Written by: Brett Orr, Phillip J. Roth
Directed by: Phillip J. Roth
Starring: Lorenzo Lamas, Simmone Mackinnon, and Jeffrey Gorman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
No Air. No Time. No Escape.
We always talk about how Jaws cast a long shadow over the killer shark genre, but Deep Blue Sea must have done a number on it too. At the time, it was the most successful shark movie at the box office in two decades, gaining more than each of the last two Jaws sequels in the process. And just as it was back in the 70s, there was a rush to cash in, albeit on a smaller scale as the direct-to-video and TV movie markets were booming, yielding a shark movie renaissance on the small screen over the next few years. Many films tried to emulate Renny Harlin’s aquatic schlock-fest, staging their own mayhem in underwater labs and military facilities engaging in nefarious scientific activity. Dark Waters was one of these, which isn’t just a statement of fact but also a critical observation: this is, undoubtedly, a shark movie from this era, a terminally 2003 affair with big ambitions but meager resources. I would say that if you’ve seen one of these things, then you’ve seen them all, but that’s not quite true because this is the only one starring Lorezno Lamas*.
He’s Duane Quatrell, a charlatan and a grifter who talks a big game about marine research and his various attempts to find the lost city of Atlantis. For some reason, this makes him the perfect candidate for Summerville (Bruce Gray), a billionaire who needs an expert to investigate an accident at his underwater oil rig. An opening prologue has already revealed it to be the work of some preternaturally aggressive and synchronized sharks, but Quatrell and company have no idea what they’re in for when they discover the wreckage. When the sharks return to finish what they started, it sends Quatrell and his crew on a harrowing journey of survival that runs afoul of a top-secret, conspiratorial project that genetically engineered the beasts in the first place.
Just about the only thing that’s surprising about Dark Waters is that it’s not a crappy shark horror movie; rather, it’s a crappy shark action movie, and even that’s a stretch considering the creatures spend a long stretch in the middle in a comatose state. In the interim, it’s just an anonymous action movie, and not even one that plays to Lamas' strengths as a martial artist. Instead, there’s just a bunch of generic shooting and cliché action movie banter, at least when the movie’s not just drowning in exposition, its wallpaper score droning on and on, condemning Dark Waters to the murky depths of memory hole oblivion. Having seen a lot of these things, even I’m struggling to imagine how I’ll ever differentiate it from all the others. Quatrell’s quest for Atlantis provides a nice angle that the film largely opts to sidestep in favor of cluttering its stars within grungy, industrial settings as they hem and haw over the logistics and morality of tinkering with the sharks.
Like so many of its contemporaries, Dark Waters is undone by a budget that can’t possibly keep up with its vision. For whatever reason, this rash of shark movies really tried to pull off what Renny Harlin and company did on Deep Blue Sea with a fraction of that film’s budget, dooming the productions before they could really get started. Don’t get me wrong: a big budget doesn’t guarantee success by any means, but it’s also true that a movie like Dark Waters requires convincing effects work to be effective. Short of that, it requires crafty filmmaking to compensate for a small budget and create suspense without leaning on explicit visuals. Dark Waters is the worst of both worlds: lackluster effects work and a director with no interest in working around it, so Phillip Roth subjects you to the film’s utter badness at every turn. Considering even the effects work in Deep Blue Sea can be lovingly described as “dodgy,” it’s certainly a choice for a movie to be unrepentant about its shoddy budget. Lord grant me the confidence of all these dudes who thought they could replicate Renny Harlin even though they are, in fact, not Renny Harlin.
What else do we have here? I guess there’s a subplot involving Quatrell’s long lost father, who disappeared when he was a child to go work on a top secret government project. What a coincidence! It’s meant to introduce both mystery and sentiment to the proceedings, but there’s nothing mysterious about a scientist wandering into the lab acting cagily around Quatrell, nor is there anything particularly rousing about the father and son’s reunion. Everything about the subplot feels like everyone involved was just trying to create the impression of this being a real movie that can really be about something when all anyone really wants from it is some decent schlock—not that anyone can reasonably expect this from it, so I don’t even know if it’s a disappointment when the sharks fail to be realistically menacing.
I’ve said this at least a dozen times before, but this is the ultimate indictment of these low-budget shark movies: you don’t even dare to set your expectations too high for them, much less get excited about a movie where Lorenzo Lamas does battle with great whites. It makes for a decent defense mechanism, I suppose, to always brace for this and set low expectations. That way, when one proves to even be moderately competent, it’s like finding a diamond in the rough. Dark Waters is not even close, and it’s not close in the same ways these movies never come close. Just once, I would at least like to see one of them take a wild swing and be memorably bad enough to distinguish itself. As it stands, though, Dark Waters and many of its contemporaries—Raging Sharks, Megalodon, Shark Hunter, among others— and you’d never know the difference. They’re just an amorphous glob of junk, each of them terrible in the exact same, bland way.
*Yes, Lamas did pop up in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, but this one hailed from an entirely different era of shitty shark movies—get you a man who can do both, as the kids say.
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