I was not aware of the backstory as to the Renny Harlin-Geena Davis divorce, but I could notice that Dr. Susan McCallister was, if well-intentioned, one mean, cold-hearted woman. In fact, I was frustrated that she didn’t die earlier, as I couldn’t stomach the eventuality that Carter Blake and she would end up together, which would have been preposterous. At any rate, the film tricked me! But as you said, the ending is preposterous and I liked what you said about the male-bonding, it’s not SO far-fetched.
    The puritanism of the film struck me, Stellan Skarsgård’s character seems to be punished because he has the impudence of lighting a cigarette, while Preacher gets saved countless times because he is, seemingly, so god-fearing.
    Fun stuff, nonetheless, and contrary to you, I’m not one of those snobs who is dismayed by the notion that he is watching a Renny Harlin’s film. Why the jokes? He’s a Finnish hired hand from Hollywood, so what?
    I like Thomas Jane by the way, but I must be one of the few that likes (I mean, really likes) “The Velocity of Gary” in which he plays a gay heartthrob.

    1. Totally agree that the movie is weirdly puritanical!
      For me (and I think Kristine) Renny is a joke because (a) his 1990s haircut, (b) his style and general self-presentation and (c) we’re solidly Team Geena. He is a ridiculous man! But I have no problem with Hollywood filmmakers, per se. I’m a populist.
      Thomas Jane is super hot, but seems douchey.

  2. Oh and it reminded me of those lines, heard recently in Eastbound & Down, when Kenny Powers is sitting by the pool:
    “If one of them kids can drown, then they don’t deserve to be alive.”
    “This is a goddamn Darwinism right here.”