The murky ethics of ‘The Reef’
From the shockingly unwatchable to ridiculously good, the Sharkometer series dissects every shark movie according to the GOAT Jaws.
The Reef by Andrew Traucki, 2010
Starring Damian Walshe-Howling, Zoe Naylor, Adrienne Pickering, Gyton Grantley, Kieran Darcy-Smith
Budget: $3.8 million AUD (There are a lot of conflicting budget numbers, but with the repeated reference to low budget, this seems most accurate.)
Box office: $124,764 AUD (Again, difficult to find.)
Number of times previously watched: 0
The Reef changed the way I think about ranking shark movies — and yes, statements like that truly make me realize how ridiculous I am. Stay weird everybody!
Originally, I conceived of the Jaws sharkometer as a hierarchical structure with the best shark movie, Jaws, at the top and everything falling beneath it and Deep Blue Sea (bloop!). But that’s not really how movies work. Ranking things is fun and combative — we get to yell at each other about our favourite things — but as a metric, it doesn’t account for the nuances of things, and shark movies contain multitudes.
The Reef is constantly lauded as one of the Top 5 shark movies by a lot of well-informed people. So I knew I had to watch it for science!, but cannot express to you how much I did not want to watch it. You see, I have *lowers voice* the fear. I internalize movies — even the most ridiculous ones — and convince myself it could happen. It’s why I don’t watch dystopian movies and still think sharks can come out of the drain. And it’s definitely why the “found footage” realistic horror genre is a no go for me. I watched Open Water once and vowed to never do it again. (I watched The Reef many times don’t worry.)
The Reef director Andrew Traucki’s directorial MO is the realness and The Reef takes its pleasure in trying to be too real. It follows the story of five people stranded on a capsized boat in shark-infested Australian waters who must chose to either swim to an unseen, distant island or wait it out on a sinking boat. There are real sharks (“woo,” hollers Renny Harlin) and, like Traucki’s previous offering Black Water, it’s closely based on a true story. That’s not my shark movie. But it may be your shark movie. And thus, my epiphany and the necessary switch from the ranked sharkometer to the Emily Nussbaum-inspired sharkomatrix (name pending), while still keeping this series called the Sharkometer for editorial consistency. A matrix of points, existing between the oppositional barometers of ridiculousness and seriousness and high production and low production value, anchored by Jaws, built to serve you. Now, let’s talk about The Reef because I had some issues.
‘Red Water’ and the trappings of shark movies
If you put a shark in a movie does it instantly become a shark movie?
Divine Intervention and the ethics of exploitation
I guess… that people endured this horrific event so we could watch a movie about it? *grimacing face emoji*
The Reef is based on the real life story of Ray Boundy. In 1983, the prawn trawler Boundy and his two shipmates Dennis Patrick Murphy and Linda Anne Horton were working on capsized in Australian waters. The trio decided to paddle on surfboards to a nearby reef and while clinging to the wreckage noticed a 15-foot tiger shark stalking them. The shark suddenly attacked Murphy and took his leg. “He’s got my leg, the bastard’s got my leg,’’ shouted Murphy, an emotionally stricken Boundy recalled to a reporter. Murphy then swam his bleeding body away from his friends to lure the shark and was killed. A couple hours later at 4 AM, as the pair continued to the reef, the shark struck again. “He came along as slow as you like beside me then slewed around and grabbed Lindy around the arms and the chest,” recalled Boundy. “I was still holding her by the hand as he shook her about three or four times. She only let out one little squeal as soon as it hit and I knew almost instantly that she was dead.” Boundy was eventually rescued after 36 hours.
Just writing that recap feels like too much.
The ethics of “based on a true story” are always a little murky and the end results vary regardless of involvement from the real life person (see Mommie Dearest for both cases). The Reef is not the first real-life shark movie, Open Water preceded it by seven years, but there’s something about it that feels a bit…off.
The oft compared Open Water speculated what happened to Louisiana couple Tom and Eileen Lonergan when they were left behind on a scuba diving trip due to a faulty head count. The movie says they were attacked by sharks and eventually killed by sharks or drowned, but no one actually knows because no one can corroborate — in short: it’s all made up, which is shady for sure. The Reef however does know exactly what happened and fundamentally changes the true story anyway despite Traucki’s insistence he stays close to it.
