Ever since Spielberg and Peter Benchley unleashed Jaws, the world has been terrified of sharks, in particular, the Great White…
…Any shark expert will tell you that our toothy fish friends aren’t nearly as monstrous as that film and countless others have made them out to be, but that won’t ever stop horror’s fascination with the terrifying behemoths. Enter director Martin Wilson’s fierce new aquatic horror flick, Great White.
Written by Michael Boughen (Dying Breed), Great White is a sharksploitation thriller which follows Kaz (Katrina Bowden) and Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko), a couple who run a charter business together. After Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and her husband Joji (Tim Kano) hire them to venture out to an island so that Michelle can lay her grandfather’s ashes to rest, they set out, along with chef Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka). But after an attack on their plane, the crew finds themselves stranded in the ocean aboard a raft, hunted by a pair of Great Whites hungry for human flesh.
Opening on a soon to be fish food couple, Great White makes two things clear: this film is overflowing with gorgeous imagery within a setting that is simply breathtaking, and it aims to tear apart that beauty with gruesome, sudden violence. Tonally, Great White isn’t an over-the-top thrill-ride like its predecessors such as Deep Blue Sea or Shark Night—though it does occasionally jump the shark with outlandish moments—but instead swims closer to more grim fare like Aussie horror flick The Reef (an excellent film), which Great White shares quite a bit in common with. That isn’t to say this film isn’t fun—it is—but it’s also merciless in how readily it attacks with a soul-shredding bite.
The filmmakers take their time in setting up the characters and getting us to like them, even if some of that exposition is a little on the fin and trying too hard. Kaz and Charlie have money problems, constantly harassed by the bank. Charlie is pushing to get married. Oh, and Kaz is pregnant, but she hasn’t yet told Charlie (see what I mean?). Michelle and Joji come off like that couple that has been together a long time and become comfortable with elements of their relationship that don’t quite work, but they clearly care about each other. Joji maybe cares a little too much, as he immediately dislikes Benny and feels threatened by him because Benny, just an all-around charming guy, dares to smile and nod at Michelle. Outside of Joji’s relatable but dickish jealousy, the characters are all likeable enough, especially Charlie, with Jakubenko bringing an infectious sense of calm to the narrative.
Great White successfully gets us rooting for these characters to survive, which makes it all the more difficult when they find themselves in the jaws of death.
Wilson and cinematographer Tony O’Loughlan do a good job of building the suspense, using frequent shots observing our cast from the water’s perspective and growing our anticipation of getting a glimpse of the monsters gliding beneath the glassy surface, while also effectively using shadows in overhead shots that display the frightening size of the creatures as they swim towards the raft and also present a deepening sense of isolation. Pair the fact that the group is on a dingy raft, hunted by these sharks and tensions boiling between them as they argue over what to do, trapped within feet of each other and no escape, and Great White is an experience that keeps viewers on edge with baited breath.
Great White drifts along with the tide, striking with a nerve-fraying intensity.
There isn’t as much gore as you might think in the film outside of bubbling pools of blood, but the moments that are there are truly shocking. You could even argue that one scene in particular rivals the reveal of Ben Gardener’s head in Jaws, it is that unexpectedly gruesome. Like a shark, Great White rams you in the guts, doing things like cruelly leading the audience to believe a character is dead before allowing them to resurface, just to violently pull them away again.
Aside from characters we enjoy and a grim nature, made more unsettling once the cast is floating along in the darkness of nightfall, Great White doesn’t do much to set itself apart from other shark fare. It’s also pretty by the numbers stylistically, going for a stark realism that would be fine, if it weren’t so often undercut by ridiculous stunts from the sharks, corny moments of characters talking underwater, and the occasional CG shark on the level of those in Sharknado.
All things considered though, Great White is still a solid entry in the sharksploitation genre with real teeth. A current of unintentional silliness drags it under a bit, but Wilson otherwise manages to keep it afloat with biting suspense that latches on and refuses to let go.
Great White is worth the swim, just don’t expect to see anything you haven’t before while you’re out there.
Great White comes to theaters, VOD and Digital on July 16th from RLJE Films.
By Matt Konopka