Sharksploitation movies get 1 thing right that Jaws got wrong
Sharksploitation movies are "in on the joke," shark scientists say.
About halfway through the 2017 blockbuster The Meg a massive megalodon consumes a great white shark in one bite. It plows through crowds of surfers. It shakes a glass shark cage back and forth like a dog with a chew toy.
When Noah “Shark” Robertson first saw The Meg in all its glory, he couldn’t help but tear up. She was perfect.
The Meg is part of a great tradition of shark movies that are as diverse as shark species themselves. Jaws, which will celebrate its 45th anniversary this weekend, is probably the most famous of them all. But the ecosystem of shark movies that Jaws inspired has ventured far out to sea. This cult genre of shark movies doesn't even attempt to stick to shark realism.
Movies like The Meg are emblematic of a genre called sharksploitation – the creature feature of the aquatic horror film universe. The Meg, with its budget of $130 million, is one of the better ones.
For Robertson, 36, who runs the website sharksploitation.com, “an IMDB for shark movies,” it was a dream come true — sharksploitation with a blockbuster budget. (He runs the website in his free time; he’s a heavy metal drummer based in Texas.)
“I remember sitting in the theater and when the megalodon came on the screen for the first time I kind of shed a tear,” he tells Inverse. “I’ve always been a fan of comic books and horror movies and so sharksploitation came along being an amalgamation of all these things put together.”
Robertson isn't alone in his adoration — some shark scientists like sharksploitation movies too.
In recognition of the 45th anniversary of the release of Jaws, Inverse is sharing weird-but-true stories about sharks.
Sharksploitation movies are the shark enthusiasts answer to films in the tradition of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” – the classic B movie horrors that are as beloved for their fake gore and cheesy acting as they are for their terrifying monsters. You simply replace the creature with a Sharknado or a ghost shark that haunts people from a toilet bowl or a Slip n’ Slide.
You might think that portraying sharks as increasingly large, toothy, and quasi-demonic (see: Shark Exorcist's tagline "Satan has jaws") would sour scientists on the genre.
But these movies are so over the top, that the sharks in them rarely resemble the real thing at all. David Shiffman, an interdisciplinary marine conservation biologist and shark expert, actually likes them. A favorite of his is Ghost Shark.
“There are a lot of these movies that are really really silly, and I’ll tell you, I love them,” Shiffman tells Inverse.
“They are in on the joke. They’re not trying to be scary the way Jaws was — they’re not trying to portray remotely accurate behavior.”
The masters of sharksploitation strike a delicate balance using heavy-handed techniques. They make horror movies that turn sharks into sci-fi monsters in the tradition of Godzilla or King Kong. But even though they’re the bad guy, the sharks are so outlandish you can’t help but love them anyway.
Shark satire – The first shark movie most Americans see, even today, is still Jaws, the 1975 summer blockbuster. The effects of Jaws were “transformative” and long-lasting, says Shiffman: “It totally changed how everyone thinks about sharks."
But the film's reputation with scientists isn't great. On one hand, Jaws made a marine biologist the star of a major movie – good optics for the field, adds Shiffman. But it also scared the crap out of people and that was “problematic for getting public support for shark conservation."
Between the hunting of sharks and other habitat threats, sharks began to disappear. For instance, in Australia, the number of hammerhead sharks and white sharks declined by 92 percent over 55 years, estimates a 2018 Nature paper.
"It totally changed how everyone thinks about sharks."
While Jaws can't take all the credit for shark declines, there is a documented "Jaws Effect" in public policy literature. When a shark-related crisis arises, local politicians often want to take action, even if that's not the best form of response. A 2015 case study in Australia found that policy discourse around shark bites was "more closely aligned to movie mythology than evidence-based science."
"That's because they don't want to be seen as the do-nothing mayor from Jaws," Shiffman explains.
Shark scientists are routinely trying to dispel the myth that sharks are monsters bent on human destruction. In some ways, they have been successful: Shark populations are bouncing back, and people are far more knowledgeable about sharks now than they were in 1975, says George Burgess, the director emeritus of the Florida Program for Shark Research.
“Back in 1975, society's knowledge of sharks was very low,” Burgess tells Inverse. “I suspect most people today seeing Jaws for the first time would say, when they see certain things, ‘that's just not believable because sharks don't do that.’”
