(2010, Written / Directed by Andrew Traucki)
The Reef presented itself as quite the conundrum when contemplating whether or not to include it on this year's list. Here we have what is essentially an Open Water ripoff (or send up or homage, you choose) by Australian director / screenwriter Andrew Traucki. Traucki is the man responsible for 2007's Black Water, itself inspired by Open Water. Concluding, The Reef rips off Open Water and its own director's Black Water, itself a ripoff of Open Water (of which all three films are allegedly based on true stories). Still with me? Hence the conundrum. Do I reward a film with inclusion on this list that so blatantly cannibalizes another film, not to mention the same director's previous film? Well as it turns out, when the film is this good I do.
When their vessel is overturned after running afoul of a submerged rock base, the five person crew of a small sailboat is left drifting on the Great Barrier Reef. With little hope of rescue, they are faced with two options; stay aboard their crippled boat and face the prospect of dying from thirst, starvation and exposure or make an attempt to swim north 10 miles away in the direction of Turtle Island, hoping to find it amidst the rising waves before something in the water finds them first. The odds of survival stacked against the crew, a small group of them decide to risk the swim. They take to the water and set out for their only hope. Miles out to sea, the swimmers are closing in on land, when a fin breaks the surface of the water. Soon the realization sets in that they are being stalked by a 15-foot pointer shark. Death can come from any direction at any time. Death, which possesses a mouthful of razor sharp teeth. Can the small band of survivors make it to land with all their pieces intact or will the hungry sea claim them, pulling them beneath the blood stained waves one by one until only their memory remains?
In the name of transparency, I have to admit something upfront before I continue. I am incredibly biased when commenting on the effectiveness of killer shark movies to terrify and torment their viewers. Personally, there is nothing more unsettling to me than the idea of being at the mercy of a shark. It is hands down, my greatest, deepest fear. The kind of phobia that I have spent hours obsessively pondering over. So from the outset there is the slight possibility that this movie affected me in ways that it won't others. I say "possibility" because I believe that for the most part I am only going to be affected by a film that is genuinely good (example: hack Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea had me rolling my eyes from beginning to end). The Reef is genuinely good. Its better than good. It is great and some years down the line (like a few other films on this list) it deserves to be looked back on with classic status firmly established in relation to its name.
What we have here is an exhausting exercise in breathtaking suspense. The Reef sets out to put it's audience through the ringer and conquers us exquisitely. I think I was in danger of breaking the armrests free from the chair I was sitting in I was gripping them so tightly. A distinction that The Reef shares with two other films on this year's "Best Of..." list, Burning Bright and Frozen (curiously, all three films revolving around man vs. nature scenarios to one degree or another). Here Traucki masterfully wrings menace and dread from every splash, every ripple of water. As the sharks get bolder, hungrier and closer, Traucki lays his cards on the table and we soon learn that he's not playing favorites. Anybody could be swallowed whole at any time. This is an aspect that pays off in spades in the suspense department because every single character is written sympathetically and brought to life nicely by the talented cast. There's really no one person whom you'd like to see eaten alive and every time the ocean turns blood red, the film packs a small emotional punch to your gut. Traucki conveys a sincere sense of loss when these moments occur which only helps along his cause (that being, to scare the ever loving shit out of his audience). As we all know, coming to care about your protagonist's fates can only heighten the tension of a story (yet its a lesson that 95% of working screenwriters could afford to learn). Aiding in the film's potency, is the fact that the actors were filmed with real sharks, a few feet away from them in the water (much like 2003's Open Water, though here the effect is more successful). There is no "Bruce" of Jaws fame or badly rendered CGI à la Deep Blue Sea infamy (Renny Harlan, you HACK! Wait, I think I said that already. Actually I can't say it enough). It's the real deal in The Reef, humongous and insatiable killing machines circling ever closer to our panicked and terrified heroes. To say that it adds a level of authenticity to the proceedings is a given.
In the end this is what real nightmares are made of. Alone and small, insignificant to the cruelty of nature's voracious maw and completely helpless to fight back in any way, your only option is to kick your exhausted legs and swim. Just pray that all that kicking for your life doesn't attract more cold black eyes watching you from the dark ocean's depths.
The Reef stars Damien Walshe-Howling (Ned Kelly), Zoe Naylor (McLeod's Daughters), Gyton Grantley (Beneath Hill 60), Adrienne Pickering (Knowing) and Kieran Darcy-Smith (The Cave), and arrives on UK DVD January 24th, 2011.
American release date TBA.
To follow The Reef online visit http://www.reefmovie.com
5 Skulls - The Best
4 Skulls - Very Good
3 Skulls - Good / Average
2 Skulls - Poor
1 Skull - The Worst