In the beginning of Dark Tide, world-renowned “shark whisperer” Kate Mathieson (Halle Berry) tells us, “The only way to really learn about sharks is to get out of the cage and actually swim with them.” Only by shedding the safety of a shark cage can Mathieson, well, it’s never really explained. We’re told repeatedly that it’s extraordinary that she free-dives with sharks without ever understanding the advantages of the practice, like what she’s trying to accomplish down in the water sans cage and how she aims to go about doing it. To a layperson, it just looks like she gently nudges the sharks as they swim past. (What can be learned from that?)
We do know that it’ dangerous, though, which is why Mathieson swims with a “safety”, Themba (Sizwe Msutu). Only we’re not sure what his role is, either. That’s why we can’t exactly figure out what goes wrong on the fateful day where Themba is fatally attacked while spotting Mathieson. It’s a gory scene, but one that lacks tension or intensity since it was never made clear what was supposed to happen, so we couldn’t anticipate how that dive was different from others, and what made the shark turn violent.
The rest of Dark Tide picks up a year later, and clarity does not come with the passage of time. Mathieson, still saddled with guilt, has traded free-diving with sharks for a life as a safe-and-boring (and financially strapped) seal-watching tour guide. Her estranged husband and former documentarian Jeff (Olivier Martinez) returns with a proposition to make her some money and get her back in the water, taking a wealthy adrenaline junkie, Brady (Ralph Brown), and his son out to go swimming with sharks. Though Mathieson is angry with Jeff, haunted by Themba, opposed to shark tours, certain that the dive would be too dangerous for the inexperienced visitors, wary that mating season would make the sharks quick to bite, and hostile to the idea that she should give into the whims of a craven thrillseeker just for his money, she agrees to take him, anyway.
No, it doesn’t make sense. And it just gets murkier from there until the visuals of movie become as confused as the narrative, eventually devolving into an indistinguishable group of people in black wetsuits swimming on a black ocean against a black sky in a tumultuous rainstorm. Yes, that’s the climax of the movie — and it is near-impossible to follow.
Basically, Dark Tide fails to communicate anything. The characters’ actions are so far from the norm of human behavior that they are incomprehensible. It’s easy to hope that the movie would be a tale of redemption for Mathieson, but it’s hard to root for her when she’s imperiling loud-mouth tourists (not to mention her crew). There are hints that Jeff believes the trip will cure Mathieson of her diver’s block, but he also seems like he wants the money more than he wants to be a catalyst of healing.
Instead of following the characters on these personal arcs, you’re trapped on a boat with them as they bicker and argue with each other. There are also some narrative red herrings thrown in just for fun, such as a single scene thrown in about abalone poachers — a thread that’s never picked up again. When the events of the boat’s ultra-dangerous visit to Shark Alley — that’s seriously what it’s called — is finished, it’s impossible to know what the takeaway should be other than the obvious: Don’t swim with sharks without a cage.
It’s odd that such a movie would come from John Stockwell, who is no stranger to shooting films on water. He previously directed Into the Blue and Blue Crush and, say what you will about how silly they are, they at least make sense from start to finish, have memorable action scenes, and even have the puerile thrill of attractive actors in skimpy swimwear. (Wetsuits are not as appealing.) It would be interesting to hear from Stockwell how the filmmaking process differed between this film and his previous ones, but the Blu-Ray of Dark Tide is featureless (unless you count trailers as a special features). You never hear Stockwell’s intentions for the film, or get to see how he got the cool underwater footage of sharks and other sea life.
Those underwater shots are the one enjoyable part of the film. But, for the amount of aggravation Dark Tide will put you through, you’re better off just watching Shark Week.