The undeniable greatness of ‘Deep Blue Sea’

Kaitlin McNabb
16 min readSep 8, 2018


Yes this graphic is an accurate representation of the discussion below.

From the shockingly unwatchable to ridiculously good, the Sharkometer series dissects every shark movie according to the GOAT Jaws.

Deep Blue Sea by Renny Harlin, 1999
Starring Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, LL Cool J, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skargard, and Jacqueline McKenzie
Budget: $60,000,000 USD
Box office: $164.6 million USD

Number of times previously watched: approx 75.

Listen to me talk about Deep Blue Sea on the Deep Blue Sea Podcast!

Duncan Kennedy, the screenwriter of Deep Blue Sea, asks an excellent question “How do you [make a great shark movie] without repeating Jaws?”

Renny Harlin, the film’s director, decided the answer was to “do Spielberg one better” and increase the shark’s length by one foot — even though he used mako and not great white, nevermind.

This literal and laughably macho interpretation sums up Deep Blue Sea pretty well, actually, in that Harlin completely misses the subtext of Jaws and goes straight for the text: scary sharks are big and intended context lies on the surface. However, the critics and fans definitely have different ideas.

A quick sum up of Deep Blue Sea is Saffron Burrows as Dr. Susan McAlester tries to cure Alzheimer's by testing on shark brains that she and Stellan Skarsgard as Dr. Jim Whitlock have genetically modified to be larger and in the process create smart sharks that begin to hunt down the humans in overly complicated ways in order to escape their floating compound Aquatica, all of which was inspired by a recurring nightmare Kennedy had of “being in a passageway with sharks that could read his mind” after he witnessed a horrific shark attack.

Yup! Let’s put Deep Blue Sea through Sharkometer and see how it comes out. Yay!

Hitchcockian flare and divine intervention ask Who is Jesus in this Movie?

As much as divine intervention at the beginning of the production of Jaws influenced the Hitchcockian pathway of the delay of reveal plus suspense to reveal the fluidity in its narrative, making it more than a shark movie, the opposite metric is true for Deep Blue Sea: the pathway of obviousness and un-subtlety lead to divine intervention at the end of production, influencing the fluidity in its narrative and making it more than a shark movie.

JAWS is about humanity, and America, as revealed by shark. Deep Blue Sea is about the boundaries and interplay between religion and science as revealed by sharks. Or more simply put Deep Blue Sea is about RELIGION!!!!!!!!!!!!!! as revealed by sharks. But… is it, and was it supposed to be?

Mining the untravelled world of Christian movie review sites (guys.) made it apparent that this movie is indeed considered a Christian action movie, mostly because of LL Cool J’s character, Preacher, — “DEEP BLUE SEA has a strong Christian worldview, centered on the Christian faith of the movie’s most heroic character [LL Cool J]”; “[LL Cool J] makes DEEP BLUE SEA one of the strongest Christian action movies in quite some time” — and the deaths of all the scientists, specifically Burrows, as punishment for messing with nature.

However, Burrows, LL, and Thomas Jane were all to survive originally, which completely obliterates the theory that the sharks are attacking the scientists as “God’s punishment for [the] sinful ambition to play god” and raise questions about Burrows’ character arc in general. Only one month prior to its release did Harlin decide to kill off Burrows and have LL Cool J become the hero after test audiences flipped because they saw Burrows as completely at fault — pause to note that Skarsgard also agreed to violate the Harvard [Genetics] Compact, continue— and the villain who causes every death within the movie. Her unrelenting quest to cure Alzheimer's, in vein for her father, led her to violate the Harvard Genetics Compact to scientifically re-engineer sharks with bigger brains to harvest more brain tissue for testing and inadvertently create smart sharks that systematically hunted down and killed the crew.

