Monday, May 14, 2012

Shark Night - 12th May 2012

It’s a lovely sunny day and you’ve gone to the beach.   You wave to your friends, smiling, laughing, thinking about the nice pack of sausages waiting to be barbecued for dinner.  Little do you know a mouthful of razor sharp teeth is speeding through the murky sea towards your feebly kicking legs.  300 million years of evolution honed into nature’s perfect killing machine.  There’s a tug from below. The holiday is over.  Now you’re being tugged down to the depths by some monster, your limbs caught in its knife filled jaw!  You look up and seeing the surface shooting away from you as you plunge – PLUNGE into the murky depths, the shafts of sunlight fading away.  You thrash around, beating your fists against its implacable, emotionless face.  Your head spins, you feel start lightheaded, docile, calmly you notice that the water has turned red around you.  A familiar looking foot floats past.  The last surreal thought that goes through your head is of the pack of sausages in your bag.  They will go uneaten.  You won’t.


When I was invited to ‘Shark Night’ at a friend’s house I naturally assumed this was a euphemism for some kind of drinking game.  I was right.  A shot for every shark-related death on screen.  The films: The Reef (2010) and Jaws 2 (1978). 

The Reef (2010) directed by Andrew Traucki

First impressions were not good.  The film begins with 5 tanned, beautiful and annoying people flirting with each other in boat related surroundings.  Immediately I begin rooting for the shark.  Two characters, one named ‘Wozza’ look apprehensively at a wall of mounted shark jaws in the boat shop.  They remarked that there were a lot of sharks about at the moment.   The camera panned sinisterly to the shark jaws on the wall.  Then back to the young and beautiful people.  A connection is made in the minds of the audience.

The five characters head out on a boat.  We have the Australian outdoorsy guy, Luke, who knows a lot about boats and the sea, a British guy, Matt and his girlfriend Kate, Matt’s sister Kate, who has a stormy romantic past with Luke and a paranoid fisherman called Warren whose main job seems to be to look absolutely petrified of the sea.  I think he’d be happier as a greengrocer.

After a Neighboursy interlude on an island where the characters pair off and smooch wearing speedos and bikinis they set out to the ocean.  By this point I’d pretty much written off the film.  It was reminding even me of the godawful Donkey Punch.  The film is digitally shot, giving it a flat, compressed look, it’s understandable given the budget, but there is an infuriating insistence on handheld ‘shaky-cam’ for these scenes.  I’m not really opposed to shaky-cam, but there is a time and a place.  If you’ve got two characters talking to each other, I don’t think it really adds any level of meaning if the camera is randomly bobbing about everywhere.  Rather than focusing on dialogue, I find myself wishing they’d buy a tripod.

The film finally kicks into high gear when the boat they’re sailing about on runs into… The Reef!  In the space of a few minutes the characters go from sunning themselves and flirting with each other in a picturesque sunrise to sitting paranoid and terrified on the hull of a capsized boat trying to work out how best not to die.  They wind up with two choices – either swim 12 miles to the island they were on, or stay on the boat and hope for rescue.  It’s about a half and half split.  Should they go for it, or play it safe on the boat?  They’re low on drinking water, and the boat might sink anyway and every second they’re debating it the island is getting further and further away!  It’s literally sink or swim.

I realise with a slight surprise that the film has actually gotten pretty compelling.  The fisherman character is ominously saying that “I don’t care what happens, I’m not getting in that water”.  He has a haunted look in his eyes that seems to say “I don’t want to be eaten by a shark”.  A minute or so later he actually says this, just so we know for sure.  And so the meat of the film is set up.  The four characters, minus the fisherman have to swim to the island.

At this point the film becomes by necessity quite pared down.  They’re out in the open sea, there’s no scenery and the horizon seems to go on forever.  Now, I haven’t seen Open Water, which I understand this film has a lot of similarities with, but the idea of being trapped out in the open sea is utterly terrifying to me.  There is nothing as far as the eye can see.  Who knows what is below you?  How do you know you’re even swimming in the right direction?  You can’t really take a breather and nowhere is safe if you’re in trouble.

