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Katrina Bowden and Aaron Jakubenko clutch each other in terror in a lifeboat in Great White Photo: Vince Vali/RLJE Films

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Great White takes its absurd shark terror mighty seriously

It’s a weird hybrid of Jaws gravitas and Deep Blue Sea camp

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Practically every horror subgenre has its hits and misses, but there is no subgenre as polarized as shark movies. The entire history of shark-centric horror has produced one unimpeachable cinematic classic, Jaws, and then basically a bunch of lowbrow dreck. Some of that dreck is ridiculous, polished fun, like the straight-faced-but-campy smart-shark movie Deep Blue Sea or the survival tale The Shallows; some of it is dispiriting nonsense, like Sharknado and Shark Night 3D. But the extremes of the genre, good and bad, have warped the entire field, leading to bizarre hybrids like the new shark-survival movie Great White.

Commercial director Martin Wilson, making his feature-film debut, certainly tries to give Great White some gravitas. He and screenwriter Michael Boughen pack the screen with angst, as the clearly doomed characters all navigate their own weighty turmoil. The filmmakers are certainly shooting for something closer to Jaws than to Ghost Shark, and their wide-scale vistas suggest what the early sequences in Jaws might have looked like if Steven Spielberg had drone cameras back in 1975. Wilson’s film rarely looks cheap: It’s colorful and vibrant, full of cool turquoise-water vistas and aerial shots that feel like they’re selling tropical vacations.

The cast is similarly camera-friendly. Two of the major onscreen angsters are Kaz (Katrina Bowden) and Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko), a beautiful young couple running a struggling air-charter company that takes tourists on scenic runs around the islands, complete with catered meals on remote beaches. Kaz is brooding over a personal secret and over their mounting bills, while Charlie takes a more cavalier beach-bro approach that seems to weigh on her. But they’re thoroughly out-angsted by their latest clients, Joji (Tim Kano) and Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi), who want to fly to a specific isolated beach that was the site of a historical tragedy. From the moment they show up for their tour, it’s clear from their constant exchange of weighty, significant looks that there are a lot of unspoken considerations in play, and a lot of complicated tensions between them. And Joji takes an immediate, immense dislike to Kaz and Charlie’s cook Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka), which makes for even more significant glance-based conversations.

The cast of Great White gets real upset on a beach, even though they aren’t currently being eaten by any sharks Photo: Vince Vali/RLJE Films

Thanks to the inevitable, Jaws-inspired opening sequence involving a couple of previous tourists encountering a great white shark, the audience already knows these five characters are headed for an unpleasant date with a whole lot of teeth, and it’s just a question of how Wilson and Boughen will get them out of their comfortable, safe plane, and down into devouring range. But the insultingly dumb answer (familiar from one of the Jaws sequels) speaks to the other end of Great White’s range, the campy-idiocy horror-movie tone that competes with its higher ambitions. Until the inevitable happens, Great White actually feels like a solid indie drama, full of gorgeous top-down footage of the islands off Queensland, Australia, and equally full of unfolding tension. The filmmakers absolutely do the work of making these characters into individuals rather than halfheartedly sketched piles of chum, and the cast throws themselves into their roles like they’re performing deathless drama.

But then the mechanics of a shark horror movie kick in, and suddenly all the character complications have to take a back seat to silly scenes of people flinching at water, and a lengthy series of twists that manage to force someone into the ocean, so viewers can gasp over whether they’ll make it back out with all their limbs. For a film so focused on tension and drama, Great White is weirdly cavalier about its pacing, with long stretches between people entering the water, and badly choreographed reasons for it happening. When people do enter the shark zone, the false alarms pile up so high that it actually feels anticlimactic when someone actually does get eaten.

All the deaths in the film are abrupt and underplayed, to the point where it feels like Wilson is trying to avoid any sense that he’s making an exploitation movie, more focused on gore than on humanity. But he pushes so far in the opposite direction that people disappear from the movie as if by magic, instead of by ancient predator. Another possibility: the budget stretched as far as realistic CGI sharks, but not far enough for believable physical encounters between them and their human prey. Either way, the entire film is constructed around the terror of shark attacks — which the audience barely even sees.

And it’s impossible to ignore how silly Great White gets, in ways familiar from so much previous shark horror. The sharks ignore fish-rich waters in order to focus entirely on human snacks. They show an unlikely level of cunning and trickery, to the point of manipulating events and even opening doors. And they actually open their mouths and roar in fury when they’re balked. When it comes to shark behavior, this film is as much of a fantasy as anything involving dragons.

And yet it still doesn’t head so far into the realm of fantasy that it stands out from other shark movies. (As does, for instance, Deep Blue Sea.) The creators mostly try to keep the non-shark bits realistic, which means spending long, dreary scenes with the characters pent up together in a life raft, glowering pointedly at each other and not saying what they’re thinking. If nothing else, Great White really gets at the “hell is other people” aspect of horror, as it captures how awful it would be to end up stuck in a protracted life-threatening situation with people you don’t like, don’t trust, and can’t escape.

Two survivors press their foreheads together in the life raft in Great White, thankful they aren’t currently being eaten by sharks Photo: Vince Vali/RLJE Films

But while the personal dynamics resonate and the lurking sharks mostly look convincing, Great White gives way to too many beat-by-beat horror-movie clichés. Wilson lines up a cast that’s clearly designed to disappear one by one, in an order that will surprise no one who’s familiar with the language of horror cinema. Once the action moves from the sky to the sea, anything particularly distinctive about the story fades into a long series of dreary teases, spaced out by still more meaningful looks from characters who seem too tense and tired to talk. All that character development goes out the window when everyone’s just focused on surviving the grueling ordeal ahead, but the creators never find a way to vary the action enough to keep it from being grueling for the audience, as well.

Part of what makes Jaws stand out from its sharky peers is terrific, memorable dialogue that lays out the themes of masculinity, competition, class, and species dominance in ways that would be worth watching even without a ginormous hungry fish lurking below the waves. Just as Great White sets its characters up for shark encounters and then obscures them, it also sets them up for great dialogue, then silences them for a large part of the movie. In a field mostly marked by one really great film and a whole lot of extremely bad ones, Great White is a weird anomaly: a balanced, middle-of-the-road hybrid, neither sophisticated nor careless, neither tremendous nor awful. If any horror subgenre could use reinventing, it’s the shark movie. Great White isn’t trying for that. It’s apparently trying to be above average in its field, and it does achieve that. Maybe that’s all we can hope for in shark horror, until something ready to rival Jaws finally comes along.

Great White opens in theaters on July 16, with a simultaneous release for rental or purchase on digital platforms like Amazon.