Her survival undermines the Frankenstein-esque lesson that we shouldn’t manipulate nature, lest we suffer the consequences. Her character is not remorseful nor sympathetic, unlike Dr. Frankenstein who, after his monster seeks revenge and attacks people, — yes, a monster of the people’s own creation — is consumed by guilt and seeks to rectify the error in his ways. The monster is not culpable, Dr. Frankenstein is for creating it in the first place. The same logic applies to Burrows, except the movie wouldn’t have enforced this originally and she doesn’t really understand it anyhow in either scenario.

Reorienting LL Cool J and other non-scientist Thomas Jane as the sole survivors and heroes eases that frustration and fleshes out a stronger religious parable — the “bad” scientists are all killed for their participation in smart sharks and the “good” overcome. It also serves to knit together the obvious religious bits peppered throughout that seem really strange and extraneous without Burrows’ death. But it’s still not enough.

The Frankenstein-come-religious parable is sloppy and the prescient beasts hunting down the sinners narrative is not cohesive. It’s less a tragic, revelatory “I take responsibility for my actions” and more a smite-y and accusatory “you will be punished for your smart sharks” — which isn’t…great, but it’s something.

Harlin confessed, due to time and money constraints, he only re-shot the scene where Burrows is instead eaten by the shark; therefore, it stands the rest of the film was untouched and the narrative is the same, except she dies. With this, Burrows is effectively allowed to martyr herself, preforming a stigmata-like maneuver that entices the shark from its imminent escape. Some have interpreted the scene as Burrows “mentally telling the shark ‘Yes I was wrong, we humans should never fuck with nature, I am sorry, eat me’” and “[sacrificing her] life for the safety and protection of other people,” which is very Dr. Frankenstein, except it’s not true and disregards the fact that she wanted to get out of the water.

Her grand gesture is a fallacy because it only occurs because her escape plan, the ladder bars on the compound wall, falls through and she is unable to get out and is trapped. The shark does stare her down, but, as I assumed when I first saw this movie, it seems more to recognize her as “mother” or “creator” a la Frankenstein and is debating whether to kill her.

However, it seems, after her stigmata and as she floats in a bloody Crucifixion pose waiting to be eaten, she is possibly mimicking Jesus restoring humankind’s relationship with God. Is she Jesus?

Or is the shark Jesus because Burrows is waiting to be judged for her sins against humanity and nature?

Or, maybe LL Cool J is Jesus for recognizing the sharks as the devil and reciting a hip hop prayer? But the sharks almost succeed in killing him until, in the most blunt “religion defeating science” moment I have even witnessed, LL stabs a shark in the eye, repeatedly, with his enormous cross necklace until it lets him go.

Or wait, is Thomas Jane Jesus after he is resurrected from the exploded shark after LL pins him to the shark with a harpoon?

Guys, who is Jesus in this movie?

Regardless, even in death, the religious/Frankenstein narrative is still pretty dicey. Burrows remains the tunnel-visioned scientist she was when she went back through the flooded-overrun-with-sharks-sinking-compound after several people have died to retrieve her research, which is ultimately destroyed by a lurking shark.

Actually that scene is pretty great and suspenseful. It’s played well with the decoy shark, and then the real shark, though how a woman on an IKEA pinewood table can rip out a power line and electrocute a lunging shark without injuring herself, I’ll never know. But, +1 for Hitchcockian flare.

But after her monsters have attacked people (sought revenge) and her research is ultimately destroyed (worth it?), she doesn’t connect the dots or take responsibility — or, at the very least, we don’t get that scene or inference.

And this lack of cohesion lends to the Choose Your Own Adventure nature of the movie: do you want to search for a buried meaning where sharks represent the devil or do you want to watch some people get ripped apart?

We can make Deep Blue Sea more than a shark movie because there are breadcrumbs of interest, though they never add up to a complete loaf, or we can make Deep Blue Sea just a shark movie because it is literally, most definitely, about sharks — both versions have LL Cool J as the star of a shark thriller and that is sheer divine intervention.

