As Shark Week celebrates its 30th anniversary and The Meg devours the competition at the box office, we take a look at what makes the shark movie so terrifying yet enduring.
Warning: Contains spoilers for The Meg, Shark Night, Deep Blue Sea and Sharknado.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Jaws (1975) was the film which started the shark attack craze. That honour belongs to The Sharkfighters – a 1956 adventure movie which opens with a fictionalised version of the notorious USS Indianapolis sinking (itself, a story related by Robert Shaw’s Quint in Spielberg’s fishy thriller). However, Jaws certainly did popularise the genre and introduced many of the tropes which we have come to recognise, nay, expect in a decent shark movie.
At the time of writing The Meg (2018) has smelled blood in the water and is circling the other blockbusters at the back-end of the summer (i.e. it’s doing quite well) so the genre shows no sign of stopping swimming just yet. But what exactly makes for a classic Shark Attack movie and keeps us coming back for another bite?
Shark movies are, at their heart, a subgenre of the disaster movie. And any disaster movie worth its salt doesn’t get straight down to the action from the outset. Yes, there may be some initial tremors or one or two unimportant cities might be wiped out by a few well-placed asteroid strikes, but the main cataclysm is usually saved for the second act. Similarly, the opening third of most shark movies are surprisingly shark-free. The first twenty minutes or so of Jaws is a masterclass in tension building as we follow a handful of victims on their way to a toothy encounter. It’s only ever hinted at that a shark is the perpetrator even though we all know it is, of course – if not the film’s revealing poster, then over 40 years of inherited pop-culture knowledge makes sure of that!
Meet The Gang
Once a threat is hinted at we then get to meet The Gang – sometimes a group of people accustomed to working with each other but often a disparate group of strangers thrown together by circumstance. Deep Blue Sea (1999) and The Meg both introduce us to a close-knit team of marine scientists working on an off-shore lab and Shark Night (2011) invites us to a boozy weekend with a bunch of partying students while Sharknado (2013) opts for the more traditional group of survivors forced to team up. This first act helps us get to know each of The Gang, and a decent shark movie will give us time to work out who we sympathise with, who we don’t trust and who we’re going to root for. Jaws 2 (1978) does this particularly well with a band of kids heading out for an afternoon sailing session.
The Flawed Hero
Deep Blue Sea’s Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) gives us an incredibly flawed hero who is difficult to root for because we, the viewer, know that she caused the problems all along. Of course, she has a What Have I Done moment and redemptive arc towards the end but test audiences reacted so badly to her survival and the death of LL Cool J’s likeable Preacher that the fates of the two were swapped by director Renny Harlin with only a few weeks until release.
In The Meg the introduction of Jason Statham’s Jonas Taylor echoes that of Stallone’s Gabe Walker in Cliffhanger (1993) – a bungled rescue mission sends our hero into self-imposed exile, only for him to be forced out of retirement when his friends are threatened by the very thing he fears the most (giant sharks and cliffs). A disgruntled colleague who blames our hero for the original tragedy only adds to the tension.
The quintessential Flawed Hero of the Shark Movie has to be Roy Scheider’s Chief Martin Brody. He lets his paranoia and his temper get the better of him, arguably leading to further preventable tragedy as his tantrum only reinforces the mayor’s mistrust of him. In Brody, Shaw’s brusque Quint and Richard Dreyfuss’s arrogant, wet behind the ears (literally by the end) Hooper Jaws presents us with a, frankly, rather unlikeable shark-hunting triumvirate.
The Bible tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil and in keeping with that, a quick grab for cash in a shark movie usually results in a horrendous act of karma for the grabber. The example above of Dr McAlester from Deep Blue Sea is a particularly hard punch on the nose as earlier in the film she pushes ethical boundaries just that little bit too far in pursuit of science. The shenanigans of 2013’s Ghost Shark are entirely caused by a greedy fisherman who unfairly tortures an unsuspecting Great White for doing nothing more than behaving how it should (i.e. eating fish).