The Reef centers around Kate and Luke, a former couple, adds characters Matt, Kate’s brother, and Suzie, Matt’s girlfriend, and adds an extra element of one person, Warren, and his decision to stay behind on the boat. It also uses a different location and changes the tiger shark to a great white shark. People who watch enough Shark Week know that it seems far more likely that a tiger shark would stalk and kill people because they are the angry trash cans of the shark world. The benign stuff like name changes and even the shark change can be excused, especially since Traucki had to shape his movie around the footage he got, but all the changes begs the question: true for who? At what point does “based on” become straight fiction and intersect with sheer exploitation of a survivor story?
It’s treated as a moving goalpost that for me solidified with the film’s end cards on Kate and Warren. The end cards state “Kate was rescued the next day by a fishing boat and rushed to hospital…no remains of Warren or the yacht were ever found.” Kate isn’t a real person and if she’s based on a real person, ostensibly, it’s Linda. Linda didn’t stand on a rock screaming for the person ripped out of her hands by a shark and get rescued the next day. She was the one ripped out of the hands of her friend by a shark and dragged into the ocean. She wasn’t rescued — she was killed. Warren wasn’t anyone full stop. No one stayed behind; no one went looking for him. No one contemplated whether they would swim or stay. The major decision in this movie doesn’t even exist.
There are other things that make me cock my head and feel decidedly conflicted about this movie — Matt directly quoting the real Murphy yelling “He got my leg, he got my leg” and dying in Kate’s arms and the tagline “pray you drown first” is pretty gross— but the realization that victims have friends and families hit me hard. We are watching a (supposed) real story passed off as an “action thriller” shark movie. What are the ethics of consuming survivor/non-survivor stories as entertainment?
Boundy has spoken about feeling re-traumatized by the events due to the movie and it makes me question if Traucki consulted, or hell, even asked Boundy if he could repurpose the story, especially given Traucki stands to profit from it. At minimum, The Reef could have at least acknowledged the real people it was based on in the end credits or perhaps left the real story out of it all together. We didn’t need this divine intervention. And we should think about why we love to consume things like it.
Divine Intervention rating: I refuse to rate this.
‘Blue Demon’ and the evolution of the shark movie
Is Blue Demon the worst shark movie ever? According to facts: yes.
Hitchcockian Flare plays would you rather
Traucki follows the path Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg laid out before him: it’s what we don’t see that is truly frightening. For The Reef, this plays out in two ways: the Jaws way of we don’t see a lot of the shark and the age old question What Would You Do If…? In this case, What Would You Do If…your boat capsized and you could either swim to a potentially nonexistent island 12 miles away or wait it out on a capsized boat.
Traucki spends a lot of time in interviews talking about being a survival movie junkie and challenging himself to think about what he would do in extreme situations, which I suppose is a valid form of self examination, but I’m still pretty irritated by his careless use of Boundy’s real story and that he invented this entire plot point to this movie, so maybe he can pick a different thought experiment for self exploration in the future.
Hitchcockian Flare rating: 2/10 gold medals
‘Shark Night 3D’ and the joy of fear
Is it cliche to study fear in the times of Corona? *Shrugs* What is fear anyway.
Filmin’ in the real water with real sharks
Traucki strives to ground his films in realism to provide maximum shock. Considering I could only initially watch this film through a one-inch sliver on my computer, I’d say he accomplished his goal. It’s not the first time real shark footage has been used in a film — Jaws filmed real footage in Australia, Sharknado used stock footage, and again apparently Harlin had real sharks in Deep Blue Sea — but most notably Chris Kentis filmed real Caribbean Reef sharks in Open Water with the actors directly interacting with them.
Open Water is compared to The Reef ad nauseum for obvious reasons like using real sharks and real stories, not to mention making me pee my pants in terror, but they are actually pretty different movies.
Open Water’s shark footage is more incidental — the sharks are swimming around the actors and bumping into them — and it focuses on capturing authentic shark behaviour in the water as opposed to propelling the storyline. It’s scary because it’s unpredictable and you know there’s real people in real water with real sharks.