It’s easy to forgive these stock characters for being a bit annoying when they’re shaking in fear as a sinister fin swirls around them.  Inevitably, the monster turns out to a Great White Shark, and I suppose it kind of has to be, people don’t pay money to see some damn Tiger Shark or Mako.  To give the film-makers credit they don’t anthropomorphise it one bit.  It’s never played as malicious, cunning or cruel, it’s a just a big hungry fish, and if it decides it wants to eat you there’s not really much you can do about it.  Also a plus point is that there’s no cheesy looking rubber shark, or even worse, some CGI mega-shark out to get them.  The shark, when seen fully is 100% real, and sends genuine shivers of fear down into the primal part of the brain when you see it in shot with the divers. 

As the sea foams with blood, and the four swimmers gradually dwindle in numbers the terror mounts.  Who will be next?  How can you not put yourself in their shoes (flippers?) and imagine how you’d feel being circled and hunted like a common seal.   The idea that you’re imminently about to become something’s dinner seems like a meaningless death, a pointless one and distant to lives somewhat insulated from the boundless cruelty of nature.  The endless sea around our characters turns from the privileged holiday playground of the rich of the first 45 minutes to an all-encompassing existential nightmare where a violent death can come from anywhere at any time.  Stuff like this is pretty much an open goal for any director, you’d have to screw up pretty badly not to freak out your audience.

This turned out to be a surprisingly effective horror film.  I can’t say if it beats Open Water, but I’m not setting foot in anything deeper than a swimming pool again anytime soon.

Jaws 2 (1978) directed by Jeannot Szwarc

I was naturally horrified when I found out that rather than watching Jaws we were watching its sequel.  It is hard to think of a more debased form of film than the Jaws sequels.  The first one expertly and comprehensively says everything that needs to be said about the socio-political dynamics and psychological effects of an enormous man eating shark wreaking havoc on a US beach town.  What can a sequel possibly add to the mix other than upping the gore and sensationalism? 

There is no way that this film was ever going to get out of the shadow of its vastly superior older sibling, but, taken on its own merits, it doesn’t do so bad as a monster movie in its own right.  It has a number of things going for it; first and foremost is John Williams’ theme which is about as iconic as movie themes get.  You could soundtrack a children’s birthday party to this, and you’d still expect a shark to lunge out of the cake and go bananas.  The second is Roy Scheider, who does a much better acting job than this film deserves.  He really conveys the psychic torment of Chief Brody, a man who is being plagued by the second enormous killer shark in a few years.

Beat for beat the film hits all the same narrative points as its predecessor, but tries to turn up the volume on all of them.  So rather than a swimmer being eaten in the pre-credits sequence we get a team of SCUBA divers that meet a grisly end.  Whereas in the original a boy on a lilo is memorably eaten in the distance, this time we get to see a bikini-clad woman waterskiing get pursued and dragged under, followed by the shark attacking the boat towing her, leading to an unlikely scene where the shark is doused in petrol and the boat explodes.  This results in the shark sporting a distinctive set of facial burns.  I don’t really think it’s completely necessary to make a shark look scarier than it already does, but at least it lets you tell this shark apart from all the other sharks in the film (there are no other sharks in the film).  The escalation continues; whereas Jaws had a smaller shark caught and displayed, Jaws 2 has a killer whale (some strange homage to the boat 'Orca' from the first film?) wash up with big shark sized bites out of it.  The marine biologist says “anything could have done that”.  Roy Scheider looks supremely unconvinced. Even the corpse pulled out of the water at the mid-point is grosser. The film reaches its climax with a shark terrorising the youth of Amity, who have decided that this would be the perfect time to have a sailing party.  Needless to say the shark decides to crash it, leaving Chief Brody to save the day. 

It’s safe to say that probably the low point of the film is when the shark attacks a helicopter.  This feels like a scene planned out before the rest of the script was written.  To be fair to the writers, they do go to lengths to set this up.  They establish that the shark is attracted to loud, repeated sounds.  Chekov’s shark therefore is firmly positioned on the mantelpiece, and is ready to lunge at a helicopter given a moment’s notice. 