The Jaws shark probably seems less scary now, especially when we know shark bites are extremely rare: On average, there are only about 100 shark bites worldwide, and about four to five deaths each year, adds Burgess. Sharks are hardly man-eating monsters, despite the fact that they get typecast that way.
But it’s still easy to stoke shark terror. Oddly it’s documentaries who have the power to do this because they can blur the line between fact and fear: In a 2016 PLOS ONE paper, scientists noted that ominous background music movie in nature documentaries might actually stoke fear of sharks rather than educate people about them. When people viewed 60-second clips of sharks set to ominous background music, they regarded sharks more negatively than people who saw the same clip set to silence or happy music.
Shark Week is particularly guilty of distorting facts and including “unfortunate fear-based messaging,” as one scientist told Outside in 2018. Burgess acknowledges that shark documentaries have “cleaned up their act” in recent years.
The saving grace of sharksploitation is that it’s obviously a joke, Burgess says.
“Sharknado is so tongue-in-cheek, it's so over the top, that anybody watch this stuff has to understand, unless they're complete morons, that it’s even more fictional than Jaws was,” he continues.
“In a way, it's actually a signal that society has a better understanding of sharks now than it did in 1975. Simply because we can go ahead and put satires out there.”
To fit the bill, Robertson explains, a sharksploitation movie must focus the shark in some visibly outlandish way. It has to appear like the creators are running out of ideas. (Case in point: 2-Headed Shark Attack progresses to 6-Headed Shark Attack.) The graphics must be “really horrible” and the acting “cheesy.”
“Tons of these sharksploitation films are rooted in horror or comedy," Robertson says. "Shark movies, in general, tend to have a B movie feel to them. Sharksploitation is about laying it all out on the table as Sharknado would.”
“That’s what makes it so hilarious and awesome.”
That’s also part of the reason Jaws probably doesn’t even qualify as a sharksploitation movie, in Robertson’s view. After all, you barely even see the shark. These days that’s just not crazy enough.
Giving back to sharks – Sharksploitation films aren’t out there to help improve things for sharks. But sometimes they’re oddly good stewards of the creatures they exploit for laughs and cash. The crown jewel of these movies, the Sharknado series, distills that sentiment.
Sharknado debuted in 2013 and quickly became one of the most widely known sharksploitation films. The critics' consensus from Rotten Tomatoes speaks to Sharknado's success in it’s genre. Sharknado is “proudly, shamelessly, and gloriously brainless”.
It is impossible to speak to anyone familiar with sharksploitation without bringing up Sharknado. Robertson calls it a herald of the genre, that "propelled it forward in a huge way — no pun intended." Sharksploitation fans have Sharknado to thank for commercial sharksploitation movies like 47 Meters Down, The Meg, or The Shallows.
But some scientists actually have a reason to thank Sharknado too. Perhaps the most unexpected place you’ll find mention of Sharknado’s production company, The Asylum, is at Shiffman’s alma mater.
“After the phenomenal success of Sharknado one, they reached out to me because I wrote them old-school classic fan mail,” Shiffman says. “They said, ‘hey we made a lot more money than we expected and we want to give some back to sharks.’”
Shiffman recommended some charities for the production company to donate to. The Asylum went on to run an announcement that they were trying to raise $50,000 for a fan-funded bonus scene. Ten percent of those proceeds would go to a shark research program at the University of Miami, where Shiffman did his Ph.D. (This included fan prizes: for $120 contribution, the team would use your scream in the movie. For $5,000 you could have your own death scene.)
They also donated to Shiffman’s research specifically, he says, to thank him for his time.
For all their antics, sharksploitation filmmakers know that you can both love something and fear it at the same time. Intentionally or not, they’re not taking any chances that people might conflate their sharks with the real thing. They don't try to toe the line with reality — they obliterate it.
Robertson loves these quasi-shark monsters — and he loves real sharks too. He has shark tattoos and added the word "Shark" to his record label and stage name.
“Anybody that knows me knows I’ve always been a huge fan of sharks. I love sharks,” Robertson says.
Sharksploitation fans just have a peculiar way of showing it.