Great White

It just wouldn't be a proper summer movie season without a new shark attack picture. I love these things, and I have to confess having a low bar for them. Show me some half-decent shark-related mayhem and I'm a happy guy. Whether it's the over-the-top insanity of The Meg or the nail-biting tension of 47 Meters Down, I get wrapped up in tales of people being terrorized by sharks. This year's entry in the subgenre is Great White, and what sets it apart is that it's more restrained than most pictures of its type. Instead of crazy “kills,” we get a fairly realistic depiction of a harrowing situation.

Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and Kaz (Katrina Bowden) are a couple living in Australia. Together, they run a charter business, transporting customers to beautiful islands in a seaplane. Their newest clients are investment banker Joji (Tim Kano) and his wife Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi). A chef, Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka), comes along to cook them a meal on the beach of a remote bay. Joji resents Benny's presence, but otherwise all is well. Until a half-eaten body is discovered in the sand, that is.

Spooked by the sight, the gang hops back into the plane for a hasty retreat. Upon spotting the legless man's boat, they decide to land quickly to see if anyone is on board. That's when a great white shark attacks the plane, fatally crippling it. Fortunately, the life raft is able to be saved, providing a (somewhat) safe place. Charlie, a former marine biologist, figures it might take a day or two, but if they follow the current, hitting land should be possible. The operative word there is “should,” because of course the shark is following the raft.

In many respects, Great White is as much a survival story as it is a shark attack tale. Several factors complicate the scenario, including Kaz's pregnancy and a weird tension between Joji and Benny. There's precious little to eat or drink. One of the paddles falls out of the boat, which threatens to make it drift off course. Stuff like that. The psychological toll of the predicament is the focus of the middle section, with the characters realizing that they're going to be facing the cumulative stress of these factors for much longer than is comfortable.

The more human-centered approach works because of the performances. Jakubenko is especially good as Charlie, a guy who knows how dire things are and tries to keep a poker face so the others won't panic. Bowden is also good, showing how Kaz fears for her unborn baby during the ordeal. A nice chemistry develops between the two that provides an emotional center for the movie. Often, characterization is one-dimensional in shark flicks. Great White at least puts effort into it.

The most intense action comes in the third act, as the folks who are still alive at this point have no choice but to get into the water. Again, the emphasis isn't on outrageousness, as the wrap-up to The Shallows was, for instance. It's on the very real fear of being in open water, knowing that a shark is lurking nearby. Viewers looking for an all-chomping, all-the-time shark-fest will probably find Great White too tame to be satisfying. We've got lots of those already, though. Getting one that creates tension without needing an excess of “Holy s***!” moments is, for me, kind of refreshing.

out of four

Great White is unrated, but contains bloody violence, adult language, and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.