Divine Intervention rating: 1/1 waterfalls
Hitchcockian Flare rating: 2/10 gold medals

filmin’ style is ACTION MOVIE

Deep Blue Sea has a lot of homages to Jaws: the (infamous) license plate is the same, the shark deaths mimic each respective Jaws movie, the Skarsgard death scene mimics the glass break scene in Jaws 3D, the opening score is exactly the same — to name just a few.

But Harlin didn’t “homage” some of the most iconic film techniques from Jaws like the dolly zoom and extra-long shot, nor did he over-homage his use of the shark POV. Instead he focused on things like a plethora of feet shots and tight shark close-ups.

And, that’s actually not surprising.

As Drew Taylor asserts in his review of the abysmal Harlin-directed The Legend of Hercules, though “Harlin has never been a director burdened by an abundance of imagination,” he has also never been a director that is “outright derivative.” That is to say, even in prescribed film territory, like a sequel (Die Hard 2) or a niche genre (Deep Blue Sea), Harlin is wont to direct his own way. He may dabble in a reference here and there, but he would never ape a movie entirely (The Legend of Hercules notwithstanding apparently).

And that’s good, but it’s also bad because the result is that the most standout thing about the filming in Deep Blue Sea is that nothing stands out. Harlin’s filming and direction style can be summed up as “action movie” or “make sharks one foot bigger” and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not groundbreaking or iconic.

The explosions are big, the sharks are bigger, and we remember movie moments, not technique or style.

Filmin’ rating: 2/4 video cameras

Editing: Did they edit this film?

I mean, serious question there. There are a lot of cut scenes to feet and they re-shot Burrows’ death scene, but they also used the scene where the entire cast was almost killed. So, maybe?

Mother Cutter rating: 0.5/2 scissors

Humour as vagina bites and epic deaths

To say the humour in Deep Blue Sea is shoehorned in is an affront to shoehorns. Instead of the situational irony, juxtaposition, and improvised comedic beats of Jaws, we get Michael Rapaport as layman’s translator offering Archie Bunker-esque one liners, usually at Burrows’ expense. And, there’s a parrot that has a running, mostly insult-laden, conversation with LL Cool J. LL is funny enough in his parrot chats and he has some solid comedic bits, like God smiting him for looking at a porno mag floating in the water, but, to be clear, the parrot as a device for humour is terrible.

However, there are some pretty epic unintended laughs, chief among them Samuel L. Jackson’s epic death scene and Jan’s death by vagina shark bite, that give the movie its needed levity and make it crossover to fun and land in the elusive “so bad it’s good” movie category for so many. But what makes a good-bad movie and can that movie actually just be considered, well, good?

Let’s back it up first: Jaws was determined good because its humour had a tight script, a savant scriptwriter (and visionary director), and band of unliklies that endeared themselves to the audience. Deep Blue Sea has none of that. It has accidental depth and humour, eight credited writers, and possibly the most unlikable cast of characters assembled for a movie (Lake Placid notwithstanding).

Yet many, many people love this movie.

Some go so far as to proclaim it “the shark movie to beat” or a runner-up to JAWS mostly because it’s a “campy B-movie” that the shark movie genre deserves. And, yes, it is the latter, but similar to how the audience has inferred an outright religious narrative on the Deep Blue Sea, we’ve also incorrectly assumed that the movie wasn’t made in earnest.

Harlin conceived it as “a big-scale horror film for the end of the millennium” instead of the usual “low-budget and tongue-in-cheek” horror films that had become the “bastard child of Hollywood.” According to Harlin, he wanted to make the movie on the level of The Exorcist and Jurassic Park with “great actors, great production values” and do it seriously and scare the audience, not wink at them.

