We return, once again, to the problem of the mediocre movie. They’re simply a pain: disappointing to watch, difficult to recommend, and – for the poor film critic – challenging to review. My own general rule is to write about 500 words on a film, which is long enough to interrogate its relative merits while being short enough for someone to comfortably read the piece within a few minutes. Sometimes, however, you really want to simply shrug, sigh, and publish. Black Water: Abyss, a 2020 Australian thriller directed by Andrew Traucki, is a movie about five young people who become trapped in a flooding cave system with a territorial saltwater crocodile. That’s it. I really do not have anything else to note about it.
Oh, all right. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) very firmly established the dangerous predator thriller. In Spielberg’s film, a great white shark terrorises an island community until the town sheriff, a marine biologist, and a professional shark hunter set out to kill the animal on the open ocean. It was a massive international hit, and filmmakers have been riffing on the same themes ever since. It’s a simple formula to copy: isolate some characters, add a frightening carnivorous animal, and then them all have at it.
For the cast, Black Water: Abyss introduces a range of bland, relatively generic characters. You will not remember their names, although for posterity’s sake they are Jennifer (Jessica McNamee), Eric (Luke Mitchell), Yolanda (Amali Golden), Victor (Benjamin Hoetjes), and Cash (Anthony J. Sharpe). They’re a far cry from Brody, Hooper, and Quint. There are a few attempts at introducing some interpersonal drama, but not only is it simplistic and soap opera-level it erupts at precisely the point such angry recriminations would not actually happen. The screenplay is by John Ridley – I assume not the famous one – and Sarah Smith, and it is weakly characterised and utterly generic.
Honestly this could be okay – 1980s slasher flicks like Friday the 13th get away using stereotyped teens and twentysomethings all the time. The entertainment value in those films is seeing the varied manner in which the antagonist murders them one by one. That does not work for Black Water: Abyss. The antagonist is a crocodile; it generally has just the one method of killing its victims.
Yes, for the dangerous animal the film has opted for a crocodile. It’s far from untapped territory, not just from Steve Miner’s Lake Placid (1999), Greg McLean’s Rogue (2007), or any number of direct-to-video potboilers over the years. Plus the film itself is technically a sequel, although it has no character or narrative links whatsoever to the original Black Water (2007). Abyss really needs a fresh angle, and it simply does not have one. There is a flooded cave system. There are five tasty humans. There is a homicidal crocodile. That’s honestly all there is.
On a technical level, it is made well enough. The crocodile looks great. The actors make what they can out of what they have. It is shot reasonably well, and includes the requisite jump scares that are the genre’s stock and trade. In the end, none of that counts. It is simply dull. This is a film that does what it says on the tin, and absolutely nothing else. There’s not a seam of humour there. There’s no depth. There is not a single original idea worth singling out with praise. This is a functional but utterly unengaged waste of 98 minutes. You could watch it, but you could also be watching something better – or even worse; that might at least be interesting.