IMDB keywords: predatorial horror, ripped in half, survival
Based on a true story, THE REEF is Andrew Traucki's follow-up to the well-received BLACK WATER and offers the same sort of natural thrills, just with a different species. Boat transporter Luke invites his friends Matt and Suzie, and ex-Luke-girlfriend and Matt-sister Katie, to travel with him to a coral reef. Also joining the crew is experienced seaman Warren.
The film wisely spends a lot of the early scenes developing these characters, especially the halting romance between Luke and Katie. While not making them goody-good Mary Sues, it makes sure that we know they're generally good people. So we'll care when the bad stuff starts!
And it does, when the boat hits a reef, ripping a hole in the bottom. THE REEF does a great job at this point of setting up tension inside the capsized boat, as Luke has to go down to retrieve supplies. These scenes, pulling dread from tightly-enclosed spaces, contrast swimmingly with the later stuff, where fear generates from an expanse of space.
Warren firmly decides against going in the water, even though staying on the boat means death by dehydration if there's no rescue. This also helps to provide contrast and prep us, the viewers, for the inevitable fate of the swimmers. If Warren, who knows the waters and what's in them intimately, chooses a probably painful death on the boat, we know that those who choose swimming are probably not going to have a great time.
Once we're swimming, the film gets really reminiscent of OPEN WATER. We've got a small cast attempting to survive not only a marathon stretch to land, but also the great white that has noticed their presence. Some of the underwater shots here are gorgeous and also effective in conveying just how fucking big the ocean is. It's real big! Which makes it pretty impossible to keep an eye out for stealthy predators.
This is a shark movie, but it's not SAND SHARKS and THE REEF never really stops focusing on character. The two leads, Damian Walshe-Howling (who needs to marry Dee Wallace Stone) and Zoe Naylor, are especially excellent at reacting in a convincing way to their situation, but all of the actors in this deserve praise. I loved the reaction of Matt (Gyton Grantley) after the initial shark meetup. It's totally believable that someone would try to get the situation "back to normal" ASAP even at the cost of doing something incredibly stupid. This is now a blog about screenshots of hugging.
The sharks are also great in their roles! Most of the time, untrainable animals like great whites look bored when they get stuck in horror movies (always typecast), but THE REEF turns sharks' natural sluggishness to its advantage. The shark here always looks disinterested until it suddenly gets interested in eating more people. You know it's coming, but you don't know when. Also, this is perhaps the first movie to ever show the "bump and bite" technique of shark attack, in one of THE REEF's most memorable scenes. It helps a lot that the film doesn't stuff the screen with sharks all the time. You don't even get to see a shark until we're 2/3 done! It makes it matter more when they are on screen.
As you can tell, I liked this a lot. It's not god-tier sharksploitation like JAWS and it's probably a step or two below OPEN WATER, but it's definitely well-crafted and carefully-executed. In contrast to most shark movies, which exult in idiocy, THE REEF takes itself and its material seriously. And it proves that a serious approach can sometimes pay off very well.