That intent, and specifically the intent to respect the shark genre at the outset, and, as The Ringer notes in its criteria for a Good Bad movie, its minimal self awareness allow Deep Blue Sea to float into the Good Bad category. The audience reacts genuinely because it was made genuinely — we laugh with the movie, not at the movie, so doesn’t that just make this movie not a cheap, guilty pleasure, but just, possibly, a bit good?

Look, Harlin set out to make a great movie and entertain his audience, and he accomplished, just not in the way he imagined. Perhaps what he considers scary or funny, most don’t — on the spectrum of humour, Jaws and Deep Blue Sea are on opposite sides — but what we all consider awesome is the same. Either way we’re laughing.

Good Humour rating: 3/5 popsicles

Lack of CGI: The scariest fake sharks you’ve ever seen

“My whole approach to this movie was, no more hiding sharks,” said Harlin. Or as How Did This Get Made aptly summed up: “ding dong, who’s there? sharks.”

Deep Blue Sea uses a mix of animatronic, CGI, real sharks (seriously), and the more is more approach because Harlin determined that since audiences knew what sharks looked like, the movie sharks would have to look convincing, which is not the worst notion.

Here’s a quick hit: the CGI sharks are bad and stupidly obvious, the animatronic sharks are pretty good and super creepy looking, and, to this day, I still do not know where the real sharks are in this movie.

It is commendable that in an age when CGI was readily available, Harlin chose to rely upon a mix of CGI and animatronics — and again, inexplicably, real sharks— instead of going full CGI. Though the dampened use of CGI definitely doesn’t lead to a dearth of sharks, utilizing the animatronic sharks still does instill realistic fear because there is something in the water with her right there.

Compare the Burrows table scene with the Burrows death scene — which one is scarier? If you said the latter you are lying to yourself. Watching the real shark fin slide out of the water just as Burrows thinks she is safe in her room is masterful and so frightening. When she dies, the scariest part is her above the surface, trying to get out, eyeing the fin, not when a fake shark fake chomps a fake person. The animatronic sharks give a liveliness to a scene that a CGI shark cannot contend with.

I hear you making the argument that Jackson’s death scene was a CGI shark and I’ll throw it right back at you because think of how much better that would have been if it wasn’t and, more importantly, that scene is not actually about the shark, it’s about the death. We still see the shark as noticeably CGI, but it doesn’t matter. If it was an animatronic shark it would have been the Quint-getting-eaten scene x1000, which actually evokes the Jaws x1000 mentality of Deep Blue Sea. So wait, maybe that’s why they used real sharks?

No CGIs allowed rating: 2/3 mechanical shark fins

A double wildcard of death and a sexy pleather-clad man

When people describe Deep Blue Sea, they say “Oh, the one with LL Cool J?” and if they’ve seen it before add “where Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by the shark?” thus illuminating the two wildcards undoubtedly as (1) LL Cool J (full stop) and his rap told through the perspective of a shark, and (2) Jackson’s death scene.

Guys, LL Cool J is sexy and Deepest, Bluest (My Hat is like a Shark’s Fin) is passable. The decision to give LL more scenes and make him the star of the movie is divine intervention at its finest. Had it not occurred, this movie would have been a half-baked religious arc and two chefs in the kitchen, with LL dying early. Harlin wanted one character to bring “warmth and humour, not joke-type humour” and LL decided to strap this movie to his beautifully sculpted back, take it where it needed to go, and end it with an epic underwater rap feast for the eyes. He’s glorious.

Bold statement that is 100% accurate: Jackson’s death scene is one of the greatest death scenes of all time. It has been compared to Drew Barrymore’s death scene in Scream and Janet Leigh’s death scene in Psycho and heralded as the last great movie death. And that ain’t wrong.

It is unexpected because of the caliber of the actor involved, the subversion of expectation during a hero speech, and the point at which it occurs — there’s still half the movie left. In short, it catches us completely off guard to the point where you still think Jackson will escape as he’s being ripped apart — Evan Goldberg I’m looking at you — which makes it that much better that he doesn’t survive. There are actual consequences.

