Movie Review ~ Black Water: Abyss

The Facts:

Synopsis: Five friends exploring a remote cave system in Northern Australia find themselves threatened by a hungry crocodile.
Stars: Jessica McNamee, Luke Mitchell, Amali Golden, Benjamin Hoetjes, Anthony J. Sharpe
Director: Andrew Traucki
Rated: NR
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Believe me, I’m not one to complain about the recent influx of decent creature features that have made their way to on demand platforms.  After years of slogging through an endless array of bargain-basement CGI dreck that were made for a dime and starring 80s G-list stars looking for a vacation in beautiful Romania, the tides seemed to have shifted.  Either the graphic artists have gotten better at their jobs or filmmakers are just putting a little more effort into the product, but the output has definitely seen an uptick in quality.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not Jaws level practical effects or even in the Jurassic Park area in terms of digital believability, but it no longer looks like people are being attacked by a Sega Genesis character.

Another option that’s been employed when you can’t totally nail the CGI is to take the less is more approach and that’s just as admirable in my opinion.  I’d rather a director be able to use some style to create suspense without showing what lurks unseen waiting to attack than to be treated to a badly rendered monster that generates laughs instead of shrieks.  That’s the approach taken in Black Water: Abyss and, for the most part, it’s a smart one because the less we see of the nasty crocodile stalking a quintet of spelunkers, the better.

Thirteen years is a long time to wait for a sequel to a fan favorite but returning director Andrew Traucki has obviously been in no real rush to get back into the water with just any old story.  The first film released in 2007 was inspired by actual events but this follow-up is pure fiction and has no ties to its predecessor that I could find.  A brief prologue feels unnecessary at first until you see it has laid some groundwork for clues later on and it leads quickly into the introduction of two couples heading into the Northern Australian forest to explore a cave system their friend Cash (Anthony J. Sharpe) recently got wind of.  Eric (Luke Mitchell) is the alpha male of the group and takes the lead on most endeavors once they get into the creepy cavern, though his girlfriend Jen (Jessica McNamee, The Meg) is far less adventurous and hangs back.  With the other couple, the roles are reversed with Yolanda (Amali Golden, The Invisible Man) being more fearless than Viktor (Benjamin Hoetjes) who has recently recovered from a life-threatening bout with cancer.

What starts as a fun day of adventure soon turns to terror when a storm floods the cave system and strands the group in an open section with a territorial crocodile that doesn’t like to share his living space.  With the waters rising and what little space they have to stand on vanishing fast, they’ll have to figure out how to either swim back through the now underwater tunnels from which they came or find another way to safety.  At the same time, group dynamics create personal tensions that further put their safety in jeopardy.

Working with his small cast and cramped quarters, Traucki creates more than a few sequences that generate a marked measure of sustained suspense.  Viewers have been conditioned to wait for surprise attacks so Traucki anticipates these beats and cleverly times them earlier or later, so you’re often truly caught unaware when the crocodile appears.  Much like last year’s 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, there’s a lot of anxiety to be mined out of any passage when people have to swim underwater for safety and there’s a doozy of a scare at one point that gave me a fine jolt.  It gets repetitive, though, around the sixth time someone has to fetch something in the water that is just out of reach and s-l-o-w-l-y gets in, flirting with being caught by the croc.  It pads the run time longer than it has to be and, I think, compensates for a script by Ian John Ridley and Sarah Smith that doesn’t exactly know the right way to end things.

If the CGI is a little rough when employed, it’s nice that Traucki and his collaborators haven’t tried to make the beast supernaturally large or omnipresent.  That is looks often like a regular crocodile when an animatronic croc or other practical effects are used makes the film better, though it does feel a little like a creation for a theme park thrill ride the way it glides through the water.  The cast reacts nicely anytime they come face to face with it and their commitment goes a long way in our believing what’s happening.  Most of the time it appears just out of our view or as bubbles but there are several nice shots when the camera lingers long enough for audiences to appreciate the scale of the scales.

Recent releases Sputnik and, yes, Deep Blue Sea 3 have been nice surprises and I was hoping that Black Water: Abyss would be able to join that list of sure-fire recommended features but it just misses the mark…but it’s not for lack of trying.  Traucki also directed the fun shark film The Reef back in 2010 and from the looks of his IMDb page is working on a sequel to that as well.  His work here may not be the most creative in its development but at least it’s produced with efficiency and thoughtfulness.  The sequel in name only to the surprise hit (at least on video) film gets most everything right but just stays too long in the water, eventually pruning and getting soggy.