Why are there so few good shark movies? And are there really so few? To put it short, I can’t think of five off the top of my head. And the three I did think of were Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and Shark Night. Considering the latter two are mediocre films at best, I think you can see the problem.
Shark movies suffer from a few obvious issues. The first problem is the need for water. Inevitably, most shark films become a fight with suspension of disbelief as the audience disagrees with the logic of the characters – when you know there are sharks in the water there is almost no good reason to go in with them. Staying out of the water is the only thing you have to do to avoid death. In the three films I mentioned, there are reasons offered for why the characters cannot leave the water, but in most shark movies, it is just character stupidity that puts them in danger. Additionally, there are only so many ways you can film the ocean. Having an entire sub-genre with virtually the same setting makes it hard for individual films to stand out.
Another issue is that sharks just don’t make good villains. Ultimately, they are just animals and do not possess the capacity for malice or cruelty. While a horror movie doesn’t necessarily need a villain, being faced with a thinking force that can be tactical and has the potential to be sadistic makes the situation much more tense. A shark cannot be cruel. It cannot be spiteful. It doesn’t plan and it doesn’t hate. Deep Blue Sea has smart sharks, but it didn’t really affect their behavior or their methods – it was just a reason for them to be there. Moreover, a shark can only kill you in a certain number of ways: from below if you are in the water (as is the Great White’s natural method), being attacked on an even plane if you are in the water or on the surface (though this does make it hard to make surprising), or the leaping bite if you are out of the water. You can only make small variations to these attacks and still have it seem plausible. This eliminates more variety from the number of unique factors a shark film can have.
Finally, one of the major issues with the shark film sub-genre is Jaws. Jaws set the benchmark so high that most shark films just try and copy it rather than compete with it. It also has all of the issues we’ve discussed: most of the deaths could have been avoided by staying out of the water, the scenery is by no means impressive (beaches and the ocean – thrilling), and the shark is just an animal feeding on prey, which it kills in very standard ways. The plot is very simple, and I would argue it is the only simple way to tell a shark story. There is a shark in the water; it kills people so the shark needs to die. It is by no means a complex narrative and any divergence from this formula requires a convoluted explanation for why the sharks are where they are and why the characters need to be put in danger. It is a plot built out of necessity, not genius. It works because it has good characters and solid direction. Anything trying to compete with Jaws would have to not only have the same quality (good luck convincing a director on Spielberg’s level to make a shark movie) and then come up with a plot which is equally simple, yet entirely different. It would be very difficult.
If you have any thoughts about shark movies, or about you think is holding the shark genre back, leave a comment. Here at Serial Chillers, we love comments and feedback. I’d also love to hear about your favorite shark films, good or bad. My list could always be improved.
Image retrieved from: http://www.funnyjunk.com/funny_pictures/222618/gashunk