Taking its influences directly from Open Water and Adrift, The Reef is yet another example of the sea and the horror that can come with it. Beautiful as the Great Barrier Reef may be, in this film it’s anything but. Here, the underwater diving hot spot is cold, lonely and unrelenting in its brutality. The Reef once again demonstrates how realism and the “less is more “approach can conjure up terror beyond belief, and a sense of dread that most Hollywood blockbuster’s can only dream of.
Meet Luke, a guy pretty damn good a swimming and diving, the sort of guy you’d want around if things started to go wrong out on the oceans waters. Cool, calm and collected, he’s a man who knows his limits and a man you would trust to get you out of trouble. He is confident, even cocky in places, and his expertise, unknown to him just yet, are about to be tested to their absolute limit. His friends are joining him on a cruise. Matt from London and his girlfriend Suzie, Matt’s sister Kate who is from Sydney and is also Luke’s former girlfriend. Also along for this sight-seeing diving adventure is head sailor Warren. All the friends get along well, and the introductions before we get out onto the water are brief, but you will instantly like this cast. Being based on actual events, it’s important that director Andrew Traucki got his characters right, likeable and people you actually give a shit about, the film would not have worked otherwise. The majority of the film is based on the relationships between the cast, it’s just unfortunate the events that happen later on.
We see the group getting on, the couple in love and diving to see the sights, the slight tension between Luke and Kate; he clearly still has feelings for her. And the poor old skipper Warren, who happily drives the boat, not saying much and just enjoying being out on the open sea. The group of friends leave the captain and head for a beautiful paradise island where Luke and Kate share a clinch, and just for a brief moment you think they may get back together. Anyway, they rush back to the boat and sail off. Miles from land disaster strikes and the boat hits a reef causing the boat to capsize. In the middle of the ocean everyone desperately attempts to get back on board the boat, which is upside down. Luke swings into action, helping everyone get onto the bottom of the boat and then dives underwater to get inside the boat to see if he can use anything to help them both be seen by a passing plane or helicopter, or to keep afloat. The scenes as Luke goes under the boat and inside are incredibly tense as worries of sharks start to overcome the group. Luke, usually calm, starts to look a bit panicky and instructs his friends to bang on the boat if they see a fin. Just those words of acceptance that something could go wrong set the film onto a edge of your seat ride of tension and terror that never lets up from this point on.
The friends start to see things move in the water, and panic sets in as they’re not sure if they have seen a fin, or whether it’s their imagination. Incredibly strong music creates an atmosphere so tense you will find yourself literally shouting at the TV and hoping Luke gets out of the water soon. It’s not a scene I’d enjoy sitting through again. Later it’s decided, by Luke, that they should all swim North in the hope of finding land, an idea that is not welcomed by all. Warren decides to stay on the upturned boat, even though Luke insists they will soon become too weak to swim and will probably die before being rescued. Swimming to find land is the only option, and with some floats found inside the boat, if a swimmer gets tired they can happily drift for a while. Kate takes some persuading, but they are simply out of options and must do something as nothing has passed them in the air or on the sea for hours. Swim it is, and as the friends put on their wetsuits and enter the water, the panic on their faces says it all, and to be totally honest, I panicked too. In fact, I felt a bit short of breath as they set off in shark infested waters in search of land. Quite literally scared to death, we join the friends as they swim, tell stories and start to forget about how incredibly dangerous these waters are. Luke is keeping a watchful eye, and has his goggles to check underwater for any danger. The camera spends much of the time at the same level as the group, just on the surface and really makes you feel like you’re a fifth member swimming along with them. You laugh at every joke, you feel every wave and you most certainly feel panic as it dramatically sets in by a simple breaking of the water in the distance.
Like Open Water, it’s what you don’t see that truly horrifies. Many horror films show too much too soon, but here we simply have a number of those “did I just see that moments” that create a real atmosphere, helped along by haunting music it all sets the scene for a relentless final half that will leave you quite literally gasping for air. It’s rare I watch a film where I pray it will all be over soon, but the Reef is one of them. Skilfully handled, the terror mounts and mounts until the true horror is revealed, and this is also an incredibly brave idea. This isn’t no small group of sharks that hunt in packs and could be easy to film given the right setting, no this is a bloody Great White Shark!!! How on earth will the makers pull this off and keep up this brilliant realism? Surely they can’t do what they did with Open Water and have the cast in the sea surrounded by netting to give that real effect? Well, let me make this absolutely clear, they have made this look like its actually happening, and it is worryingly real. In fact, it’s real to the point I actually started to question if this was actually real and there was some possible snuff going on here. Clearly it’s not, but the maker’s of this film have done an outstanding job with camera trickery and good acting to make this one terror ride you will not forget in a hurry.
Put yourselves in the position of this unfortunate group, knowing you are in shark infested waters and every now and then you see a ripple, a splash, a fin break the surface. Well, imagine Luke’s horror as he puts on his goggles and has a look under the water to see what kind of shark it is. Skilfully filmed, in the distance is a haunting looking Great White Shark, you can just make it out in the murky water and it is a site that will send shivers down your spine. A shark that size, and given its reputation, you really feel for the group as Luke, as calmly as possible, announces “it’s a bloody Great White” and instructs the group to huddle together and stop splashing. Easier said than done and I defy anyone in that situation not to have a panic attack. The shark circles, panic sets in and looking both under the water and on the surface, it’s clear this is a very large shark indeed. It leaves: but panic has set in and in a brilliantly executed scene Kate simply cannot move, speak or even breathe through absolute terror and it is Luke who saves her from possibly drowning as he teaches her how to breathe again. The Reef is an honest film; there are no heroes, no big effects, no Hollywood glamour. This is a brutal tale of survival in quite possibly the most dangerous situation on the planet and all our friends can do is simply float and swim in the hope the shark doesn’t come back, but it does…
To tell you much more about how things turn out would spoil the tension, but man does this film keep the tension levels up. It’s nail biting stuff. Yes there are attacks; there are relationship breakdowns and blind panic. The camera trickery just gets better and better with one scene involving the shark and Matt looking so incredibly real, I had to rewind it more than once to see exactly how they did it. You see, you can pull off animal attacks with a trained whale or dolphin, or take Steven Spielberg’s approach and build a shark, hell, even the dreadful Deep Blue Sea used CGI. The Reef uses a REAL shark, and that’s where the genius and terror really comes from. You cannot train a bloody Great White Shark, and even if you did, no actor would get in the water with one, so how did the makers pull this off and have it look so good? It will remain a mystery, and one I will think about for a long time. It makes for uncomfortable viewing but it also pushes those panic levels way up. So, if you fancy being utterly terrified by something real, something honest and also a story which actually happened, then this is for you. If you enjoyed Open Water or Adrift, you will love this. And, if you are a fan of shark attack films in general, you will love this but be warned there is no fun to be had here, this is serious stuff and, ultimately, nerve shredding and unforgettable.