Moving Pictures
Aug 03, 2023, 06:26AM

The Long Shadow of Jaws

Sharksploitation, on the Shudder streaming service, is an entertaining overview of shark movies.

The shallows shark.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

On the heels of Shark Week, as well as arrival of a new Meg sequel, there are two new documentaries that take very different looks at sharks. The two don't have much in common, except that both owe a debt to Steven Spielberg's Jaws. The first film is Sharksploitation, about the history of sharks and the movies, both highbrow and lowbrow. The film is written and directed by Stephen Scarlata, and it should say a lot about what’s emphasized that the very first voice heard in the film is that of Roger Corman.

Sharksploitation, on the Shudder streaming service, is an entertaining overview of shark movies. And it also demonstrates another thing: Whether a shark movie is going for respectability, extreme shlock, or something in between, the shadow of Jaws is very long. We hear from everyone from filmmakers to executives, to marine biologists, who question some of the science of the genre—movie sharks, it turns out, make noises that real sharks don't make.

The film’s narrative is clear: Jaws arrived in 1975, and not only was the first modern-day blockbuster, but indicated an appetite for films about sharks and shark attacks. There were three sequels to Jaws, as well as unauthorized rip-offs. One of those, Great White, led to a lawsuit by Universal that blocked its release, although its director gets to use “we were dead in the water” as a pun. And the shark films, almost a half century later, haven’t let up.

Sharksploitation look back at every major shark movie from the past 50 years, from Jaws to the dregs of The Asylum, and the type of dreck that might land on Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’ll see the footage of Samuel L. Jackson getting eaten in 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, as well as the Sharktopus and Sharknado phenomena.

Movies like 2003’s Open Water and 2016’s The Shallows have gone the respectable route. But for some reason, the film omits Wes Anderson’s 2004 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in which the main plot mission is Bill Murray’s vow to “find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it”; I guess the fictional “tiger shark” doesn’t merit inclusion, even if Sharktopus does.

Sharksploitation gets hand-wringing and lecture-like towards the end, but overall it’s an enjoyable tour of the titular genre- which applies to any movie, the film says, in which someone yells “get out of the water!”

It's not the worst after-effect of Warner Brothers/Discovery merger by any stretch. But it’s incongruous that After the Bite, an earnest documentary about the aftermath of a shark attack in a small town, has to share a streaming service menu with the campy wackiness of Shark Week, where this year's titles included Great White Fight Club, Raiders of the Lost Shark, and Cocaine Sharks.

After the Bite, produced for HBO, has a lot in common with Jaws as well: It’s set in a Cape Cod town, in which there really was a shark attack and it led to an aftermath of fear, with lots of time spent on boats and beaches. But the tone’s very different from the Spielberg movie and the majority of its imitators. Also, the mayor in the documentary, unlike the one in Jaws, had the good sense to immediately close the local beaches after the attack.

The shark attack, which killed a young man, took place in 2018, and After the Bite shows us what happened afterward, as well as many other things going on in the region. And that includes an often bitter culture war that often has fishermen on one side and conservationists on the other, and has reached far beyond the implications of the tragedy that took place five years ago. The film is in the style of Frederick Weisman, with lots of time spent at community meetings. But it’s not all serious; at one point we’re treated to a shark-themed town talent show.

After the Bite was directed by Ivy Meeropol, the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and a filmmaker who up until now has been best known for documentaries about her family’s history (Heir to an Execution) and the life of her grandparents’ chief tormentor (Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn).


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