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July 30, 2011

The Reef

(2011, Dir. by Andrew Traucki.)

(Note From The Mike: This will probably be one of my shorter reviews. Quite simply, I can not focus today. The NFL is back, my Packers are starting training camp and dealing with free agent losses at the same time (I might have a heart attack if they don't add a veteran inside linebacker soon), and my brain is entirely mush.  Heck, I had to stop this movie about half way through because I realized I'd been worrying about that and the possibility of wide receiver James Jones signing with the Vikings for about 20 minutes.  And then I restarted, and got distracted again, and finally just backed all the way up.  At that point I did make it through the movie, and thus you're getting a review.  Be grateful that I made it this far. Or, if you're already tired of my rambling that has nothing to do with the movie, just go ahead and click away.  I won't judge, this isn't my best movie buff day.)

The Reef - which has come straight out of Australia to the U.S. DVD market this month - is one of those little horror films that could which sticks to its premise and keeps things simple.  It's very reminiscent of the 2003 indie flick Open Water - the basic premise of folks stranded at sea and left to deal with the predators of the sea is the same - but folks who found the rough visuals of that film concerning should be more pleased with this film's slick finish.

The Reef tells the story of a group of friends who head out to sea on a sailboat despite a fellow on the shore reminding them that various breeds of sharks inhabit the waters.  It's a standard horror movie crew - two couples and one spare dude makes five - but weight is added to the group dynamics by the fact that sea-ready Luke (played by Damian Walshe-Howling, who has a gruff pseudo-Statham thing going on) is joined on the voyage by his ex, Kate, who's a little skeptical about trusting him.  This becomes a serious problem when the sailboat - of course - hits an underwater rock and is sunk, leaving the quintet stranded far from land.

Well, it might not be that far.  Luke is confident that he knows the sea, and that the group could swim to a nearby island. But we all know what happens when swimming happens - SHARKS HAPPEN.  And this bugs me every time I see one of these "people get stranded with no one to rescue them" movies. Everyone starts freaking out about whether they should stay on the sinking ship or whether they should dive in the water - and any smart viewer just knows that there's no right answer.  It's so cruel.  Horror viewers want to feel like they can solve the problem even though the characters can't - but I can never figure out what I'd do in this situation.  And that adds that little dagger to the viewer's mind, because we're worried about two possibilities instead of one.  It's simple, but kind of genius at the same time.

Once the group - or at least part of the group - starts swimming, the film takes a familiar path.  I mean, there are only so many things you can do with a group of people stranded at sea.  And yet, The Reef does manage to bring a few new twists to the table - most notably a surprisingly tense scene with a sea turtle.  You wouldn't expect a sea turtle to be menacing - and honestly, it isn't that menacing on screen - but the scene is set up perfectly and drawn out to build great suspense that culminates in a surprising reveal.  This scene establishes clearly that director Traucki has a talent to build tension, and he utilizes this well throughout the rest of the film. With so few options - you can't exactly add a musical number or shift to an alternate location when your characters are lost at sea - this becomes crucial to keeping the film going strong.

The only problem that arises from The Reef - which is technically competent and offers legitimate chills - is that the whole thing seems so standard.  We've seen this plot before, both at sea and on land, and at times I wondered if there was any new ground really being covered by the film.  It's a minor quibble, considering how competent the whole thing is, but does the world really need one more paint by numbers survival flick? Aside from the complex relationship between Luke and Kate, I'm not sure much in the film seemed fresh to me.

It's a small concern, but it leaves me not willing to give The Reef my highest recommendation.  This is a fine film, a good film even, with better than average acting and effective direction.  I do recommend it, and it does reach heights that are similar to recent survival favorites like Frozen or Rogue. But, unlike those films, this film takes place in familiar waters - and a trained horror fan will probably see it as slightly derivative.

Perhaps I'm wrong, and I do plan on giving the film another view when I'm not so scatterbrained.  As is, I do recommend The Reef if you're looking for a new water-based horror film, just leave any thoughts about Jaws - or even the campy and fantastic Deep Blue Sea - at the door.  This is a stripped down shark terror, which offers all the tension but none of the extras. Then again, if you're opposed to extras like LL Cool J avenging his beloved bird against a "smart" shark, you'll probably find this one quite pleasing.

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