As Alexander Huls pointed out in 2014, blockbuster movies like The Avengers, Man of Steel, and Godzilla, steered away from any individual stakes and instead focused on large cities being rampaged or individuals being resurrected, which still applies to many current blockbusters like, spoiler alert, Avengers: Infinity War, and it lessens the impact.

Jackson’s death scene is the most memorable scene of the movie bar none because it is jarring and consequential and makes the film even better.

Wildcard rating: 1/1 Spielberg head

Final Thoughts: I objectively love this movie

It’s very difficult to remain objective when rating and critiquing something you love so dearly, and I love Deep Blue Sea so dearly that it was very tempting to *seem* impartial while covertly proving the obvious point that this movie is awesome.

But here’s the thing: remaining (mostly) impartial proved that, above all else, Deep Blue Sea is actually a really great shark movie. (And now we have verifiable math to prove it.)

Intensely exploring Deep Blue Sea through the lens of the incomparable Jaws Sharkometer rubric allowed the movie to reveal itself to me in new ways, particularly with its self-debunking of common-held beliefs. It wasn’t actually a thoughtful critique on religion vs. science or humans vs. nature, nor was it a campy B movie poking fun at itself and the genre. It was an earnest commitment to make a blockbuster shark movie that would reinvigorate the genre. And it did.

It is that commitment that allowed us to lay our thoughts and feelings all over it and claim it and make it our own. And it is that serious, wholehearted intention that makes Deep Blue Sea worthy of so many hearts and minds.

I love this movie because it was made with love. It wasn’t made as a cheap thrill, or in jest or mockery. It was made to do something more, push the boundary one foot farther, and, against all odds and through the test of time (and all the other cliches), it has endured.

Harlin may have wavered to demands initially — Samuel L. Jackson wants a bigger part? Sure! Kill off Burrows and make LL the star? You bet! — but he also put 747 plane engines in mechanical sharks and made Thomas Jane swim with real sharks to increase authenticity.

He was always acting in service of the movie to make it better for the audience and it’s Harlin’s dedication, commitment, strokes of genius, and sheer luck that make Deep Blue Sea second only to Jaws in my mind.

Tell me what you think about Deep Blue Sea. I want to know. I will not jump down your throat if you don’t like it and will instead respectfully dismantle your argument piece by piece until you agree with me that it is amazing.

Next up: The confusing popularity of ‘Sharknado’

For a complete list of Sharkometer movies, swim here.

References and Recommended Readings

References are hyperlinked throughout or below and some choice additional readings that helped shape this piece, including from bonus Christian movie review quotes.

The 100 Scares That Shaped Horror From Frankenstein to Freddy, the movie moments that formed the genre (and our nightmares) by Jordan Crucchiola
Forget Jaws. The Real Shark Movie to Beat is ‘Deep Blue Sea’ by Brian Raftery
The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea by Hannah Stewart
The Last Great Surprise Movie Death by Alexander Huls
‘Deep Blue Sea’ is Still the Biggest, Baddest Shark Movie Since Jaws by Joey Koegh
Is It Just Me or is Deep Blue Sea the Best Sharksploitation Movie Since Jaws by Joey Koegh
A Brief History of LL Cool J’s Most Out of Touch Moments by Alex Russell (disagree Alex Russell!)
How Did This Get Made Deep Blue Sea episode

Bonus! Quotes I couldn’t shoehorn in and needed to share:

“On the other hand, this movie will plant unwarranted fears in the minds of susceptible children. So, be media-wise: please don’t take your children to DEEP BLUE SEA. If you find yourself tempted to do so, read Dr. Cantor’s excellent book, ‘MOMMY, I’M SCARED,’ first.”

“My first trip out after being smacked by a van and almost killed was to the movies (Deep Blue Sea, as a matter of fact; I went in my wheelchair and loved every minute of it).” — Stephen King.