In the swirling wake left by 2003’s Open Water, filmmakers realised that by utilising modern camera technology with old school guerilla filmmaking, your killer shark movie needn’t be a gruelling shoot (Jaws) or need a budget that could choke a blue whale (Deep Blue Sea). So in 2010, Australian director Andrew Traucki – a man who was already well versed with flinging his screaming countrymen into a razor sharp maw of doom with 2007’s croc shocker, Black Water – gave us The Reef, a massively stripped back ocean thriller that tells the familiar story of smug holiday makers suddenly having to fight for their lives when their boat rolls over in shark infested waters.
Garnering glowing reviews upon it’s debut, has The Reef managed to keep it’s head above water now that killer shark movies have regained most of their big screen respectively thanks to The Shallows and (arguably) The Meg?
Luke has rather a sweet gig in that he’s getting paid to deliver a boat to a buyer in Indonesia by sailing it there and decides to invite his buddy Matt and Matt’s girlfriend Suzie for an impromptu holiday as they plough their boat through crystal clear waters and unlimited sunshine. However, causing a bit of social awkwardness is the arrival of Kate, Matt’s sister, who used to date Luke before they split on uncertain terms – but after establishing this fact to undoubtedly drum up some character based drama later (because it’s not enough to just be eaten by a shark), the group enjoy their time out at sea, stopping by random islands and having a ball.
However, the party is declared officially over after their vessel capsizes after colliding with the titular reed and a quick assessment of the situation confidently places them squarely on a course for destination: fucked. The boat is unsalvagable and most likely going to sink and their emergency help sender (not the official term) is an older model and thus less dependable than a 5am wake up call from a millennial and so Luke hits upon a desperate plan that involves them getting in the ocean and swimming back to the little island they recently left. Matt and Suzie act like like swimming 12 miles in open water is a reasonable thing to suggest, while Kate remains on the rapidly sinking fence and shockingly ineffectual fifth wheel Warren (who’s so pointless I’ve only just realised this is the first time I’ve actually mentioned him) flat out refuses due to the very real danger of sharks.
Changing her mind at the last minute, Kate elects to join this floating quartet, but part way through their journey the worst case scenario rises from the deep and starts stalking them in all it’s great white glory. As their already small number gets whittled down by the crunching jaws of the ocean’s greatest predator, survival looks as unlikely as the shark itself halting it’s attack due to strict calorie counting…
While everyone involved in this heavily submerged production should be commended for spending so much time splashing and screaming around in the brine for the sake of cinematic thrills and spills, I have to admit, The Reef really hasn’t aged particularly well when it comes to it’s acts of sustained suspense or it’s characters. In fact the movie features a group of protagonists so bland, it’s a wonder the shark doesn’t spit them out due to them tasting like the cardboard cutouts they blatantly are. The leads look appropriately freaked out by their experience, sure, but anything up to that point reveals them to have all the personality of a bucket bloody fish chunks. In fact once in the water, I actually had major problems telling Kate and Suzie apart and spent less time looking at their faces as the mortality of their situation dawns on them and more on looking for the blue stripe on the wetsuit that solely differentiates them. Similarly, the supposedly heroic Luke who seems to only have two thirds of the skills needed to get them to dry land alive is a massive charisma void who’s awkward and whose weirdly intense close ups make him feel less like the lead and more like Billy Zane from Dead Calm if that climatic shot in the face with the flare gun had rendered him utterly without personality. Ultimately, all the movie proves by going the route of The Blair Witch Project and dumping actors into semi-realistic versions of what their characters are experiencing, is that you might get accurate portrayals of fear and exhaustion but it means sweet eff-all if your script is as flat as a pancake.
Also not dating well are the more suspenseful moments of the film which, despite splicing in actual footage of a particularly large member of the carcharodon carcharias family menacing our characters, just isn’t as impressive thanks to hours of footage of people casually swimming alongside these majestic beasts that regularly pop up on my social media feeds. In fact, when the shark isn’t actually attacking it just drifts around looking about as invested as I am in the proceedings and the actual attacks are all done in the quick edits you’d get when animal attack documentaries stage a reconstruction which removes any potential for a memorable attack to rack up with any of the supporting cast of Jaws or The Shallows. There’s some moments, however, where the film unwittingly strikes gold; a shot of a shark surfacing within the length of a pube hair from a legitimately terrified cast is wildly successful in drawing legitimate gasps from the audience and the ending is appropriately callous, but overall The Reef is mainly 90 minutes of scared people bobbing in front of an unchanging blue background.
Despite all of the above, this hasn’t stopped writer/director Andrew Traucki from returning to the genre of toothy/bitey water monsters time and again thanks to him also crafting a similarly insipid sequel to Black Water in 2020 with a further sequel to The Reef apparently on the horzion – here’s hoping he can finally sharpen his gnashers to a razor’s edge this time around….