While The Meg’s hero was lifted right out of Cliffhanger, Rainn Wilson’s billionaire entrepreneur Jack Morris is more akin to Carter Burke from Aliens (1986). He enters the film as a seemingly harmless, affable figure who actually befriends and helps the team at first, but his true money grabbing nature slowly breaches the surface and eventually, he is as much of a danger to the gang as the shark itself. Shark Night’s big reveal is similarly money-grabbing with the villain’s motives driven by a desire to cash in on the popularity of Shark Week!
Surprisingly, it’s the bureaucracy in Jaws which is perhaps the least evil of the bunch. In Peter Benchley’s novel, the mayor was in debt to the Mafia and kept the beaches open so he could skim the profits to repay them, despite being painfully aware of the danger. However, in the film, we can sympathise with the difficult position he is putting the town in since Amity Island relies on tourism and a shark scare could damage it’s already fragile economy.
Corporate interference also extends beyond capitalism. Lives are put at risk when the authorities or scientific community just plain dismiss our hero’s concerns – usually out of an arrogant outrage at their expertise being questioned. These types only tend to sit up and take notice, not due to the hero’s continued protests, but because of a flurry of deaths. Much of the tension in the early moments of Jaws 3 and The Meg is derived from the hero’s boss just not believing him that there is a shark on the loose.
Most action and adventure movies see the protagonists on the backfoot during this second act of the film. The shark movie savours this section. Remember that group of survivors I mentioned before? Well, don’t get too attached because once the attack begins, the chances are at least one character you have latched onto will shortly become an entree.
The first of the six (yes, that’s right – SIX) uproariously bad-but-fun Sharknado movies follows this rule to the letter with our heroes meeting a variety of ridiculous ends. Shark Night also has tremendous fun picking the students off in increasingly gruesome ways. Aside from the first film, the Jaws series also revels in the diminishing its ensemble cast. However, the award for the most inventive and/or amusing death scenes must surely go to Ghost Shark.
Both Sharknado and Deep Blue Sea combine a shark attack with a more traditional disaster (respectively, tornadoes and a sinking offshore facility) heightening the tension and adding to the inventive ways in which characters meet their end. Jaws, of course, delivers a couple of well-executed jump scares and The Meg has its fair share of frights but it’s Deep Blue Sea which is responsible for one of the great shocking moments in modern cinema. I won’t spoil it any further for the three people who haven’t seen it, aside from to say that I have never, before or since, seen an entire audience scream and simultaneously leap to their feet in terror.
The final act of any good shark movie sees the remnants of our intrepid gang decide that enough is enough and mount a counterstrike. In Jaws, the crew finally get the approval to hunt the beast down and take the fight to its home turf (or surf). This is the section of the film where we get some truly spectacular shark deaths. Like the vampires of The Lost Boys (1987), no two sharks go out the same way – Deep Blue Sea kills all three of its sharks in the same manner and order as the first three sharks of the Jaws series (gas ignition, electrocution, explosives).
It’s here that we get to see humanity’s ingenuity versus an apex predator’s brutal efficiency. While the protagonists of Deep Blue Sea, The Meg and even Sharknado rely quite heavily on technology for their offensive, 2016’s The Shallows presents us with a true battle of wits twixt woman and fish with Blake Lively’s Nancy having nothing to help her out of her predicament apart from what she was carrying on her person while surfing. Hardly one bit of her swimming costume is not utilised inventively in her desperate attempt to get back to the shore.
Not everyone is going to make it to the end of the movie, but you can bet that once our heroes have decided to take the fight to the shark, its days of not being a bowl of soup are numbered.
And that’s what I believe to be six essential elements of a shark movie. Of course, not all of them appear in every shark movie, but the very best ones contain at least four or five. Leave us a comment below to let us know what you think gives your favourite shark movie a little extra bite!