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Review: The Reef (2011)

The Reef (2011)

Directed by: Andrew Traucki

Premise: Based on a true story. A crew of sail boaters are shipwrecked along the Great Barrier Reef. Marooned in the middle of the ocean, they swim for shore while being stalked by a great white shark. 

What Works: Movies about sharks have seen a surge of popularity in the last few years, mostly in the form of absurd titles produced by The Asylum such as Sharknado and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus as well as movies like Bait and Shark Night 3D. With these campy titles crowding the marketplace it is easy to discount the killer shark genre but the 2010 Australian film The Reef is worth a look. Recalling other stranded at sea movies like Open Water, The Reef is a gripping tale of people at the mercy of the elements. One of the keys to making a man versus nature story work is to expose and exploit the puniness of humanity in the face of the wilderness, especially when the comforts of civilization are taken away. The filmmakers of The Reef do this very effectively. The picture was directed by Andrew Traucki who had also filmed the segment “G is for Gravity” in the anthology film The ABCs of Death, in which a man commits suicide by drowning. Traucki has a knack for putting audiences through a primal aquatic experience and he does that very well in The Reef. Unlike the slickness of The Shallows, The Reef is shot very naturalistically. The lighting and camera positions put the audience in the water with the shipwrecked swimmers and make us party to their panic. The core actors of this movie contribute a lot to the success of The Reef. Damian Walshe-Howling, Gyton Grantley, Adrienne Pickering, and Zoe Naylor play the ill-fated friends and they are all credibly frightened. No one plays it self-consciously heroic; they are all willing to present themselves as vulnerable and weak and that fear is contagious in the viewer. The most outstanding quality of The Reef is its illusion of a stalking shark. This is easily the best use of live action shark footage in a dramatic film. Intercutting real shark footage is nothing new but often times the documentary footage doesn’t match with the dramatic footage. In many low budget shark movies produced in the wake of Jaws, the shark obviously changes from shot-to-shot, or the quality of the image doesn’t match with the dramatic footage, or the shark action doesn’t cut together with the rest of the scene. The footage used in The Reef matches perfectly and there are several composite shots that are utterly convincing and better than special effects in movies that were made with significantly higher budgets.

What Doesn’t: The opening portion of The Reef is a bit clumsy. The main characters are introduced but no one is especially memorable or distinct. The movie inserts just enough information to distinguish who these people are and their relationships to one another but it’s very bland. There is some unrequited love between a couple of the cast members but nothing that gives the life and death stakes of the story any further meaning. The terror of being stalked by a shark is enough to keep the movie engaging but The Reef lacks any substance like the marital relationship of Open Water or the moral dilemmas of Jaws. Text at the beginning and end of The Reef proclaims that this is based on a true story. However, that claim is tenuous at best. The event upon which The Reef is based involved a group of shipwrecked boaters who were stalked by a tiger shark. That’s close enough to use the “based on a true story” label but The Reef includes a coda that explains the aftermath of the story and implies that the events of this film resemble the real life tragedy more closely than they actually do.

DVD extras: Featurette and trailer

Bottom Line: The Reef never played in US theaters and it wasn’t aggressively marketed when it hit the home video market and so this film has been largely passed over. But anyone who liked Jaws or Open Water should seek out this movie. It is skillfully made and quite frightening.

Episode: #602 (July 10, 2016)