The sad decline of the shark movie.

The joy of blockbusters.
June 16 2005 7:24 AM

Sharksploitation!

Jaws and the sad decline of the shark movie.

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Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Philadelphia. Send her an email or follow her on Twitter.

In Peter Benchley's novel Jaws, the corpulent newspaperman Meadows says to Sheriff Brody, "Sharks are like ax-murderers, Martin. People react to them with their guts. There's something crazy and evil and uncontrollable about them." Judging from the public reaction to Jaws (the movie), the man was right. The film celebrates its 30th anniversary this month with a special DVD and a festival on Martha's Vineyard. All of which leads to a question: Why has no shark movie since Jaws managed to hold a bloody, severed leg to the original?

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For starters, Spielberg famously hid his shark, while the sequels and imitators immediately went in for visual overkill. "Everybody said you can't have the shark coming out of the water for the first time again," said Jeannot Szwarc, the director of Jaws 2 (1978). "Though people kept saying, 'Don't show the shark too much,' I kept saying from the beginning, 'We must show the shark a lot,' " he added. Not that Szwarc had much choice: The script provided for an exploding boat that left the shark crispy on one cheek—a "Scarface of the Sea" in the words of producer Richard Zanuck. Jaws 3 arrived in 1983. The producers of Jaws 2 said, quite rightly, that this version should have been a parody.

In the decades after Jaws, surprisingly few shark movies—other than the sequels—got made. There were other creature films—Piranha (1978), Orca (1977), Anaconda (1997)—that obviously bit into Jaws' style, but nobody seemed willing to touch the shark. It fell to Renny Harlin, the director of Deep Blue Sea (1999), to take up the mantle of sharksploitation. He felt the anxiety of Jaws influence but shrugged it off with the bravado of a kid with bigger and better toys. "When I received the script, I thought, 'What about Jaws, there will be so many comparisons,' " Harlin says of his movie. "But the technology had developed so hugely that we could do something that hadn't been possible before."

Harlin's big innovation turned out to be: Smart Sharks! (Due to a mad scientist's genetic experiment with their brains, the sharks get really intelligent, and eventually, in a bid for freedom, they try to destroy the research lab where they're being kept.) Bad idea. It was the "primal" nature of Jaws' attacks that made them so scary. In Benchley's book, the opening scene, in which the unseen shark (Benchley calls him "the fish") drags the naked, postcoital Christine Watkins down into the water, the fish has no thoughts about attacking the girl. "The fish did not see the woman, nor did he smell her," writes Benchley. "Running the length of its body were a series of thin canals, filled with mucus and dotted with nerve endings, and these nerves detected vibrations and signaled the brain." Giving sharks free will, however diabolical, as Deep Blue Sea does, makes them seem human, like annoying younger brothers.

Since then, the only movies that have dared to feature sharks arrive on DVDs that are devoid of any fancy extras, leaving us to guess at the intentions of the writers, directors, and producers. The remoras of the movie world, these films feed on Jaws and Deep Blue Sea's table scraps, adapting their plots and scare tactics. Each DVD is emblazoned with a punched-up version of the classic Jaws shark-under-girl poster. Usually, in these new riffs on the image, the girl has more cleavage, plus a boogie board or a scuba outfit, and the shark has more size, more teeth, and an angrier bright-red gingivitis.

These lower-grade films seriously up the death count. I counted 20 kills in Shark Zone (2003), but I could be wrong, because this widespread slaughter makes it hard to keep track. The shark in Jaws, in contrast, ate only five people on his first outing, but it seems like more. * Another major innovation these films can claim is the biggering of the shark. The concept of the megalodon—a prehistoric shark that's larger than any living Jaws—is dear to the hearts of shark conspiracy theorists, who believe that, like the coelacanth, the "meg" could one day be discovered in the ocean depths.

The meg, which is the star of Shark Hunter (2001), Shark Attack III: Megalodon (2002), and Megalodon (2004), provides an easy visual shock—when you see it juxtaposed against a submarine, for example, or when a character handles a palm-sized tooth left behind after an attack—but like other shocks, this one gets milked to death. In Shark Attack III, for example, the meg eats a motorboat whole, rising out of the water like Moby Dick. One such attack would have been great, but then the meg goes on to attack a yacht filled with fat cats—then, when the fat cats try to get away, one of them jumps right into the meg's huge mouth, while another Jet Skis into it.

With this kind of excess, it's not a surprise that an authentic, low-budget shark movie would be hailed as a revelation. Open Water was supposed to be the big scare film of the summer of 2004, but at the end of its paltry 79 minutes, the man sitting behind me got up and said to his wife, "That was it? I'm going to ask for my money back." He spoke for the nation. Real sharks, like the gray reef and bull sharks used in Open Water, are smaller and less impressively toothed than Hollywood sharks. Perhaps seeing them on the screen reminded the public that real sharks are disappointingly benign. They don't normally eat people or have vendettas against island towns or underwater research stations. As the old saw goes, we are far more of a threat to them than they are to us.

Not that this will stop Hollywood, which has now tried big sharks, smart sharks, freshwater sharks (in the Lou Diamond Phillips/Coolio 2003 TV movie, Red Water), and real sharks. All considerations of pacing and characterization aside, Jaws' success seems like a matter of timing—the movie worked because technology was just good enough to make the shark, and pre-CGI audiences were just green enough to scream at him.