Killer shark movies have been a staple of cinema since Bruce the shark first terrorized the beaches of Amity Island. None of them have come close to the excellence of Jaws (1975, dir. Stephen Spielberg) — but then, very few movies have. I consider that film to be a perfect film (yes, some of the day-for-night shots are unconvincing, but who cares). So that’s a lot to live up to. To their credit, most shark movies don’t even try. But which ones have teeth, and which ones just bite? With the recent release of Jason Statham vs. The Meg (2018, dir. John Turteltaub), I thought I’d take a brief look at the history of the genre.
The knock-offs started almost immediately after Jaws blew up the box office (the schlockmeisters smelled blood in the water, clearly). I’m sad to say I haven’t seen Tintorera: Killer Shark (1977, dir. Rene Cordona, Jr.), but it seems I’m not missing much. There were a number of Jaws-but-not-sharks films around that time as well. Frankly, a lot of them blur together — I think I’ve seen Tentacles (1977, Ovidio G. Assonitis), but I may be confusing it with the Mystery Science Theater 3000 takedown of Devil Fish (1984, dir. Lamberto Bava). Orca (1977, dir. Michael Anderson) stands out — although mostly because the writers’ cleverness in adapting Frankenstein into a killer whale movie is overshadowed by the stupidity of adapting Frankenstein into a killer whale movie. Piranha (1978, dir. Joe Dante) should, by all rights, fall into the dustbin of history, but canny direction from Dante and a surprisingly sharp script by future indie darling John Sayles make it a standout.
Most of those movies don’t actually have sharks, though. Just shark stand-ins. Funnily enough, a number of the Jaws knockoffs came in the form of the Jaws sequels themselves. Jaws 2 (1978, dir. Jeannot Szwarc) tries the hardest to be a real movie, but mostly succeeds in boring the viewer — at least until the shark eats a helicopter. Seemingly spurred by that memorable moment, Jaws 3-D (1983, dir. Joe Alves) ups the silliness by setting it in SeaWorld (which had its own horrors going). Despite a script by Richard Matheson and Carl Gottlieb, though, its attempt to jump on the 3-D craze doomed it to camp classic status. Jaws: The Revenge (1987, dir. Joseph Sargent) is actually quite a lovely story about overcoming tragedy and finding love again late in life that’s saddled with a shitty shark subplot. That opening scene scared the hell outta me when I was a kid, though.
Recent shark movies have fallen into three varieties: Asylum MegaShark/Sharknado garbage, tense thrillers, and big dumb blockbusters. I’m going to ignore the former; I don’t like that company’s cynical approach to filmmaking. [EDIT: A kind reader reminded me about Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002, dir. David Worth), a hilarious trash fire in which it’s a toss-up as to which is less convincing, the special effects or John Barrowman’s attempts to act like he’s attracted to women.] The big two entries in the tense thriller subset, Open Water (2003, dir. Chris Kentis) and The Shallows (2016, dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), both have their flaws, although one succeeds where the other doesn’t. Open Water has a phenomenal setup (swimmers stranded in shark-infested waters by their tour boat) but has no idea where to go with it, resulting in 80 minutes of screaming and crying to no end. The Shallows is much more ludicrous, with its sub-Hitchcockian constant raising-of-tension. Weirdly, that helps it work — it becomes almost a fever dream for Blake Lively’s character as she slowly comes to grips with the death of her mother. The thematic elements save it, as do surprisingly solid command performances by Lively and a seagull.
So that brings us to the blockbusters: Deep Blue Sea (1999, dir. Renny Harlin) and The Meg. Deep Blue Sea is notorious for a few reasons. The sheer ridiculousness of the concept (smart sharks trying to sink an underwater research center so they can escape while the heroes try to get out), the LL Cool J theme song (“Deepest bluest, my hat is like a shark’s fin), and, of course, the fantastic shock moment of (SPOILER) the shark eating the presumed protagonist, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in the middle of the film. In my opinion, the film succeeds wildly. It’s ridiculous, but it whole-heartedly embraces the dumb without winking at the audience. I love the audaciousness of the shark’s plot — they have a genuine plan that drives the story forward. The way-overqualified cast (Jackson, Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skarsgard, J) seems game, and they help elevate the material — as does Harlin, who’s never met a movie he wouldn’t over-direct. It is so-bad-it’s-good at its finest; it’s not only fun to watch, but a genuine thrill ride as well. It’s still the second best killer shark movie.
The Meg, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to the promise of Jason Statham fighting a shark — although it comes tantalizingly close. It shouldn’t have been remotely good; its source material, a truly trashy beach read by Steve Alten, was even worse than Peter Benchley’s Jaws novel. The filmmakers thankfully disposed of any attempt to make it a serious movie: there’s a loose theme of “it’s not about the people you lose but the people you save” that doesn’t come into play at all, and Statham’s protagonist doesn’t really have a goal other than “well, I let the shark out, I guess I should kill it.” It kinda works, though, mostly by making it an Adventures of Robin Hood (1939, dir. Michael Curtiz)-style romp. The writers populate the film with fun characters played by solid character actors like Cliff Curtis, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, and Li Bingbing, and basically lets you hang out with them while they fight a shark. It just feels like it pulls its punches with the shark stuff, whether because of the PG-13 rating or need for international appeal. There’s just not enough shark mayhem, and the shark doesn’t have much of a personality. Still, it does have Jason Statham at his Statham-est, which makes any movie better. He does not get to kick the shark, unfortunately, a truly missed opportunity. It’s a fun ride, if ultimately forgettable.
Shark movies are at their best when they’re about the people, not the sharks, but you also can’t skimp on shark mayhem; otherwise, just make it a drama. It’s a tricky balancing act, and one that makes this genre an especially tough one to pull off. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of shark movies, though. There are still depths to be explored.