Jaws is a great movie (maybe the greatest movie ever made, if you’re Quentin Tarantino). There had been so-called ‘shark movies’ before it (from The White Death in 1936 to Shark! in 1969), and even one masterpiece (Blue Water, White Death from 1971), but it was Jaws that seemed to popularize the concept. There have been several this year alone, including the pretty good The Reef: Stalked, and now there’s Maneater, from writer/director Justin Lee. Unfortunately, this film falls into the same trap as many others, misunderstanding what made Jaws so great.
It could be argued that Jaws wasn’t even a ‘shark movie’ at all; the shark in Steven Spielberg’s film was only on-screen for four minutes, and when it was, it was usually a pretty obvious animatronic machine. No, it was suspenseful direction, minimalist music, and great characters grounded within a tight script that made Jaws great, not the shark. Maneater forgets this entirely, producing a fairly hollow film as a result. It is, however, almost ‘so bad it’s good,’ from the utter silliness of some scenes and the cheapness of the CGI shark, to some comically questionable cinematic choices. Maneater is not a great movie; it may be a great drinking game, though.
Maneater is a Silly Shark Movie
The opening of Maneater is indicative of just how ridiculous this film is. The film begins with a scuba diver submerged in some cavernous depths before the screen turns red and CGI teeth chomp about; the title somberly appears in the dark waters as muffled screams are heard. Then, just like that, a jarring edit takes viewers on a sunny, island-hopping montage set to summery pop music. It all suddenly feels like a commercial for a cruise line, more Sex on the Beach than blood in the water.
Maneater has a tendency to do this a lot. There are numerous other shark attacks throughout the movie to varying degrees of effectiveness, and they always seem to smash cut into some bright, happy atmosphere (as evidenced by song titles like Chill, Island Breeze, and Shza Woo). The omnipresent music in the movie abruptly shifts to something playful and jaunty to accompany half-naked bodies, as if the soundtrack is experiencing bursts of heavy-duty serotonin at regular intervals. Suffice it to say, Maneater is tonally weird and inconsistent, but again, almost funny as a result.
The Ridiculous Characters of Maneater
The film’s characters are most distinguishable by the fact that they have different names; two of them even have more than one syllable. Jessie (Nicky Whelan), however, gets an added piece of character development, as she’s recently lost a long-term relationship, and so her bikini is black, and she smiles a little less. Her friends have ‘dragged her’ along for a beautiful tropical getaway, steered through crystalline waters toward what passes for a deserted island in the 21st century. Everyone does a solid, efficient job here (especially a sarcastic and snarky Shane West), but at the end of the day, they’re written as shark bait.
Meanwhile, an island resident is mourning the loss of his daughter at the hands (fins?) of a great white shark. This is Harlan, who is a deeply southern man living in this pacific paradise for some reason, and who is played by country music singer and Celebrity Apprentice contestant Trace Adkins (of such hits as Honky Tonk Badonkadonk). Harlan goes out on the water seeking vengeance, strapping belts of ammo to his chest and wearing a cowboy hat with shark teeth glued to the brim. It’s all played very straight, but it’s laughable, and hopefully, that’s the point. Harlan’s trajectory is connected with Jessie’s, tied together by blood and CGI (though the shark is supposedly mechanical in some sequences; it’s honestly difficult to tell).
There isn’t much more to the plot than this — a sorority-like group of people (who are too old to be in college) partying on an island, a speed-boating country music star seeking vengeance against a shark, and occasional CGI footage of a great white flopping about and eating people.
The practically iconic Jeff Fahey shows up for about six minutes as Professor Hoffman, a rather thankless role as a shark expert that essentially allows Maneater to audit a college class and voice dubious lines like, “The species of the great white has evaded scientists for years.” In actuality, they’re studied frequently.
Maneater is Hopefully Deliberately Daft
Again, though, it’s pretty safe to say that nobody was determined to make high art or a masterpiece of suspense here. Unlike serious, tense, and good films with sharks such as The Shallows or Open Water, Maneater seems self-aware enough to know just how silly it is and lean into it. It feels like a SyFy made-for-TV movie (of course, this shark has no tornadoes). Someone literally says, “What are we, chopped liver?” with a straight face in this film, and it even paraphrases the famous Jaws line, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
This is a movie where bad CGI animals are shot point-blank in the head — it’s ridiculous, and hopefully knowingly so. The film is never gripping or scary enough to ever distract from the silliness of its scenes, making it oddly more fun to put on with some friends for a laugh. Maneater feels like the kind of movie that a group of buddies would drink to, doing their best Mystery Science Theater impersonations as they laugh through awkward sequences and over-the-top moments. Hopefully, the film is laughing along with them.