Written by: Michael Boughen
Directed by: Martin Wilson
Starring: Katrina Bowden, Aaron Jakubenko, and Kimie Tsukakoshi
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Take your last breath.
2020 sucked for an abundance of reasons, and way on down the list is something trivial that only matters to me: it interrupted the string of theatrical shark movies that started all the way back with The Shallows in 2016 and ended with 47 Meters Down: Uncaged. And considering the illustrious history of this genre, it’s even more notable that all of them ranged from “great” to “pretty good.” Sure, the bar has been so lowered that something like Jaws: The Revenge is now one of the better shark movies, but it’s also resulted in a stark binary: shark movies tend to either be pretty great or nearly unwatchable, with very few falling in between. So what’s remarkable about Great White is that it’s largely unremarkable, a perfectly fine offering that reminds us that sheer competence is still something to behold in this arena.
Katrina Bowden and Aaron Jakubenko are Kaz Fellows and Charlie Brody (get it, Brody), a couple who give Australian seaplane tours. They’ve been beating around the bush when it comes to tying the knot, but they have a newfound urgency once Kaz discovers she’s pregnant, which is pertinent because this amounts to the only character development for the leads. Oh, and Brody has a gnarly scar from a shark attack years ago, an important if not heavy-handed bit of foreshadowing about the ordeal he encounters when he agrees to take a couple (Tim Kano & Kimie Tsukakoshi) to a place called Hell’s Reef that winds up being infested with Great Whites. If I operated a tour, I would simply choose to avoid the place called Hell’s Reef.
Anyway, Great White falls into the category of tightly-constructed, (mostly) single-location shark fare that finds a group of survivors huddled together in a rickety raft as the creatures swarm about. It starts out promising enough, with a prologue that delivers some quick, early shark mayhem before the story properly begins. And even if the main character’s aren’t the most robustly developed, it’s obvious from the start that the filmmakers are trying to invest in them. A hint of tension exists between the tourist couple, who have come to scatter the ashes of the woman’s grandfather, a war veteran who survived Hell’s Reef years ago. Between this and the hemming and hawing over Kaz and Charlie’s relationship, it feels like Great White is going to be full of mawkish drama until they discover a rotting corpse that’s washed up from the prologue’s shark attack. Business picks up at this point, as Charlie’s investigation into the wreckage results in the plane sinking, leaving them stranded in the middle of the ocean, their only salvation a shore that’s several kilos away.
We’ve seen this kind of thing before, to varying degrees of effectiveness, and Great White lands smack in the middle of the continuum, mostly because of, well, a tedious middle stretch that drags. A gimmicky thriller like this is a gamble that requires compelling character drama, bravura filmmaking, or a gonzo approach that indulges the potential for carnage. Great White doesn’t quite feature any of this: its characters are so thinly developed that the script winds up leaning on trite drama when the group begins bickering among themselves, with one of them becoming an unrepentant asshole that you wish would be fed to the sharks, an approach that runs contrary to the rest of the film. While there are a couple of decent jolts during this stretch, it ultimately lacks the pulse this kind of thriller needs.
Thankfully, it does recover for a more riveting climax, which abandons the tight confines of the raft for a more expansive space. Director Martin Wilson is careful about not letting things get too out of hand, though, and it’s particularly striking how rugged and gritty the film remains when it’s time to dispatch its beasts. You won’t find the typical explosive fare here; instead, the characters have to rely on their bravery and their wit to rid themselves of the sharks in messy fashion. Not that realism is high on my list of priorities, but it’s neat to see a movie acknowledge just how incredibly harrowing—if not downright impossible—it would be to slay a Great White shark if you had to. Great White is also surprisingly ruthless in offing its human characters, too—there’s an unexpected mean streak to it that makes the climax genuinely perilous and suspenseful.
With these movies, you also have to address the obvious elephant in the room: the shark effects, which have so often make or break these things. Like the rest of Great White, its effects are thoroughly serviceable: some early glimpses are disconcertingly cartoonish, but Wilson wisely keeps the sharks hidden away for much of the film, allowing them to appear in bursts, making them more effective. When they properly appear, it’s respectable enough—I don’t know that these sharks swim fin-to-fin with their bigger-budgeted contemporaries, but they’re a damn sight more impressive than the no-budget dreck that has come to define this genre. Likewise, there’s not a hint of irony to Great White: this is a sincere attempt at a shark movie, so much so that it almost doesn’t feel like one when the human drama takes center stage. The only humor comes from some natural comic relief, most of it coming from Kaz and Charlie’s assistant Benny (Kimie Tsukakoshi), who has a nice rapport with his co-stars. Maybe this means Great White takes itself a little too seriously, but I certainly prefer that to the intentionally bad shit that takes the opposite approach. Great White is an actual movie, not a meme, so it features actual filmmaking: the performances are uniformly solid, and DP Tony O'Loughlan’s photography boasts rich, vibrant compositions that eschew the flat, overlit look that usually sinks these movies.
A movie that makes the simple choice of not being a joke and not looking like shit almost qualifies as a revolution in this genre. To be sure, Great White doesn’t rank with that great run of shark movies in recent years, but I still see no reason why we can’t get a couple of these each year in lieu of the no-budget “efforts” that exist simply to fill a content void that shouldn’t exist in the first place. As always, relativity is a huge factor here: while Great White is content to stick to the shallows, that’s better than taking an ill-advised dip in the deep end and thrashing about, hoping to draw attention for your bad decisions.
Great White is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from RLJ Entertainment.
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