The Reef was built or rather rebuilt around the real shark footage obtained. “The footage I storyboarded with and the footage I hoped I would get wasn’t there, so we had to spend a lot of time re-thinking and re-storyboarding so we could make it work,” explained Traucki. The Reef had to have certain shots that matched the action of the event or else it would have just looked like cut scenes from When Sharks Attack. (No shade. Those redramatizations are still scary as fuck.) And because wild animals (and my cats) tend to do whatever the fuck they want, not everything came to fruition, so they improvised and rewrote — and The Reef is better for it. I don’t know if they planned to have Matt attacked alone along the surface trying to grab an errant boogie board (note: never separate from the group in a horror movie) but the footage of the shark slicing through the water at top speed sure makes it seem like they did.
Some people have noted that after the first shark attack, things get boring or repetitive. I truly can’t speak to that because, as documented, I was pretty, pretty scared. The lead up to shark time does feel too long, but for me the in-water time functioned to build more tension and stress — my thoughts racing “what’s that, where’s it going” — and up the ante.
Also, dropping the actors in the actual ocean, steadying the camera on the surface, giving us a POV through the victims’ eyes, created an extremely disorienting and terrifying visual. We watch at surface level as a shark attacks and picks off the group — it’s like watching Chrissie get violently ripped around the ocean by the shark but for the entire movie. Let’s just say I wouldn't have craned my neck and outstretched my arm as far as possible just to try to put some distance between myself if it wasn’t scary as shit.
Filmin’ rating: 3/4 video cameras
The crushing disappointment of ‘The Meg’
I paid $15 to sit on a weird couch in a movie theatre and all I got was resentment.
Mother cutter gets her teeth back
Me, first time watching The Reef, flipping between 15 tabs: “Oh this isn’t actually that scary. It’s very obvious the shark isn’t really near them at all.”
Me, second time actually watching The Reef:
The editing in this movie is *chef’s kiss* It seamlessly blends the real shark footage and actor footage so well that you can’t even whisper “it’s not real, it’s not real” to soothe yourself.
The choice to go the “old-school thriller” minimalist route is peak Jaws and emphasizing silence and stillness is why The Shallows is so successful at building tension. “[It’s] what you can’t see rather than what you can [that’s terrifying],” says director, and he’s fucking right. Watching the quartet float as a fin mercilessly cuts in and out of the water, circling them as Luke’s vision cuts underwater, is relentlessly terrifying. The mind swirls “What’s happening? where did it go? is it there? IT’S OVER THERE!” Then…we see the shark.
It breaches one foot from there faces.
It strikes Matt at full force and rips his leg off.
It ruthlessly rips Luke under the water.
The second (and third) time I actually watched The Reef, I felt that shark stalking them in every bone in my body. The anticipation of knowing there was danger, but not where it was or seeing only glints of it, was chilling. I can only imagine how intense it would have been if I watched it like a normal person the first time around.
Mother Cutter rating: 2/2 scissors
The undeniable greatness of ‘Deep Blue Sea’
Who is Jesus in this movie? There’s about five different options.
Good humour, more like good terror
There is no humour in this movie. It is a direct road to terrifying with no humour to deepen our fear. The only sense of slight upbeat relief is when Suzie, Luke, and Kate, floating within sight of the reef, realize it’s a dolphin fin, not a shark fin. Except we don’t even feel relief because we know there will be a shark fin in moments and in fact there is a shark fin moments later.
What is supposed to bond us to them is instead the horrific terror of watching them try to save themselves as they are continuously attacked inches from each other. It’s not my first choice for a bonding moment, but it definitely could be an effective one (more on that later).
Good humour rating: 0/5 popsicles
The Fated Origins of ‘Blue Demon’
The evolution of the shark movie led to this abomination. It’s…not tight.
No CGIs here, only real sharks
Welp! If it hasn’t been made abundantly clear thus far, this movie uses real fucking sharks. And it uses them in a totally original way, not the Sharknado “this is some footage of a real reef shark even though the actors are only in two inches of water” way. The shark footage organically drives the action of the movie and was seamlessly cut in. That’s why everyone should use editors.
