Dorsal Fins On Screen: The State of Shark Entertainment

Blake Lively in ‘The Shallows’/Image © Columbia Pictures

The YouTube clip is labeled “GET OUT OF THE WATER!!!” It’s a three-minute sequence early on in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 man-eating masterpiece, “Jaws.” Open scene: A Fourth of July weekend thronged with beached bathers. A sleazy mayor and local fishermen reeling in the wrong shark all conspire, causing Roy Scheider’s high-strung Police Chief Brody to relax the hackles on his neck long enough to allow beach folk to do what they do: wade and dip and swim without a care in the world. Cue John Williams’s iconically nerve-wracking score and one unlucky rafter as we dolly zoom in to Brody who leaps from his low beach chair to pace the shore with disco-dancer hand signals screaming that titular, “Get out of the water!”

I was seven years old when my well-meaning parents packed my brother and me in the car for a trip to the local multiplex to see “Jaws.” This stampede of panicked bathers rushing out of the water imprinted itself as the only proper response to a shark attack. But a funny thing happens more than forty years later: I’m on a crystal-clear beach tucked between Fort Lauderdale and Miami when a dark shape, at least nine feet across, appears in the surf break close to the shore.

But instead of triggering that same Get out of the water! response, something very strange happens: the exact opposite. Bathers peel off towels and blankets and follow their extended cellphones rushing whatever is beneath the water. Some plunge into the drink to get their cameraphones as close as possible. A few even swim to the starboard side of this large but still unidentified marine animal, to catch the opposing angle.

None of this is helped by the fact that we’re on state land and therefore most of the bathers are nude. Finally, a whiskered snout breaks the water and there’s collective sigh of, “Ah, Manatee!” But it’s clear that the initial impulses imprinted on Generation X after “Jaws” are now undone by Millennials who entered this world with a cellphone trained on their crowning head and have to keep the docudrama going no matter the risk.

It probably also doesn’t hurt that the sea-dwelling creatures in “Jaws” and “The Deep” – who can forget that Giant Moray Eel who first terrorizes Jacqueline Bisset before crunching through Louis Gossett’s head in the 1977 “Jaws” follow-up? – have been replaced by really stupid shark movies like last summer’s “The Shallows” and this summer’s “47 Meters Down.” Let’s not even drag Sharknado into the equation. That franchise, mercifully, is made for television. Cable television.

Most shark movie cred comes down to a writer named Peter Benchley, whose 2006 obit in The Guardian began, “I’ve never been hurt by a sea creature except for jellyfish.” Indeed, Benchley did pretty well by the things that go bump in the water, selling a hundred-page story that he would eventually work up into the 1974 bestseller he almost titled Silence in the Water to his editor at Doubleday for a thousand dollars.

A stint in the Marines and as a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson were shelved for the glamorous life of a freelance novelist, holed up with his family above a New Jersey Furnace Factory in winter and a Connecticut turkey coop in summer, but in 1974 Benchley batted it out of the park with Jaws, which spent forty-plus weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list, making him in that moment the most successful rookie novelist ever. It was only through deep research and being haunted by a decade-old magazine article about a Long Island fisherman who caught a two-ton Great White mixed with Benchley’s own childhood Nantucket memories that allowed the material to land, tapping into a zeitgeist of primal fear of the deep.

Cut to forty years later. Viewers are watching a collection of producers’ notes that strand Blake Lively on a rock being circled by – natch – a Great White, 200 yards from shore. Along for the ride, her volleyball with feathers, the aptly named Steven Seagull. It’s not just that “The Shallows” is improbable, it’s that it never happened. AV Club commends the simplicity of the “no-brainer survival premise: get off the rock and don’t die,” but then chides the half-cooked backstory, relayed mostly Lively-a-Seagull, by asking, “Can’t a heroine just survive a vicious shark attack without also having to overcome a family trauma and make a decision about whether or not she wants to be a doctor?”

Would it surprise you to learn that while “The Shallows” script was lingering on the industry blacklist in 2014, another debut shark novel entitled Bait, this one from Canuck J. Kent Messum, was slowly grabbing attention and some awards? Bait employs the Blake Lively ‘get off the rock’ formula on six heroin addicts from Miami who wake up on a deserted Florida key just one mile away from an adjacent key with, well, lots of keys … of heroin. The twist? The mile standing between them and safety is shark-chummed ocean.

If Ridley Scott’s 1979 film “Alien” was pitched as “Jaws in space,” how is it that four decades later we’re not watching “Survivor on heroin,” but rather Mandy Moore as a virgin diver given a nitrous tank just so she can suffer nitrogen narcosis after her shark cage plunges forty-seven meters down? Haven’t we already seen Demi Moore demo nitrogen narcosis on TMZ four years ago? And, further, I’ve been a PADI-certified diver for five years and a dive master would laugh me off the boat if I grabbed a nitrox tank without completing an enriched air certification course.

I’m not saying every great shark book is going to make a great shark movie. The Jaws franchise – through no fault of Spielberg or Benchley, who went on to recant Jaws after the shark overfishing it inspired – devolved into 1983’s “Jaws 3-D” and 1987’s inexplicable standalone “Jaws: The Revenge.” And AnnaSophia Robb’s 2011 portrayal of a surfing teen who loses her left arm to a shark but finds Jesus was based on the memoir Soul Surfer.

Conversely, the “Open Water” franchise, with its divers stranded at sea for the 2003 original and, more implausibly, yachties who can’t get back onto their boat in the 2006 sequel, are both quite watchable and developed from original screenplays, but fly the “based on a true story” banner. The first installment began life as a “20/20” segment, but next month’s divers using the notoriously rickety shark cage as a reality show audition, entitled “Open Water 3: Cage Dive,” like “Open Water 2: Adrift,” are only sequels in that they’ve been rebranded so post-production by their very clever distributor Lionsgate.

If the truth will set your shark movie free, chances are if it stars a seagull, a former teen-popster, or the unholy trinity of Saffron Burrows, LL Cool J, and the genetically engineered, big-brained Mako sharks of 1999’s “Deep Blue Sea,” it’s derived from a script producers spitballed together on Post-It notes, which is a shame when novels like Susan Klaus’s 2014 Shark Fin Soup, which tackles the inhumane practice of shark finning, weaving the dorsal fin butchery together with a murder mystery and an ecoterrorist hero named Captain Nemo, and the just- released Shark Drunk by Morten Stroksnes have yet to be optioned for adaptation.

And while veracity may be the shark movie ticket, high-voltage underwater cables are its albatross. Or seagull. The rule of thumb is if the third act kicks off with talk of electrocuting the shark, best to stop watching and continue to wait for next year’s big-screen adaptation of Steve Alten’s 1997 bestseller, Meg, which features Jason Statham as a Navy “paleobiologist” diver, “kick-ass engineering genius” Ruby Rose, and a seventy-foot prehistoric shark. Meg’s been in the hands of everyone from Eli Roth to Disney since the late nineties, but finally starts shooting next month. It’s okay; Alten’s kept himself busy too. He’s never going to win the Booker Prize, but if the first Meg hits, he’s got four more installments ready to go and is finishing the concluding chapter, Meg: Generations, to drop a few months before next summer’s dinoshark tentpole.