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.

Movie Review ~ The Meg

The Facts

Synopsis: After escaping an attack by what he claims was a 70-foot shark, Jonas Taylor must confront his fears to save those trapped in a sunken submersible.

Stars: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Cliff Curtis, Sophia Shuya Cai, Masi Oka

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I like sharks.  I like movies.  I like shark movies.  From Jaws to The Shallows to 47 Meters Down, I’m a fan of anything featuring an underwater predator snacking on unsuspecting prey.  Even in lesser known entires like Bait or Shark Night 3D, there’s a certain amount of satisfied fun that comes with these creature features.  Of course, it helps I’m writing this review from the landlocked safety of Minnesota (aka Land of 10,000 Lakes) so these ocean tales of killer sharks don’t dredge up the same fear in me that might plague someone living near the open water.

Steve Alten’s 1997 “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” was tailor made for a screen adaptation.  After spending a solid 20 years in development hell and tossed around by several studios, directors, and stars, The Meg has finally surfaced.  Was it worth the wait?  Did director Jon Turtletaub (While You Were Sleeping) and star Jason Statham (Spy) strike the right balance of fun and fear that made Alten’s original novel (and multiple follow-ups) such a blast?   I can’t say for sure whether or not you’ll go for this sometimes scary, sometimes silly late summer adventure but for someone like me who has waited so long for this sizable shark soup it satisfies a hunger two decades in the making.

Not having read the book in a good decade, I picked up my tattered copy and skimmed the pages before heading out to the screening.  Alten’s no Hemmingway but he manages to take the reader along for a plausible (for 1997) ride to the depths of the ocean where a fish long thought extinct has been living undisturbed for thousands of years.  The screenplay from Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber (Battleship), Erich Hoeber (Red 2) retains elements and a few characters from the novel but alters the action for its star and international supporting cast.

At an underwater research facility in the South China Sea, scientists are using sophisticated underwater submersibles to dive deeper than any human has before.  They hope to prove the existence of another underwater ecosystem thousands of feet below sea level.  Their attempts at a scientific breakthrough instead release a gigantic Megaladon, a shark long since though extinct.  With little time to warn neighboring countries, the crew must track down the deadly shark before she gobbles up throngs of swimmers along the coast.

Reframing Statham’s character Jonas Taylor from a marine biologist to a grizzled deep sea rescue diver allows Statham to do away with the formality of a pretending he’s had a scientific education and clears the way to draw on his brawn to save the day.  Whereas the novel’s Jonas eventually comes into his own set of brass balls, Statham presents as a no-nonsense Hercules from the word go.  He’s nicely matched by Li Bingbing (Transformers: Age of Extinction) as Suyin, the plucky daughter of the head of research (Winston Chao, The Wedding Banquet) at the scientific laboratory involved with the discovery of the massive shark.  Suyin and Jonas parlay their growing (and nicely unforced) chemistry into believable teamwork as they work together to use their collective bravura to save the day.

While Statham and Bingbing are pleasing leads, Turtletaub has a bit of a mixed bag in the supporting characters.  There’s a whole lot of people popping up and sadly not all of them serve their purpose by becoming fish food by the time the credits roll.  Ruby Rose as a tough scientist and Sophia Shuya Cai as Suyin’s playful daughter fare best while Cliff Cutis (Whale Rider), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), and Page Kennedy do what they can with their stock character roles.  The biggest head-scratcher is Rainn Wilson (Cooties) as the egocentric money man behind the entire operation.  Wilson, best known for his brilliant work on The Office is truly miscast here, never funny enough to be comic relief or villainous enough to earn our bloodlust in rooting for him to get tenderized by the shark.

Ah…the shark.  You want to know about the shark, right?  It’s well documented that during the production of Jaws the mechanical shark was prone to breaking down, which gave director Steven Spielberg the challenge of showing less and implying more.  This lead to that movie becoming a classic but also meant for future genre movies using a practical creation was far more difficult than creating a sizable beast using special effects.  I’m fairly sure our titular monster is all CGI and aside from a few sketchy renderings it’s mostly a handsome bit of movie magic that blends seamlessly with the live action.  This leads to some ample scares (jolts more like it) and sustained bits of action, especially in the jam-packed final third of the film.

Where I found the film to be lacking were the moments when the shark wasn’t on screen.  That’s where the screenplay shows it’s flimsiness and resorts to some eye rolling dialogue clearly meant to be judicious exposition.  This being a film largely financed by international producers , there are specific moments that feel like cultural insertions (father-daughter bonds, noble deaths, etc) rather than plot points.  Still, even the dumbest sounding dialogue is delivered with a harmless earnestness that’s easy to forgive.

A pure popcorn extravaganza, The Meg swims ashore this August to take a bite out of the late summer box office and stands a good chance at doing well in the U.S. but even better in foreign markets.  Expect the movie to open big in Asia and take in enough money to generate a sequel – and if it’s handled with the same balance of camp and thrill, I’ll be first in line to see it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Meg

Synopsis: When a submersible lies disabled at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, an expert deep sea diver is forced to confront his fears and risk everything on a single question: Could the Carcharadon Megalodon – the largest marine predator that ever existed – still be alive and on the hunt?

Release Date: August 10, 2018

Thoughts: This lover of all things (and movies) related to sharks has been waiting for The Meg for almost twenty years.  Based on Steve Alten’s silly but entertaining beach read MEG, the film rights were snapped up right away but the movie took forever to get off the ground due to its sizable budget.  Warner Brothers (the studio behind Deep Blue Sea, the last decent shark flick released theatrically) finally took the plunge, added a “The” to the title, reworked the plot, wisely partnered with an Asian studio to maximize international box office revenue, and in August we’ll see just how well it all  paid off.  This first look at The Meg has plenty of exciting images but also an unexpectedly comedic slant that I’m not quite sure about.  Based on the tongue-in-cheek feel, Jason Statham (Spy) could be a good fit for the leading man but it’s clear that while this one has Jaws in its veins its not angling to take itself too seriously.