Now don't get me wrong, Jaws is the quintessential shark movie and its enduring legacy to the shark genre cannot be overstated enough, even its importance to the evolution of the modern day blockbusters is undeniable. It would not be hyperbole to say that Jaws revolutionized the landscape of cinema in a way that few other movies have. I'm not trying to denigrate Jaws in this editorial, I love and admire Jaws, even if it did leave me with a perpetual fear of the ocean. Admittedly I still go swimming, but it's never with that same sort of aquatic innocence
I had prior to Jaws. That score sticks in my mind every time I'm swimming in the open ocean, I can't help it, it haunts me. The soundtrack is just that unforgettable, I'm sure it's tattooed on my subconscious somewhere.
The thespians were superlative in Jaws and the story was simple, yet remarkably effective and chilling, but there's one significant element that slightly detracts from Jaws and adds to my other choice of the greatest shark movie ever made, and that is, realism. I notice that realism has become a bit of a naughty word recently too when it comes to movies, I'm not sure why. I can understand people wanting pure escapism, but I think the concept of realism is to be commended in movies like these. It's hard to feel legitimately frightened of what's an obviously fake and/or over exaggerated creature.
Jaws: a monster movie or a shark movie?
Jaws always felt like more of a monster movie to me, much more so than it felt like a genuine shark movie. In much the same vein that Rogue, King Kong and Lake Placid all felt like monster movies that featured an exaggeration of their respective creature. Whether or not this is technically correct is debatable.
The largest Great White ever caught was this 21.8 ft monster caught by Vic Hislop. Jaws was supposed to be around 25 ft so maybe Jaws wasn't totally unrealistic, but I think everyone would at least agree that Jaws was abnormally large. The crocodile in Rogue was supposed to be 23 ft and the crocodile in Lake Placid was supposed to be 30 ft, while the largest crocodile captured is 20 ft. Maybe these situations are possible, but not at all likely. If we look at the definition of 'monster' I think Jaws fits the definition. monster : a strange or horrible imaginary creature: something that is extremely or unusually large: a powerful person or thing that cannot be controlled.
The lack of good shark movies
The shark formula has proven to be a tough nut to crack over the years, many have tried to duplicate the success and notoriety of Jaws but few are worthy of even being mentioned in the same sentence as Jaws. Even the 3 increasingly bad sequels to Jaws were unable to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was the original. Most predecessors of Jaws in the shark genre feature cliched characters, generic sharks, ridiculous situations and predictable behavior and results, among other things that let them all down.
All these shark movies above are probably the most legitimate and admirable attempts in the shark genre over the years. Special mention to Deep Blue Sea, while it was no Jaws, it was, and still is an exceptional shark movie. Never mind the embarrassing shark exploitation flicks like Mega Shark vs Octopus, Tintorera, Megalodon and of course, Sharknado.
A smaller, but better shark movie
I never thought that a small, little indie flick from Australia would give Jaws a run for its money, but that's exactly what The Reef (2010) did. The Reef really does so many things right, it's such a noteworthy effort that deserves more attention from the mainstream audience.
The characters are all likable enough and are not predictable caricatures, and this is where almost all shark movies fail, they forget about the human characters. All the actors do a terrific job portraying them as they descend from calm, to concerned, to scared, to panicked and to outright shock. All their emotions feel natural and warranted, given their hopeless situation, and there was not a single weak link in the movie.
Jaws always felt like it was man vs the beast, like the men always had a slim chance at besting the shark, but in The Reef everyone is utterly helpless. They're all at the mercy of the shark for the most part, they can try look out for it, but they're in its territory now. It's a terrifying reality that really sinks in while you're watching it.
The sheer size of the open ocean and the majestic yet desolate and isolated nature of it's captured beautifully. The suspense is built up extremely well so when the shark first appears, your knuckles are already white in fear, anticipation and dread. It's not a huge shark reminiscent of Jaws either, it's just your average sized Great White, the sort of which you'd see if you went cage diving, which really hammers home the reality of their situation. It's not an exaggerated situation with an unusually large shark that's after them, it's merely an unfortunate situation that feels all too real. The Reef is also loosely based on a true story, and while certain elements were changed, the crux of the story is still there.
The screenplay is taut, nothing is extraneous and there is very little non diegetic sound throughout, everything we are presented with is organic to their surroundings, this really creates a palpable sense of tension and fear within the characters and us. The cinematography gets creative, often blending above and below the sea line, which helps helps to make you feel like you're one of the characters treading on water, trying in vain to spot the Great White shark that's hunting you. I know some people hate this effect in movies, but it is used very effectively here.
The Reef really deserves a lot of praise in this respect, all the sharks used in the film are 100% real, none of them are CGI or animatronic creations. The sharks were shot separately and were later juxtaposed in with the actors, so everything looks and feels genuine and authentic. To see a real Great White dorsal fin in The Reef feels truly gut wrenching and the actors were all spot on with their reactions. This is part of the reason why The Reef feels more like a pure shark movie to me whereas Jaws will always feel like more of a monster movie, just like Black Water will always feel like more of a true killer crocodile movie than Lake Placid ever did. Coincidentally, it was the same director behind Black Water that directed The Reef too.
The Reef was shot on a shoestring budget of less than $4 million, while Jaws was shot for $9 million back in 1975. Obviously Steven Spielberg was limited by the technology of the day but I still think it's a testament to the director (Andrew Traucki) that The Reef was able to accomplish so much with what was so very little, especially in the modern respect of film-making. You try making a movie like this in Hollywood for only $4 million, it simply wouldn't happen.
I'm not trying to disparage Jaws in any way, it's a classic that's worthy of its title, but The Reef will always feel like the better shark movie to me. Jaws scared me as a kid, but The Reef terrified me as an adult. The fear felt more intrinsic, the shark and actors seemed more honest and the effects were far more convincing in The Reef. Clearly, The Reef and Jaws are two very different approaches to the shark genre and both work exceedingly well at what they set out to do, but The Reef will always be the better shark movie to me because of its disturbing and horrifying realism of it.
Let me put it to you this way. If I had to choose just one movie to watch before a day of swimming at the beach, it had to be either The Reef or Jaws, I think I'd choose Jaws. Largely because I feel like I can laugh off most of what happened because it's so unrealistic for the most part, but a movie like The Reef would get under my skin and freak me out too much. Anyway, have you seen The Reef? If so, what did you think of it?
Written by - The Sentry - 30/06/2014