Any horror movie featuring a shark is going to be compared to either Jaws or Open Water, two approaches to a similar concept – a killer shark movie. Jaws is the undisputed king of summer while Open Water found the terror in its realism. For any shark horror movie to work, there has to be a balance between the antics of the rogue shark and the pathos of the main characters. Is it about an unbelievable monster shark and the characters who band together to stop it? Or is it about the problems brought to the surface when a couple of humans are faced with another apex predator out of their element? To make a great killer shark movie, a film has to answer at least one of those questions. And GREAT WHITE got so close.
An average day for charter plane Captain Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and his business partner slash girlfriend Kaz (Katrina Bowden) turns nightmare when they, their cook Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka) and tourist couple Joji (Tim Kano) and Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) are stranded in open water by a terror of the ocean. With dwindling supplies and tensions mounting, the five pull out all the stops to make it to shore and escape the Great White. Directed by Martin Wilson with a screenplay by Michael Boughen, GREAT WHITE is a tense, thriller of a horror movie starring the apex predator of the deep.
A good killer shark movie lives or dies on its first kill and GREAT WHITE’s is great. A familiar setup, an attractive young couple swimming off their anchored boat when that shark fin appears, slicing through the water. The man is dragged underwater in a bloom of blood as his partner escapes to the boat. The insert shots leading up to this first kill tell exactly who this couple is without over-cooking while establishing, with an overhead shot of its shadow gliding through the water, how massive the Great White is. It echoes the classic shot setups of Jaws and sets a perfect mood.
But it’s a mood GREAT WHITE doesn’t sustain. Katrina Bowden and Aaron Jakubenko are fantastic as functional couple Charlie and Kaz, leading a small exotic life, on the precipice of taking their relationship to the next level. Charlie and Kaz bleed charisma together on screen even as the film’s action grows broader. But when the majority of the film is placed in the middle of the open ocean, the charisma of the two characters isn’t enough to keep the plot afloat.
The challenge in placing the majority of a film in the middle of the ocean is raising the stakes and creating drama without veering into absurdity. The tourists, Joji and Michelle, and charter cook Benny are archetypes rather than fleshed-out characters. It’s the details. The entire movie happens via a succession of really dumb decisions, too dumb for how capable the two protagonists are introduced. Joji is a jealous, overprotective husband to create conflict with Benny over his wife Michelle. Michelle has a family history with the reef they initially visit which starts the roll of the plot. And Benny is the cook. These characters are well-performed but needed more depth beyond playing the part of getting the action from point A to point B. Because once those characters were stranded afloat, there was nothing else to do to raise the stakes and hold the audience’s interest other than have these characters interact… and show the shark.
Especially since the shark effects are pretty gnarly. Not every production company gets the Spielberg treatment of multiple animatronic sharks but the team did an amazing job with a nice blend of some practical effects and decent CGI with lights, darks and water swells to obscure the Great White. Every moment between shark attacks felt longer and longer as the characters on the float spun their wheels with nothing to talk about and arguments over nothing.
It’s a matter of balance. GREAT WHITE couldn’t decide if it was Jaws or Open Water. Is it a horror-action film with big swings or a tension-thriller with stakes raised ever so slowly? GREAT WHITE has blood, hot bods, tension, and some great killer shark action. Ultimately, it didn’t reach Jaws or Open Water level but it didn’t Jaws 3D crash and burn. GREAT WHITE is a tight summer movie and a great appetizer for Shark Week.
GREAT WHITE is now in theaters, On Demand, and Digital.