Brainy sharks, stalker sharks, feminist sharks. So many kinds of sharks.
I love sharks. I love shark films. I love every kind of shark film. The shark is a fascinating creature with an entire week dedicated to it annually on the Discovery channel, as if we needed any more proof of its allure. The shark film genre, or sub-genre, has its own way of portraying sharks. This is often an exaggerated version of the real animal, an over-the-top portrayal that ignores many of the genuinely interesting things about sharks. Shark films often anthropomorphise sharks too, and make them behave in very strange ways, in order to satisfy our marine-based bloodlust. Here follows an exploration of the fantasy shark.
I’m going to suggest, perhaps controversially, that almost all shark films fall under the fantasy label. There may be a few exceptions, perhaps Open Water, which is of course based on a real life story. However, even in the first Jaws film, which is one of the more realistic and highly rated shark films, there are still elements of fantasy. The idea that the shark seems to want to kill, not just because it’s peckish, but because it enjoys killing, is not a realistic portrayal of a shark. Towards the end of the film, I think we all get the feeling that Mr Bitey really has it in for Sheriff Brody, that Mr Bitey actively doesn’t like the sheriff. Perhaps Mr Bitey is very much against the effect tourism is having on local marine life. Perhaps he just doesn’t like the hum of Brody’s electrical pulse? Who can say.
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This is a common trope in shark films – the shark as an underwater serial killer or psychopath. In Jaws 4, proper title Jaws: The Revenge, Mr Bitey follows Ellen Brody all the way from New England to Barbados because he has a personal vendetta against the Brody family. Sharks can detect particular electrical currents emitted by prey, but I’m not sure the Brody family has one so particular it can sense shared genealogy. In Sharknado, as the sharks rain down from the sky, exactly like fish out of water, they try to bite people with their last dying breath. They’re not even trying to eat them, they’re just trying to cause them pain, because these sharks are evil, angry, people-hating sharks. Perhaps it’s an environmental thing again; humankind wrecking the planet has caused tornados that suck up all the sharks out of the ocean. I’m not sure how to compare this situation to reality using science because I’m pretty sure that marine biologists have never fired sharks out of cannons to see what their reaction would be.
Jaws: The Revenge - get out of the water, Ellen, you smell too delicious!
Another common trope in shark films is that the sharks are presented as more intelligent than your average shark. Sometimes, we are at least given a reason for this. In Deep Blue Sea, the scientists are harvesting a chemical produced in sharks’ brains for a cure for Alzheimer’s’ disease. They genetically engineer the shark brains to be bigger so they can produce more of the chemical. The sharks, now clever enough to get at least five grade A-Cs in their GCSEs, make like hormonal teenagers and try to bunk off. Well, they try to escape. In fact, the sharks come up with a plan to systematically attack the electrical fence penning them in. You never see an actual diagram or blueprint, but they’ve definitely made a plan. In Sharktopus, the sharktopus, which just in case you didn’t get it is a hybrid of a shark and an octopus i.e. a shark with tentacles, has been genetically engineered by the US Navy to attack enemy ships. Not only is it a terrifying hybrid beast, but also its intelligence and killing instinct have been ramped up by altering its neurology. Mad genetic scientist Nathan Sands has secretly decided to do this, presumably thinking to himself, ‘what on earth could possibly go wrong’? So of course, it fully embraces the two favourite tropes of the fantasy shark – it’s smarter and more blood-thirsty. And it has tentacles.
In real life, sharks are slick, silent killing machines. They have no bone skeleton, only cartilage, making them super flexible. They’re shaped in a completely stream-lined way and covered in tiny plates called denticles (no, not tentacles, Sharktopus) so they swim quickly and soundlessly. Some species of shark can grow a tooth in just a day or two. They are some of the most successful predators on the planet. And contrary to common misconception sharks are conscious animals, not just compelled by instinct. They are aware of self versus environment. They have quite large vagina-shaped brains (feminist shark), that in a great white can grow to two feet long [ed - can I just repeat? two foot long vagina-shaped brain]. Around two thirds of a shark’s brain is dedicated to its olfactory sense, and it can smell one drop of blood in 25 million drops of seawater. If I had a nose like that, I’d be biting chunks out of people, too. They have a line of pressure detectors down both flanks so they can create a kind of 3D map of their surroundings. They can detect electrical impulses created by all living things. Also, sharks are prehistoric creatures, dating back 420 million years. They’ve been around since before the dinosaurs. I think that’s pretty threatening to us as a species. What do they know? What happened to the dinosaurs? Was it a sharknado? What have they been planning? What are they building down there?
This is a uterus. No, a shark brain. No! A uterus! No, it's really a shark brain.
Why then, is there a need to make this majestic creature even more scary? Perhaps this is merely the film industry – every writer and film-maker each trying to outdo the last movie. It seems that the sharks in shark films are no longer even really sharks, but humans in sharks' clothing. They’re bigger, smarter, and they’re really, really pissed off. There isn’t a boat big enough to keep us safe. Or in the case of Sharknado, a boat is entirely useless to us. These are al Qaeda sharks, suicide-biting us. Perhaps these sharks are a way of representing a kind of dead-eyed psychopath, the sort that has no empathy and can’t be reasoned with. Perhaps these fantasy sharks are a way of exploring our fears about what genetic engineering and such like can do. Those bloody scientists and their meddling ways! Get an arts degree, for the good of humanity! Or perhaps shark films now are so utterly ridiculous that the only point of them is to make us laugh in the face of death. To reduce the grim reaper, and make him into the village idiot, so we can mock him. To end I’m going to give you a few examples of things that happen in Sharktopus and Sharknado that are so ridiculous, they’re funny:
1. In Sharktopus, the creature is so obviously animated it looks like a cartoon.
2. In the same film, when actors struggle against the animal, it’s often very obvious that they’re struggling against nothing at all, and just working themselves up into a fitting frenzy.
3. In Sharknado, the main character is called Fin, and his bar is called Fin, just in case you didn’t get that the film was about sharks.
4. In the same film a woman called Nova falls out of a helicopter that they’re flying into a tornado straight into the mouth of a shark.
5. The man character, Fin, formerly of Beverly Hills 90210 fame, jumps head first into a shark. This so accurately demonstrates the phrase ‘jumping the shark’ that it almost makes a mockery of it. But of course, Sharknado is a film based entirely on a gimmick and bad writing.
6. Fin then cuts his way out of the shark with a chainsaw and emerges with not so much as a fine-tooth graze on him. But he is covered in shark blood. Which his love interest wipes off his lips, in order to kiss him.
7. He finds Nova in the belly of the same shark.
8. She is still alive.
Fin is jumping into the shark with a chainsaw. Totally reasonable behaviour.