TALKING FILMS

Jason Statham’s ‘The Meg’ proves that shark films continue to have teeth (CGI helps)

‘Jawsploitation’ has been a legitimate sub-genre in the creature feature universe ever since Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ in 1975.

Unlike the creatures themselves, films about sharks are far from endangered. This week, cinemagoers got the chance to see the latest fish-as-foe movie, The Meg, starring Jason Statham. The film has been much anticipated for its cockney-versus-shark action and high camp potential – but shark thrillers have been bursting onto the big screen for more than four decades. So why is it that shark movies have proved so popular?

The one word answer is, of course: Jaws (1975). Sharks had featured in films before Steven Spielberg’s breakout movie, but Jaws was the first to make a shark its primary villain.

Adapted from Peter Benchley’s bestselling pulp thriller and combining revenge-of-nature horror and disaster movie staples, with a touch of Moby Dick, Jaws quickly became the highest grossing movie ever made. Three official sequels and many low budget “Jawsploitation” films inevitably followed.

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Jaws (1975).

Some featured sharks as protagonists, such as Mako: Jaws of Death (1976), while other “creature features” kept the basic plot line but centred on alternative predators, such as Grizzly, the top independent film of 1976, and Piranha (1976). Mexico produced Tintorera (1977) while Brazil offered Bacalhau (1977) (a spoof about about killer cod). Italy gave us Tentacles (1977) and Great White (1981).

Britain nearly got two “Jaws” films with The Pike, set in Lake Windermere (and allegedly set to star Joan Collins), and Hammer’s Nessie, The Loch Ness Monster, but neither projects attracted enough funding. With its stripped-down narrative of serial killings, Jaws proved eminently imitable, and arguably underpinned the slasher film as well as Alien (1979), which could have been pitched as “Jaws in space”.

The Jawsploitation cycle fizzled out by the end of the 1980s. What revived it was the revolution in CGI special effects showcased in another game-changing Spielberg film, Jurassic Park (1993). This solved the key problem for shark films – how to represent the shark? This had notoriously foxed even Spielberg, when the rubber shark that was to play Jaws, “Bruce”, repeatedly failed to perform on set and terror was created instead, rather brilliantly, with shots of barrels, floating piers and other compensatory stand ins.

After Jurassic Park, CGI seemed to be the answer, not least because sharks were easier to model than animals with fur – though early efforts were weightless and unconvincing. The success of Deep Blue Sea (1999), which combined CGI super sharks, Jurassic Park’s theme of genetic engineering and a good dose of camp, accelerated this new and continuing cycle of creature features.

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Open Water (2003).

The most notorious films in the genre are trashy “mockbuster” parodies such as Sharknado (2013), Megashark versus Crocosaurus (2010) and Sand Sharks (2011) made for TV and DVD by outfits such as The Asylum and designed as instant cult films – “so bad, they’re good”. Others have been genuinely good small-scale dramas, such as Open Water (2003) (with real sharks, unusually), 47 Metres Down (2017) and The Shallows (2016), a number of which, like Deep Blue Sea, frequently centre on young women. These films’ smartest move was to avoid lengthy scenes on land and quickly trap the characters on or under the sea in continuous claustrophobic peril.

In many ways, it is easy to see why sharks remain super villains in movies. Perfect machines – a trope from Jaws that is repeated in Alien – they are both familiar representations of nature at its most unforgiving and utterly alien in their ancient, untameable hostility.

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The Shallows (2016).

But, unlike dinosaurs, sharks are all too real and – however remote the possibility – we could in theory become their lunch if we venture into their domain. Their terrors are not only primal but, arguably, psychoanalytically explicable. Jaws was slyly knowing about the shark’s fearsome combination of phallic aggression and “vagina dentata”, which later iterations, such as Alien, made even more explicit.

On the level of allegory, shark films can be tweaked to reflect all manner of changing cultural fears. Jaws incited countless interpretations, which read it as a commentary on Watergate, feminism, threats to the family, and even the Vietnam War. The film’s famous “Indianapolis speech” – delivered by rugged fisherman, Quint – meanwhile, explicitly evoked guilt over the use of the atomic bomb on Japan in World War II.

Sharknado and its even more outlandish and apocalyptic imitators exploit global warming – as in Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017) – concerns about genetic engineering, and the vulnerability of the West to terrorism and natural disaster. The Shallows, meanwhile, is a would-be feminist parable in which a young woman finds strength and puts her life back on track by defeating the ultimate symbol of patriarchal violence (though the film was widely criticised for its depiction of Mexicans as either drunken rogues or shallow shark bait).

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The Meg (2018).

The Meg, backed by Chinese funding, suggests something new. It is neither a mockbuster nor a woman-in-peril chamber drama. Based on a 1997 novel by Steve Alten, The Meg is the first big budget shark movie since Deep Blue Sea. Doubtless influenced by the new Jurassic World films, it pits Statham against a 75-foot prehistoric Megalodon threatening a Chinese beach. Whether it will repeat Jaws’s success remains to be seen – but expect to see a new cycle of “Jurassic shark” movies and new variations on the template Spielberg created 43 years ago.

I.Q. Hunter, Professor of Film Studies, De Montfort University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.