No CGIs rating: 3/3 mechanical shark fins
‘Sharknado’ is the first great movie of twitter
A powerful moment in history. A truly terrible movie at its core.
Wildcard: My emotions, my emotions!
Kate and Suzie’s traumatic sobbing, shaking, and screaming in the water is some of the best. It’s smack in the middle between Ms. Kintner’s stoic rage in Jaws and Jackie Peters’ charged hysterics in Jaws 2 — their performance is frighteningly on-par with the circumstances. Watching them was like watching a desperately wounded beast yowl from a deep guttural pit as it nears its unknown impending doom. It was excruciating and I felt that horror in my deep guttural pit…even if I didn’t quite feel their horror.
Let’s be real, the character development isn’t great in The Reef, which seems kind of implausible given the raw real-life material and the 45-minute-plus build up. But there it is. Everyone seems contemptuous of each other in general and even Luke and Kate’s declaration of love on the sandbar before Luke’s ultimate demise feels more like a “time and place” thing rather than “true emotion” thing. Or perhaps, more of a “let’s write this in to up the tension” thing. But it doesn’t work. I wasn’t horrified that Luke died by getting ripped from Kate’s hands, I was horrified at the thought of anyone getting ripped from anyone’s hands. I was horrified that a version of that really happened to Linda. I was horrified that Ray really felt a life slip away from him.
The thought of Ray, Linda, and Murphy has stayed with me, haunting me, as has the visual of Kate on that rock screaming and collapsing in absolute horror and raw emotion. It rattled me because it seems so real and I imagine it captures how Ray probably felt whether he expressed it externally or not.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the people in comments sections that have made the unclever remarks specifically about the women in this movie being stupid and dumb for panicking in the water and thus needing to die earlier: you’re idiots and you’re stupid and dumb.
Wildcard rating: 0.25/1 Spielberg head, just the neck.
The holiday magic of ‘Santa Jaws’
Let’s let Santa Jaws be the glorious, joyful Christmas chaos that it is.
Honestly, I never thought I would spend this much time with The Reef. This just isn’t my type of shark movie — it doesn’t bring me joy. I don’t get that same sense of excitement (that ping!) when I watch Jaws or Deep Blue Sea. What can I say, I prefer watching a ridiculous blockbuster with pleather-clad men or thoughtfully conceived characters, not white knuckling it while exposed to realistic horror and questioning morality.
I do see why people highly rate The Reef on shark movie lists. The Venn diagram circles of scary shark action and terrifying plot overlap at EVERYTHING IS SO REAL and apparently some people enjoy scaring the bejesus out of themselves. And that’s cool. But I don’t see why everyone had to like this shark movie. This will never be my second-best shark movie and no evidence or comment section to the contrary will change that.
Let people like the shark movies they like. However, let’s also thoughtfully consider how we interpret and consume people’s stories, especially survivor stories, and how we present sharks too. Sharks are just being sharks (unless genetically modified); humans are the real terrifying monsters.
Tell me what you thought of The Reef or politely point out any typos. But if there are any future employers reading, I never have typos.
Next up: The joylessness of ‘Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy’
The tragic failings of ‘Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy’
Look forward to my making of special “Dreaming of the beef: The misguided production of ‘Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy’”
For a complete list of Sharkometer movies, swim here.
References and Recommended Readings
Support is hyperlinked throughout and further readings or things that helped shape this piece are below!
Six Degrees of Joan Crawford podcast series by You Must Remember This
The Ethical Dilemma of Highbrow True Crime by Alice Bolin
Student Jordan Lindsey killed by three sharks in Bahamas
‘Jaws’ is a Film Full of Queer Intimacy You Never Noticed by Jen Corrigan
The Shark Attack That Changed Cape Cod Forever by Casey Sherman
The top 25 shark movies by Rebecca Clough
All the Ideas for Preventing Shark Attack Deaths on Cape Cod by Spencer Buell
Our Planet Netflix series
Climate Change Is the Symptom. Consumer Culture Is the Disease by Emily Atkin
Stop Obsessing About Recycling by Edward Humes
Japan Resumes Commercial Whaling. But Is There an Appetite for It? By Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno