Almost five decades after Jaws made everyone who’s ever gone near the ocean fear the toothy terrors lurking below the waves, filmmakers are still hoping to replicate some of that shark-tastic magic. There have been some successes over the years, both lavish (like The Meg) and bare-bones (like Open Water). But there have been far more that are less memorable, including the latest: Great White.
That’s not to say Great White—the feature debut of director Martin Wilson, from a script by Michael Boughen (Dying Breed)—is terrible. It’s just kind of... shrug. The impeccably, intimidatingly good-looking cast, all of whom turn in just-fine performances, is led by 30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden, the sole American amid a group of New Zealand and Australian actors; genre fans will remember she also starred in the more outrageous fish-themed saga Piranha 3DD, as well as horror comedy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Bowden plays Kaz, a nurse who assists her pilot boyfriend, Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko), with his charter business, taking tourists on short flights around their tropical home base. Benny (Love and Monsters’ Te Kohe Tuhaka) is their cook and assistant. Then there’s Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and Joji (Tim Kano), the affluent couple who book a last-minute flight so that Michelle can scatter her grandfather’s ashes on the deserted island where he was briefly marooned decades prior—a picturesque spot known as “Hell’s Reef.”
Between Michelle’s somber mission, the awkward tension that forms when uptight Joji thinks Benny is ogling his wife, and a prologue that shows us another impossibly photogenic couple being gobbled by you-know-which kind of deadly sea predator, the mood is soon tuned to “imminent disaster,” and Great White doesn’t take long to get there. After the group discovers a shark-attack victim’s body (or half his body, rather), they take a side trip to check on an overturned boat which, of course, leads to trouble for them.
With all the long stretches of just, like, floating around, you’d think Great White would take more time to flesh out its characters, but it doesn’t really; instead, we get little blips that are seemingly supposed to raise the stakes and/or give people a bit more depth. Stuff like: Kaz has just found out she’s pregnant, Charlie has PTSD after surviving a shark attack a few years ago, maybe they’re going to get married after this is all over. (Again... shrug.) The most interesting character is Joji, a controlling, jealous asshole whose villainy eclipses even the sharks for a brief period, and who gets to draw on his own paper-thin characterization (he’s an “investment analyst”) to deliver the line “I’d rate our chances of surviving at less than 5%... and that would be fucking optimistic.”
Honestly, I was rooting for Joji to survive over anyone else—what a twist that would be!—but after a while, I decided I was Team Shark, even if it made zero sense that they didn’t just immediately chomp through the life raft and enjoy a tasty human buffet. But then the movie would be over almost instantly, and we’d be denied the opportunity to question why none of the castaways complains of hunger or thirst (it does rain a couple of times)—as well as a few admittedly cool shots showing the tiny raft from high above, with the dark shadows of sharks circling ever closer.
At any rate, as any viewer with a pulse will have realized from the very start of the movie, some of the flawless faces that populate Great White will not make it to the end. You can probably even guess which ones. And while some of the deaths occur in distressingly murky darkness, we do get one particularly dramatic demise that feels like someone took direct inspiration from Shark Week. We also get a moment that made me wonder if a real person—not a movie character—would actually deploy the lung power to let out a scream underwater when something scary happens?
Without giving the ending away, I will say it goes to a surprisingly bleak place, leaving the survivors stuck in a scenario almost as fucked up as “floating on a leaky raft in shark-infested waters”—but then fails to explore its implications, rather leaving the audience to wonder exactly what we’re supposed to make of it. Guess they made it home at some point... or not. Shrug?
Great White hits Shudder on November 11.
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