THE REEF can be described fairly simply as an Australian version of OPEN WATER. However, if someone described it that way to me I’d be turned off from watching it because I am not a big fan of OPEN WATER. THE REEF to me is a much better film and one that capitalizes more on its premise than OPEN WATER did. There are still some hiccups that prevent it from being the be-all-end-all of minimalist survival films especially ones involving sharks, but THE REEF is still an extremely effective people versus nature survival thriller.
The setup is this- a group of five friends set out on a snorkeling trip to a remote island and on their way back to mainland the boat scrapes unexpectedly on a reef that flips the boat leaving it ready to sink at any minute. The group then decides to make a swim back to the island since the current is pushing them and the boat further away, but one of them stays behind not willing to swim in shark infested waters. Once the group of four is out of sight of the boat and no land in sight they realize that a great white shark has taken great interest in hunting them. The group begins to panic as they rush to make it to land before the shark picks them off one by one.
The set up is reminiscent of OPEN WATER but the key similarity are the people floating in the middle of the ocean with nothing but miles of water underneath and a shark lurking in the depths waiting to attack. What THE REEF does better than OPEN WATER is that since there are more characters we don’t have to wait until the very end to see someone get annihilated by the shark. I also feel like the tension is greater in THE REEF than in OPEN WATER.
This film is also based on actual events so at the end we see text of what presumably happened with the member left behind at the boat and are to assume the shark attacks happened as depicted. Some of the more nail biting moments are when the shark is circling the group and Luke, the male member of the group, slaps on some goggles and watches beneath the surface as the shark approaches and swims off in order to keep an eye on if they are ok to move. It’s when Luke puts on the goggles and is looking into nothing but deep blue water and nothing moving that the tension amps up because you feel like the shark could strike any second.
The film shows great restraint from showing over-the-top gore during the shark attacks- keeping to the realistic tone by just showing what the group can actually see and selling the emotionally devastating effects of feeling helpless as a friend is violently attacked and eaten by a shark that will likely come after you next. I felt a great deal of dread immediately after the initial attacks that leaves the victim wounded and screaming at the surface before the shark comes back to finish the job. I found it deeply unsettling due to the strength of the performances and the realism of the situation.
If the tension doesn’t get to you first then there’s also the breathtaking scenery on display. Visually the film is bursting at the seams with beautiful cinematography and the shots of the ocean are spectacular. Add in that actual footage of sharks was used for a majority of the scenes just adds to how realistic, beautiful and tragic the whole film ends up being.
As was the case with OPEN WATER if you have a problem with a lot of buildup with short shots of action then you might have an issue with THE REEF. There is more action and shark attacks to be had here however, but there is a decent amount of character development to get through beforehand though. THE REEF does a great job at building tension both in regards to the shark and between the characters themselves. The film takes the OPEN WATER premise and amps things up a notch with just a dash of JAWS to spice things up. THE REEF may not be the shark classic you’ve been waiting for but it’s still a great way to spend a couple hours.