A review requested by Patton, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Pop culture knows Deep Blue Sea, from 1999, as the movie in which Samuel L. Jackson delivers a big, operatic summer action movie monologue, and then right when he gets the soaring inspirational part, a giant super-intelligent mako shark jumps out of the water behind him and eats him. This is a worthy thing to be known for, undoubtedly. It is easily the film's cheekiest, most self-aware moment. But to suppose that this is the be-all and end-all of Deep Blue Sea is to do a grave disservice to one of the most delightfully shitty movies of the 1990s; and that was, alongside the 1950s, one of the all-time greatest eras for so-bad-it's-good genre films.

What we have here, in other words, is an awfully special movie. It is a very bad film, with some of the most wanton attempts to test the limits of the audience's willing suspension of disbelief that I've ever had the privilege to witness. We have here a script that makes a very big deal about having sharks so big that they defy the laws of God and man - the little sharks are 26 feet long - and then puts those sharks in rooms that have flooded with about three and a half feet of water, where they are then able to smoothly glide along with their dorsal fins poking above the surface. Better still, there's a moment in which one of these sharks, in one of these rooms, in just exactly that much water, is able to jump straight up from the surface to mount an attack. And we have also watched these same sharks darting around the corners of hallways (which are, of course, also full of waist-high water), skillfully turning their 26-foot masses through one tight corner after another. There was apparently confusion between "sharks have flexible cartilage for skeletons" and "sharks are non-Newtonian fluids" at some point in the screenwriting stage.

These are film-breaking problems. This is a giant killer shark movie, after all, and its solitary purpose out in the world is to make us jump in terror at the giant killer sharks. If we are instead distracted by the knowledge that the shark has to be crawling along on its belly and also folded into a U-shape, terror is hardly apt to be the result. Do please note, I have only so far talked about one small thing: the scale of the film's killer sharks. That's one detail out of one and three-quarter hours' worth of details, and absolutely everything in Deep Blue Sea is wholeheartedly misconceived at more or less that same level. It is a movie with a script almost entirely fashioned out of plot holes and inaccuracies, with actual narrative content barely able to peek in around the edges at points. It would be a long and pleasant activity to sit with the screenplay by Duncan Kennedy and Donna & Wayne Powers and annotate every last bit of it to explain just how far off the rails it's going in everything from its biology to its physics to its treatment of character behavior to its motor vehicles to... But we do not have that kind of time nor space available to us.

Like any killer shark movie, Deep Blue Sea exists entirely within the shadow of Jaws, though it owns that debt more pridefully than not. There is, for one thing, absolutely no chance that it was an accident that the three main sharks in Deep Blue Sea die the same way, in the same order, as the three main sharks from Jaws, Jaws 2, and Jaws 3-D (explosion, electrocution, explosion). There are particular shots that are taken very nearly without alteration from Jaws: a below-the-water shot of a swimmer's legs, a close up of the hero following the shark with a rifle. And the very same Louisiana license plate that came out of one tiger shark in Jaws comes out of a different tiger shark in Deep Blue Sea. But outside of that, the film as a whole goes almost as far as it is possible to do from the well-established and often-copied Jaws formula. In fact, Deep Blue Sea proves to be a Tampering In God's Domain film, not a Nature Run Amok film at all.

The film's opening scene is certainly its most surprising violation of the clichés of its genres (it will also prove to be the final surprise until the very end, when the "wrong" character dies): a party of drunk young folks on a boat are attacked by a very damn huge shark, and they do not get eaten. Rather, the animal is harpooned by the taciturn ex-con shark security expert, Carter Blake (Thomas Jane, at near-peak levels of Thomas Janiness), who drags it back to the floating WWII surplus submarine dock in the middle of the ocean where a pharmaceutical corporation has been breeding extra-large mako sharks in an effort to increase their brain size. This is the best movie of the 1990s. Now, the incident with the boat, having proven that the mega-makos are able to escape from their enclosure, has cast doubt on this entire enterprise, and so corporate executive Russell Franklin (Jackson) is flying his way to the facility to check in on everything. He arrives on an auspicious day: Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows), the obsessed scientific genius in charge of the research, is ready to prove that injecting giant mako-brain juice into human brain tissue can reverse the progress of Alzheimer's disease. It's an auspicious day for the sharks, as well: today is they day they've been planning, with their illegally genetically-modified genius brains, to hatch their escape into the open ocean, by tricking the humans into systematically flooding the facility while being eaten one by one.