For me, the high point of this film is Roy Scheider’s performance.  He plays a man seemly dimly aware that he is in an unwanted sequel.  You have to feel for Chief Brody, he went through some pretty nasty stuff in Jaws, and now everything seems to be repeating itself and he is the only one that seems to notice this.  Once again the Amity village council don’t believe his crazy stories of giant killer sharks, and without evidence he slowly slips into a somewhat disturbing paranoia.  Suddenly sharks are everywhere.  He sits, isolated on a ridiculous shark-watching tower casting his eyes over the ocean.  There’s a dark shadow in the water someway off.  Is it a shark watching, waiting for some innocent child to swim into its path?  Brody becomes convinced that it is, and starts wildly ringing the danger bell and screaming for everyone to get out of the water.  He then runs screaming at the sea, pulling out his gun and unloading every round into the waves as swimmers run away, terrified at the gun toting madman.  Who is the real monster here, the film seems to be saying, is it the killer shark, or the mad Chief Brody?  (It’s still the shark).

We are not surprised when a few scenes later he’s been sacked and is drunkenly nursing a bottle of scotch.  At this point the character and actor seem to collapse into a single entity.  We see Chief Brody/Roy Scheider envisioning his life as a neverending cycle of disbelieving local politicians and killer sharks. Each shark more monstrous, more terrifying and more unlikely than the last.  A vision of a future swims into view, it’s 1990 and filming has commenced on Jaws VII: the Sharks Take Manhattan. Roy Scheider is sitting, drunk, in his shabby trailer rehearsing a scene in which he has to convince the Mayor of New York that the rash of bisected sewer workers aren’t all accidents.

Dammit Mayor, if there’s one thing I know its sharks.  And Manhattan’s got a shark problem!”

A runner knocks tentatively on the trailer door.  “M-Mr Scheider..?”  A single gunshot rings out.

It is to his credit as a professional that he still gives it his all.  At the climax of the film he’s crouched in a flimsy inflatable dingy, howling like a demented matador as he crazily beats a power line with an oar as the shark barrels towards him.  The shark bites it and explodes, smoke billowing from its toothy maw and burnt out eye-sockets.  It’s a satisfying movie monster death.    

The beast would return in one form or another for two more sequels, with diminishing returns each time, but Roy Scheider would be elsewhere:

Mephistopheles couldn't talk me into doing it” – Roy Scheider on Jaws 3-D

In-film, the Brody family was less lucky.  By this point, killer sharks were the family trademark, terrorising his son in Jaws 3-D and following his wife to the Bahamas for the fascinatingly dreadful Jaws: The Revenge.  Apparently Chief Brody died of a heart attack between films caused by “fear of sharks”.  Who can blame him?

Leaving aside what was to come, I found myself surprisingly enjoying Jaws 2.  It’s impossible to divorce it from what came before, but it is competently made and generally well acted.  This was not a project of passion for anyone involved, but given the thankless task of trying to follow Spielberg they produced a competent film with an interesting central performance.  It’s easily the best of the Jaws sequels and realistically, is probably the best film it could be.  The flaws of the film can be summarised by its justifiably famous tagline:

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”

The problem is that we didn’t think it was safe to go back in the water.  Jaws terrified an entire culture so thoroughly that we’re never going to be able to swim in deep water again without thinking of that theme.  And when it comes down to it, much like the terrified teenagers of Amity, this film is treading water.

So what have we learned from this?  The sea is a terrifying place.  It’s unfriendly, cold, enormous and cares not one jot about human life.  It is the ultimate implacable entity.  Any creature that dares call it their home is signing up to a life of perpetual terror with a violent death lurking behind every wave.  Stay away from boats and people with the last name ‘Brody’. 

I’m sure it is possible to have fun by the seaside though, I mean, the sea can’t be all bad, and they do say you’re more likely to be struck by lightning.. wait, did something just brush past my leg?

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