It’s high time that the shark attack movie be recognized as a legitimate subgenre of horror. The only likely reasons why it hasn’t been elevated to the same pedestal as the zombie movie or the slasher film are the enormous perfection of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), rendering every shark attack movie to follow an apparent imitation or rip-off, as well as the fact that such films are relegated to one particular setting — a slasher or zombie can strike just about anywhere, but even bizarre outliers like Sharknado (2013) require the presence of the ocean. Given that it’s been nearly 50 years since Jaws’ release, the simple shark attack film has mutated and expanded into numerous “sharksploitation” movies such as Sharknado and Ghost Shark (2012), with even big budget studio ventures like The Meg (2018) embracing the kookier tropes of the kaiju movie to give the shark attack film a unique bite. Amidst such a landscape that includes an online fundraising campaign to make a movie entitled Amityville Shark House, it stands to reason that a back-to-basics shark attack flick would suddenly be more of a stand out. Fortunately, that’s exactly what Great White is — a no-frills survivalist adventure horror with a couple of nasty sharks pursuing what they hope will be their lunch.
Indeed, Great White’s plot is as generic as its title — while the film probably won’t impress those hoping for a shark to become possessed by a demon or whatever, its construction is commendable. That’s evident from the cold open, which sees a vacationing couple swimming alone off a remote island somewhere near Australia be suddenly attacked by some off-season sharks. Director Martin Wilson stages this early attack with a bit of Hitchcockian panache, the first-time feature director proving his chops right at the start of the film. Screenwriter Michael Boughen introduces the movie’s small ensemble cast of characters economically and succinctly: ex-triage nurse Kaz (Katrina Bowden) and ex-marine biologist Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko), a couple who’ve begun a small seaplane charter business, are hired by Joji (Tim Kano) and Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) to go to that same remote island from the opening sequence in order to pay final respects to an ancestor of Michelle’s, when they discover the bodies of the shark’s victims. Knowing they’re the only responders, they attempt to investigate for any survivors when their plane is attacked while on the ocean by the sharks still in the area. Now adrift in a large inflatable life raft, the two couples and Kaz and Charlie’s employee, Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka), must attempt to follow the ocean’s current back to the mainland in order to survive, a prospect that seems increasingly unlikely as the sharks hunt the raft relentlessly.
Shooting in their native Australia, Wilson and Boughen utilize a ton of gorgeous, natural scenery to lend Great White some production value. Ultimately, though, the movie is a low budget affair, and the filmmakers smartly rely on their cast to carry the film. Bowden and Jakubenko make for a genuinely charming couple, taking what could’ve been some awkward expository dialogue early on and making it work for their characters. Kano and Tsukakoshi make for a believably troubled couple by contrast, with Joji butting heads against the other men in the raft while Michelle emerges as an unlikely hero (as opposed to Kaz’s likely hero — the casting of Bowden, along with Wilson’s poetic insert shots, recalls 2016’s The Shallows, which also involves a shark menacing a beautiful blonde). As a whole, the ensemble help make Great White a survivalist thriller, the focus firmly on the characters and their responses to their predicament, making it possible for the film to not have to rely on the sharks attacking every few minutes.
When the sharks eventually do attack, Great White unfortunately falters a bit, but that’s not for lack of trying. Wilson attempts to lend as much impact as possible to his sharks, having them act insidious and aggressive, but the glaring CGI work on the creatures leaves them feeling less scary than intended. Wilson overcompensates with his correction attempts, leaving the sharks feeling more metaphorical than grounded: the creatures seem to toy with their human prey rather than merely hunting them, and while I’m no marine biologist, I’m pretty sure sharks can’t roar as the ones in this film do. These moments, along with a pseudo-lesbian “kiss of life” between Kaz and Michelle, seem to try and position the film closer to sharksploitation. While they make for amusing, intriguing quirks, the rest of Great White is so relatively grounded and subtle that the moments ultimately feel like awkward outliers.
Great White’s biggest strength lies in the filmmakers’ aiming toward suspense at all times. This isn’t a shark attack movie with a lot of gory grisliness, but rather one where the attacks are more unsettling than shocking. It goes back to the core of the shark attack movie as well as the more general animal attack movie, a humanity vs. nature story that is about the abject cruelty of the world’s creatures and elements. Great White is a film that invites comparison between the characters’ plight and how the average, everyday viewer might react if put in such a situation: while Kaz and Charlie have a decent amount of knowledge and some experience with sharks, neither character is superhuman, and the rest of the ensemble are even less qualified. As in most horror films, the characters have a tinge of “it could never happen to me” arrogance before they make their first mistakes, with Benny even making an oblique reference to Jaws at one point. Perhaps that’s the reason for the film’s blatantly nondescript title: it’s unassuming and easily dismissed thanks to the cultural familiarity with shark attack movies and sharks in general, but it nonetheless refers to a creature that demands respect and caution. Great White may not be a groundbreaking or unique film, but it’s made with respect, and that deserves to be reciprocated.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.