It's hard to think of a story that's simultaneously more beholden to every predictable, hoary cliché on the books, while also assembling those clichés in a more giddy assemblage of outright madness. Part of the whole point of giant killer animal movie is that there's a basic formula that keeps filmmakers from getting themselves in too much trouble - they are boring, they are often bad, but they are certainly safe. Deep Blue Sea feels like it's constantly daring us to take it seriously, relentlessly increasing the monumental stupidity of the characters and the absurd convolutions of the sharks' behavior. So it's not too much that the sharks will pull a man being airlifted out by a medevac helicopter to drag the copter into the water? What about if then then throw that same man into a huge glass wall to break it and flood the research center control room? And what if he's still, somehow, not dead when this happens? That is the kind of overclocked, sugar-addled enthusiasm with which Deep Blue Sea piles on incidents.

It's stupid as hell, and also energetic as hell, and in these respects it is perhaps the perfect example of director Renny Harlin's overall output: for what is that man's modus operandi if not to compensate for idiotic scripts by making them almost impossible to follow by over-editing and throwing in explosions every place they'll plausibly fit (in Deep Blue Sea, there are even "outrun the fireball" setpieces with the fireball made out of water)? This isn't his best film, which I'd say is probably Cliffhanger (a very shitty film to have as your best), but I have absolutely no doubt that it's the most fun; it is the perfect combination of being so stupid that it's funny rather than obnoxious, while also being sufficiently over-the-top in its aesthetic for enough of the time that it never gets boring (the critical failure of Cutthroat Island). There is a point near the end where the film cuts from a shot looking up the barrel of a gun at LL Cool J to another shot looking up the barrel of a gun at LL Cool J. And then it cuts to a third consecutive shot looking up the barrel of a gun at LL Cool J. It takes unapologetic fearlessness to be that awful at constructing a film.

Why, then, does Deep Blue Sea round the corner from being acutely terrible to be so acutely terrible that it feels like a joyful celebration of life and cinema? Mostly, I think, how unnecessarily good the movie is in a couple of key ways. One is the staggering, film-bending presence of Stellan Skarsgård as the first person to get eaten by a shark (he is, indeed, the one who is used to pull down the medevac, and thence to break the glass), who brings a feeling of causal European naturalism that the rest of the movie is not ready to deal with. He and Jackson - the other obvious MVP in a cast that includes a bunch of people who are just about perfect to play shark fodder in an overpriced B-movie, though LL Cool J is undeniably a lot of fun - get a lot of dialogue together, including magnificently bad zingers like "What in God's creation...?" / "Oh, not his. Ours", and the way Skarsgård delivers the second line is the strangest thing. Same with "No, sir, for 6.560 seconds, you saw what it was like not to be damned", also delivered to Jackson. These are slurred, casually dismissive, and create such a weird imbalance that the whole movie seems to bend around the performance like a black hole.

Another big thing is the sharks themselves: played sometimes by crummy 1999 CGI, and played more often by incredibly good animatronics, developed by Walt Conti, who was kind of an animatronics expert for a while there - he's made several sharks in the intervening years, but he got the Deep Blue Sea job because of his work on the titluar snake in Anaconda. Which has the distinction of being my other favorite terrible creature movie from the 1990s, and not least because of Conti's work. These sharks are too good. They are interesting, they feel plausibly dangerous, they resemble makos barely at all, and they seem thoughtful. They are, despite everything, outstanding movie monsters, and they earn Deep Blue Sea enough goodwill that even when it's fucking terrible, one can't help but root for the movie to haul itself over the finish line.

I mean, for certain: its completely fucking terrible. I cannot fathom how to make the film any dumber: I can't say "by staging the sharks as slasher movie serial killers" or "by turning the film into a parable about the power of faith", because both of those things already happen. And Harlin's aesthetic is so feverish and blurry that you almost can't call it "bad", since that implies that it's coherent enough to be evaluated. But rare is the terrible film that's this upbeat and delightful and entertaining - it's both one of the worst thrillers of its decade, and honestly, one of my favorite. An ironic favorite through and through, but it counts.