Martin Wilson (Dir.), “Great White”, Piccadilly Pictures/Altitude Media Group/Thrills and Spills/Universal, 2021.
“We are told how MARDUK slays TIAMAT – after much the same fashion that the Chief of Police of Amity slays the great white shark in Benchley’s novel JAWS, blowing an evil wind (the oxygen tank) into Her mouth and sending in an arrow (bullet) in after it to explode her [sic.]. Surely, the two or three most box-office successful films of the past few years, JAWS, THE EXORCIST and, perhaps, THE GODFATHER, are an indication that the essence of Sumerian mythology is making itself felt in a very real way in this, the latter half of the Twentieth Century?”
‘Simon’, from his version of the Necronomicon
Those who encounter Shakespeare for the first time are often struck by how familiar it all seems. This stems mainly from the fact that many expressions which were coined in his works have become commonplace turns of phrase in the English language and are still being tossed about to this day. It’s the same, but to a lesser extent, with Charles Dickens. This sense of being au fait with the material leads some to feel that Shakespeare is somehow ‘old hat’, or unfashionable (when it is in fact anything but), while others may ascribe a sense of coziness to the work. With this instalment in a seemingly endless parade of shark flicks, that sense of familiarity is firmly in place – but for very different reasons.
Within the realm of the shark-flick, this linguistic phenomenon is noticeable also. If you’ve seen “Jaws” – arguably, the progenitor of the shark flick – you’ll be aware that many lines from that movie have percolated from the celluloid and out into popular culture. Lines like “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”, “here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women”, “that’s a bad hat, Harry!” and “wanna get blitzed and fool around?” have all become familiar catchphrases in various niches of western life and we recognise them whenever we fall over them. But, in line with such kitchen-sink dialogue, there’s another feature of screenplay writing which breeds this sense of ‘been there, done that’.
I’ve harped on about it before, but there is a rigid set of rules in place affecting the writing and filming of B-grade cinema fare. I call it the ‘Hollywood Morality Playbook’ and it can be detected almost every time you go to see a mass-market horror flick like this one. Essentially, it’s a set of complex rules that dictate how characters act and what happens to them after they transgress these unwritten laws. If an unattached female character has sex early in the piece, she dies later on; if a male character ogles a woman lewdly at the start of the show, they die before the end. It writes itself… and is an example of extremely lazy screenwriting. Oddly enough, it’s been around so long now that audience expectation almost guarantees that movies subscribe to the Playbook, because the money backing these cinematic offerings will only support something that’s ‘safe’. With “Great White”, we see the Hollywood Morality Playbook in full, workmanlike swing.
There are five characters in this film – three men, two women – and, because the Playbook demands it, two blondes and three brunettes (these latter three are also non-Caucasian, which opens up another worm-can…). Hair-colour isn’t something I bring up lightly: according to the Playbook, being blonde is either a signal for imminent demise, or of heroic stature, depending upon the character’s actions. The catch cry “blondes have more fun” is often treated as evidence for being morally lax, so if a blonde misbehaves at the film’s commencement, they’re dead by the third act. Brunette women are seen as ‘demure’ under Playbook strictures and so they tend to win through; blonde women need to have a certain something extra in order to make it to the credits.
We see that here: our blonde woman is the business partner of her equally blonde, ex-marine biologist, seaplane-pilot boyfriend. She is concerned about the viability of their little tourism company; she cautiously balances the books; she keeps her high-spirited boyfriend on track; she’s a nurse by training and she’s pregnant. Her level-headedness guarantees that she will make it through (she also figures prominently on the DVD’s cover – another point in her favour). Our brunette woman is carrying around the ashes of her beloved grandfather – she wants to scatter them on the reef where he and some others were once stranded and of whom he was the only survivor. Her boyfriend is arrogant and rude, and she is palpably embarrassed by his outbursts, especially when they are inspired by her attempts to strike up a conversation with the Maori cook. Normally, her mild flirting with the only other unattached male in the group would signal her death; however, that urn of ashes counterbalances things somewhat.
Of the male characters there’s only one thing to be said: don’t get attached. The blonde guy is too much of a larrikin and a flake; the Japanese guy is pushy and hot-tempered, governed by a huge sense of entitlement; and the cook is lazy and superstitious, with a roaming gaze for the ladies. All doomed, and for really no good reason. On a side note, it’s obvious that a decision was made to the effect that everyone with a Y-chromosome should also bite the Big One; this feels like a holdover from “Deep Blue Sea 3” where everyone who wasn’t female – including the fish – died horribly. Who says these films don’t inform and grow off each other?
Much is made in the promotional material of the fact that the executive producers on this gig were responsible for the “47 Metres Down” franchise. That hype, and the resulting lacklustrousness of the product it’s promoting, can only signal that this movie series is on the way out. Those two earlier films actually managed to attract the involvement of relatively well-known players – Matthew Modine and Mandy Moore in the first film and John Corbett in the second – but here, everyone’s agents were obviously out to lunch when the casting calls were issued. Instead, we have what looks like a bunch of “Neighbours” alumni and an American actress of whom you’ve heard practically nothing (great Aussie accent though – that’s no mean skill for a non-native speaker). I guess, along with a B-grade cast, you end up with a B-grade set of scriptwriters leaning heavily on the crutch that the Hollywood Morality Playbook provides. The result is a tedious piece of cinematic fluff.
Seriously. Five minutes in, I could have stopped and written down a list of who dies and who lives, and it would’ve been right on the money. There are no surprises here and nothing new to divert anyone, least of all a fan of this niche genre. Even the special effects failed to impress: I’ve said before that the ease of computer-generating bitey fish must drive the making of these films but here, whoever was pushing the pixels was doing so with the help of a Dummy’s guide. Computer Shark Generation for Complete Idiots. I’ve seen better CGI sharks, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen worse (and remember, I’ve sat through all of the “Sharknado” abominations!). Spielberg could make a ton of flabby rubber look scary in the water; these guys? I got nuthin’.
If you’re looking for shark thrills, find yourself a copy of “Deep Blue Sea” or “47 Metres Down”. Hell, dial up “Open Water” if you must and you simply can’t find a copy of “Jaws” anywhere. Or try this: cut out a few pictures of sharks from a magazine and pin them to the wall – like this film, it's as close as you’ll get to shark wallpaper.
One-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors.