Written by: Peter Benchley (novel), Rockne S. O'Bannon (teleplay)
Directed by: Stuart Gillard
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Kim Cattrall, and Giancarlo Esposito
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
“It sounds as if you have a shark problem.”
Peter Benchley regretted the sensationalism caused by Jaws and spent his later years advocating for the species he helped to demonize in his seminal novel. But just before he made this pronounced shift, he wrote White Shark, a bait-and-switch title of sorts since the novel doesn’t feature a shark but rather a psychotic, amphibious experiment gone haywire. Rather than demonize sharks this time around, he picked a new target: the Nazis that created this abomination, hinting at the author’s move away from one kind of sensationalist pulp to another. Hollywood took quick notice and swiftly turned White Shark into Creature, a 2-night mini-series event (remember when those were a thing?) that fashioned the bones of Benchley’s novel into an almost entirely different story. Because there doesn’t seem to be any record of his reaction, I don’t know if Benchley was as rankled at these changes as he was at the ones made in Jaws, where he was famously tossed off the set for voicing his opposition. However, I’d like to think he at least came to appreciate the film’s staunch environmentalism since it vilifies mankind’s recklessness, both in meddling with the gene pool and in its careless plundering of the ocean. Granted, because the story ultimately involves a walking, mutant shark, it’s not exactly about these things in any profound way, but it’s the thought that counts, I suppose.
The adaptation moves the action up to the dying days of the Vietnam War, where the U.S. Navy toils away on a Carribean island. They’re up to all kinds of crazy shit, like genetically splicing dolphins and sharks to create vicious attack dogs of sorts. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg: they’ve also successfully created something else, a mysterious hybrid that’s been tougher to tame. When it breaks containment, one of the lead scientists (Giancarlo Esposito) can’t bring himself to kill the beast and allows it to escape into the open ocean. 25 years later, Dr. Simon Chase (Craig T. Nelson) is conducting research into cancer treatment in the same area, working on the theory that shark DNA might hold a key into curing the disease. When several locals are attacked in the ocean, the authorities are quick to blame the great white sharks Chase has tagged. He insists otherwise, noting that the attacks don’t match the pattern of white sharks; furthermore, a tooth taken from one of the attacks doesn’t match any species on record since it features mammalian features. When he encounters the Creature himself, Chase is stunned to see it nearly board his boat and leave behind a claw, much to the dismay of the superstitious locals and a skeptical police chief (Blu Mankuma). With his ex-wife (Kim Cattrall), an assistant (Cress Williams), and his son (Matthew Carey), he sets out to discover just what’s lurking in the depths.
We know, of course, that it’s the 25-year-old experiment terrorizing the sea. That’s the first, most glaring problem with Creature: it’s one of those movies where the audience is waiting for the characters to catch up with the information. And because it’s a nearly 3-hour long TV movie, they spend a lot of time putting the pieces together, rendering the first half inert just because the “mystery” doesn’t exist for an audience that knows exactly what the navy was up to in the film’s prologue. Likewise, there’s no mystery when Esposito wanders into town, now a ranting, raving local known only as “Werewolf.” We know he’s the same guy that allowed his creation to escape two decades earlier, something nobody figures out until the last half-hour. Creature feels like a lot of table-setting to set up the monster movie mayhem you want from a movie with this premise.
But, to be fair, the commitment to the table-setting is somewhat commendable, if only because there’s an investment in the characters that has become increasingly rare in movies like this. Chase and his wife have amicably divorced, and the film doesn’t dwell too much on overwrought drama between them. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that the two could (and will) reconcile, so Creature avoids unnecessary melodrama. Chase makes for a pretty solid protagonist to boot: he’s a virtuous biologist who doesn’t take shit from arrogant poachers and fishermen, and he’s driven to research cancer after the death of his brother. His rapport with his assistant—and close friend—is also a nice touch, even if (or because?) it vaguely echoes Lance Guest and Mario Van Peebles in Jaws: The Revenge.
Maybe it’s a little cliche, but it qualifies as positively nuanced compared to how so many of these films deal more in caricatures than actual characters. It should be noted, too, that pretty much all of the supporting characters are stereotypical, from the asshole poacher to the hardline police officer to the cagey, sinister navy captain that comes to town to slay the beast, but even they prove to be colorful enough to leave an impression (read: all of the assholes are really big assholes, and the film sends them off accordingly). The cast is uniformly solid though, giving fully invested and committed performances, with Cattrall and Nelson especially lending the production an air of respectability. Recent years have shown a big shift in this respect, resorting to stunt casting that often amounts to familiar faces mugging for glorified cameos. Neither Cattrall nor Nelson will be best remembered for appearing in this late-90s TV movie, but they’re crucial, sturdy anchors here, especially since the first half heavily invests in the characters instead of outright schlock.
The eventual schlock itself is a mixed bag. Obviously, the TV trappings keep the mayhem modest: a blood spurt here, a lightly mangled corpse there. But what it lacks in gratuitous violence, it makes up for with a killer creature design courtesy of Stan Winston’s studio. Early glimpses aren’t too impressive—for whatever reason, it looks a little janky in the water, and it mostly just looks like a run-of-the-mill shark design that the camera is hellbent on obscuring. Journeyman director Stuart Gillard knows what he’s up to, though: a movie titled Creature obviously has one big card to play, and he does so with aplomb, revealing the monster in piecemeal fashion before showing it off in all of its glory for the second half of the film. The design is delightfully rubbery, giving it that crucial sense of tactility that’s so sorely missed from most films of this ilk these days. Your first instinct when you hear the monster comes onshore is to make a “Land Shark” joke, but Winston and company really pull this thing off: it just looks downright cool, and it’d probably be iconic had it shown up in a movie more deserving of it.
Not that Creature totally sucks or anything—it’s just that there are limitations for what this kind of movie can be on television, and, to its credit, it does a fine job of stretching those limitations. One could easily imagine a tighter, nastier 120-minute feature being carved out of this material, especially if it’s ever revisited by an effects crew that could do it justice like Winston’s did with this take. And this one is certainly pretty adequate as long as you acknowledge the TV roots and make peace with it being the best possible version of itself. In some ways, Creature feels like one of the last gasps of this era of TV movie: before long, this kind of aquatic schlock especially would move to cable to increasingly diminishing returns, and it’s a reminder that these movies can be quite watchable, if not downright engrossing at times. Personally, it comes with a little sadness that I’ve finally reviewed it: unless I’m mistaken, I don’t have any more 20th-century shark features left to conquer, so future Shark Week programming will be rowing into very rough waters for the foreseeable future. Lots of Sharknados in the forecast is what I’m saying.
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