The ocean is a scary place, just like outer space. However, also like outer space, there is something inherently cinematic about the sea that is has been the setting for some of the most intense and brilliant pieces of cinema for decades. Be it above the waves, or under, the ocean can be a fantastic setting for works that revel in characters under pressure, high drama and superb levels of suspense.
With The Mercy now upon us, we have another entry into the peril in sea genre, so it’s only natural that one takes a look at the other fine cinematic works that explore the dangers and wonders of our oceans.
It’s only natural to begin with one of the biggest films of all time, based on one of one of the worst sea disasters of all time. James Cameron’s movie (which I have also written about here) had so much going against it; one of the most troubled productions in movie history, a hard belief from nearly everyone that it would flop, and yet, against all odds, it became the most successful film in history, and scored a record number of Oscar wins while it did so.
Nobody in Hollywood can explore the ocean like Cameron, from this and The Abyss, to his documentaries Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss, and Titanic is pure Cameron. It’s romantic, but goes dark, showing the wonder and horrors that can come from our seas. It gives us one of Hollywood’s most sentimental love stories, but breaks them apart with a disaster that is both real and terrifying. It may have become fashionable to make fun of it during the backlash a short time after its release, but it is now regarded as a classic, and now twenty years of age, has firmly established itself as a Hollywood classic.
The Perfect Storm (1998)
Two years after Titanic, we got another sea-faring disaster picture, only this time more modern, although there are some superficial similarities; brilliant use (for its time) of CGI and a gorgeous score courtesy of the late, great James Horner, but where Titanic was an old school Hollywood epic, The Perfect Storm is of a more modern variety, coming across like a big budget feature film version of Deadliest Catch centred as it is on a fishing vessel encountering the worst storm in history.
Based on a tragic true story, The Perfect Storm centres around the crew of the fishing vessel The Andrea Gail and its unfortunate encounter with one of the most deadliest storms in US history. With a fantastic cast made up of George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the film offers a superb slow build for the first hour, allowing the audience to get to know the crew and characters before disaster strikes, and being based on actual events, it follows through with a devastating ending that will leave you in tears.
Life of Pi (2012)
Based on Yann Martel’s best-selling novel of the same name, Ang Lee’s film adaptation is a wonderful, dreamy concoction. Centered around the character of Pi, portrayed at various points by different actors, who finds himself surviving a shipwreck that claims the lives of his family, and subsequently adrift at sea with nothing but a bengal tiger for company.
A gorgeous film, both visually and thematically, Ang Lee’s film became a surprise smash hit, grossing over $600 million worldwide and a huge amount of critical acclaim. Filmed and released in 3-D, it also happens to be one of the best films to ever use the format, brilliantly utilising it in a way that is genuinely artistic and making the film’s gorgeous visuals land even more powerfully on a big screen.
All Is Lost (2013)
Following his assured and brilliant debut with Margin Call, J.C. Chandor followed up his intense, claustrophobic financial drama/thriller, which came complete with a large ensemble ,cast with a film set in the more expansive environment of the sea, but with only one lead performer, in this case Robert Redford, delivering one of his best performances in recent years.
Nearly dialogue-free, the film is anchored (no pun intended) to Redford’s incredibly intense lead performance as he tries to survive against the odds as his sail boat runs into a deadly storm. Only referred to in the credits as “Our Man”, the film is basically, in the greatest way, a nuts and bolts film, breaking down the story and its central character to the bare essential in terms of narrative, and still managing to be a complex and suspenseful beast.
Chandor is one of the few directors nowadays who seemingly can make his own unique films in a studio environment which is more dependant on comic books and sequels, and while this feels different to Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, it’s a refreshing film that takes the tropes of a survival thriller and makes them work so very, very well.
This list started with the most obvious film, and it’s going to end with a most obvious film. The most unique thing about Jaws is how it goes from being a slasher movie with a shark in the first half, to a survival thriller set at sea in its second when the film essentially becomes three-hander between Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw. Make that a four-hander if you count Bruce, who plays the shark.
Spielberg’s shark thriller has deservedly become a classic and remained so since its release in 1975, an intense thriller that pretty much help create the phenomenon of the Hollywood blockbuster, while delivering a series of intense set pieces that you would probably not get away with in this day and age (being a PG rated movie, the gore scared the hell out of this reviewer at a young age, not least because it dares to kill a child at one point).
The second half of the film slows the pace down somewhat, but the film has its teeth in you so deeply that it never feels sluggish and once again shows the wonder and scares that come from the ocean. You’re gonna need a bigger boat indeed.
The Mercy is now on release in UK cinemas.