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Shudder Secrets: Great White and Why We Are Afraid of Sharks

Great White really doesn’t do anything different from other shark movies. Don’t go into this one expecting revolutionary filmmaking.  It’s a typical creature feature about great whites that terrorize a group of people stuck on a raft in the middle of the ocean. I suppose landing a plane in shark-infested waters isn’t the best idea. The sharks are lean and mean, as relentless as Jason Voorhees. The humans make for easy prey. Ever since Jaws (1975), this formula has been repeated time and time again. Yet, there must be a reason why this type of monster still captivates our attention, right?

Human beings have a natural fear of nature of the great unknown. What’s more terrifying than a creature that lurks underwater, ready to strike at any moment? Sure, statistically, humans have a unlikely chance of dying from a shark attack, but that doesn’t make the finned monster any less terrifying.

As Great White reminds us, sharks speak to our primordial fears. They remind us that there are creatures on this planet much, much stronger than us, and in the case of nature, sometimes humans simply have no control. With this film, humans are utterly powerless, left to scream and cry and make a feeble attempt to paddle in the direction of land, while sharks circle the raft and the tide pulls them further out to sea.

A Fear of Sharks, Scientifically Speaking

Great White centers around lovers Kaz (Katrina Bowden) and Charlie (Aaron Jakubendo), a retired marine biologist haunted by a shark attack, reinforced by the nasty scar on his thigh. The couple struggles to keep their small seaplane business afloat. But suddenly, they’re commissioned by Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and Joji (Tim Kano). Michelle wants to bury her great-grandfather’s ashes at sea. He’s a lone survivor of a shark attack many years ago, and he wanted, in death, for his ashes to join his fallen crew members in the big blue sea.

The plan goes horribly wrong after a shark attacks the plane, leaving the four and a cook, Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka), trapped at sea, clinging to a raft. Great White doesn’t traffic in any new ideas, but it does tap into our deep-seated fears about the ocean and sharks specifically. A few times, Charlie wants to tell his story about his past shark attack. However, he’s stopped by Kaz, while Joji especially grimaces and shows hesitation in wanting to hear the story.

These reactions are very real, and there’s a scientific reason why humans fear sharks. According to Live Science, our trepidation is rooted in the brain, specifically how the brain processes information. Humans are wired to respond to information with feelings first and thoughts second. To add, humans respond more with feelings than they do with thinking. So, when a person thinks about sharks, he or she doesn’t think about them objectively. Rather, humans feel scared of sharks at first, before acknowledging how unlikely it is to die from a shark attack. Feelings trump objectivity here. Our emotions supersede the rational part of our brain.

Further, from an evolutionary standpoint, we’re designed to pay attention to threats and the potential for harm. In an article for the Smithsonian, scientist Andrew Nosal says as much. “It’s something that Steven Spielberg figured out 40 years ago. You don’t even have to see the shark to be afraid – the storytelling and music were enough to allow our imaginations to run wild.”’

Courtsey of Shudder

Speilberg’s Influence

Ever since the wild success of Jaws and that unforgettable score, great whites have become part of pop culture, a monster with rows of teeth, ready to munch prey. Just look at the continued success of “Shark Week,” which has extended well beyond a single week in July. Spielberg’s film terrifies, in large part, because you rarely see the monster and mostly catch glimpses of it. This was due, in part, because of the mechanical issues the shark  (Bruce) had, but it worked. The audience had to imagine the creature always out there, lurking just beneath the water. You didn’t need to see it to know it was there, ready to pull another victim under. It’s like a slasher, waiting in the woods, only this monster looms in the water.

Great White works best when it follows this playbook. There are a few shots of the shark underwater, but rarely, until the closing 30 minutes or so (just like Jaws), you don’t see the first shark much. It circles. It’s always there, and now and then, it strikes when its fin emerges. The group clings to each other, wondering when the next attack will occur. Again, this speaks to our primordial fears of the unknown and nature as a threat.

This idea is reinforced when the film shifts to night. The first act features lush, natural shots showcasing the beauty of nature, specifically the reef where the group first meets before everything goes wrong. Once the sun sinks and the group is trapped on the raft, the threat is ever-present. It’s a strong and effective tonal change.

The Stakes Couldn’t Be Higher for the Shark Bait

Courtesy of Shudder

Great White has one other aspect working in its favor. Nearly every character has something at stake. Props to screenwriter Michael Boughen for this. Despite the fact the characters make many stupid decisions, like standing up in a raft multiple times and falling in the water, there’s plenty at play. Michelle desperately wants to spread her great-grandfather’s ashes, so he can be at peace. She clings to the urn, trying to keep it above water and away from the gaping jaws of the beast.

Kaz, meanwhile, tells Charlie early in the film that she’s pregnant. So you hope at least one of them will survive. Further, Charlie is haunted by the shark attack from his past and made to confront the terror all over again. This harrowing life event forced him to retire early from a field he loved. This time, however, there’s eventually not one but two great whites to battle.

Joji, meanwhile, is the Debbie Downer of the group, a data analyst who tells everyone they have less than a five percent survival rate. Boy, isn’t he the type of guy you’d love to be stranded on a raft with while fending off sharks? It’s hard to find many redeeming qualities about him, especially since he picks fights with Benny, constantly accusing him of making passes at Michelle. Someone should have thrown Joji overboard. Who wants to be stuck with someone that tells you you’re probably all going to die?

That said, a majority of the characters need to survive because they have something worth living for, be it a future child or a relative’s ashes that must be put to rest. This is smart writing that makes us care about the characters, even if they make a few poor decisions. (Just please stop standing up on the raft already!)

Over the last few years, there’s been a wave of creature feature movies like the stellar Crawl and the entertaining The Meg (sequel eventually coming). None of these films replicate the power of Jaws, which was a once-in-a-generation film. But that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. More importantly, they speak to our fear of nature and evolutionary threats, all while saying something about how our brains are wired and how feelings often trump objectivity.

If you’re looking for some entertainment and want to see a big old shark bite off some limbs, then give Great White a stream. The Shudder exclusive drops on November 11. For more on the streaming service’s exclusive and original content, check out my weekly column Shudder Secrets.