One has to imagine that conceptualizing a shark attack scene must be relatively easy. There’s a reason that these animals have (unfairly, as any marine biologist will tell you) become such evergreen villains in nature thrillers, and the basic cinematic architecture of an attack scene hasn’t changed all that much since “Jaws.” But the scariest part of a shark attack is the element of surprise, and for that to work, a shark film faces its toughest challenge: thinking of something for its potential chum to do in the moments when a shark is not attacking them.
This is a challenge that is poorly met by Martin Wilson’s “Great White,” a paint-by-numbers shark survival slog which strands five people on an inflatable life raft besieged by a hungry fish. Though boasting a few adequate action sequences, and foregoing the more gonzo schlockiness of peer projects like “The Meg” and “Shark Night,” the film’s human characters make for drab company, leaving one with little to do but admire the scenery, waiting for dinnertime.
After an obligatory prologue in which a pair of yachters are torn asunder by a shark, we’re introduced to our central quintet, led by triage nurse Kaz (Katrina Bowden) and seaplane pilot Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) – a couple who run an adventure tourism business along with stoic cook Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka). The two have been dealing with money problems, which look to become exacerbated even further when Kaz tells Charlie she has a child on the way. A temporary financial lifeline arrives with a last-minute booking from a wealthy couple: Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi), the haunted granddaughter of a famous shipwreck survivor, and her husband Joji (Tim Kano), a financial analyst who is scarcely given a single line of dialogue that does not make you want to punch him in the face.
Taking a seaplane to the auspiciously named nearby island Hell’s Reef, the party discovers the remains of a shark attack victim. Against the advice of Joji, they explore the nearby ocean looking for other survivors, only for the plane itself to sink, leaving all five marooned in an inflatable life raft, hundreds of miles from shore. It’s here that the film settles into its languid rhythm, with interminable scenes of paddling – so much so that you might find yourself distracted by comparing the actors’ various paddling techniques, and critiquing their paddling form – interspersed with dull plot-driving conversations and occasional worries that the shark might “still be out there.” And of course it is; there wouldn’t be much of a movie without it. The great white itself is of variable visual quality, usually looking just fine for a project of this budget, although it does hurt a bit that our first full glimpse of the beast may be the silliest in the whole film. Cinematographer Tony O’Loughlan’s outdoor lensing is quite lovely, however, and the aquatic scenes never betray their water-tank origins.
And frankly, that ought to be enough. Nice scenery, a passable shark, pretty people marooned at sea – no one’s asking the filmmakers to reinvent the wheel here. But its insistence on treading such familiar waters without finding any new angles gives the whole exercise a desultory feel. Sharks rarely linger in barren oceans for long, they instinctively know to seek out more fertile territory. One wishes this film had done the same.