SHARK NIGHT 3D is a brilliant movie. I’m not being ironic and I’m not trolling you when I say that. SHARK NIGHT 3D is next level stuff; the most sentient horror movie since SCREAM. This is the STARSHIP TROOPERS of killer shark movies– and if you know me, you know I do not mess around when it comes to comparing things to STARSHIP TROOPERS. In fact, this may be the first time I’ve ever even dared to do it, but that’s just how strongly I feel that what director David R. Ellis and screenwriters Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg created here will be completely misunderstood and wrongfully dismissed as just a bad movie filled with pretty people ripped apart by sharp teeth.
This is not a bad movie. It’s a movie with an agenda, and that agenda is to take killer shark and cabin-on-the-lake horror movies, dissect them, examine their bits and then reassemble a new movie out of its favorite parts. That abomination then climbed off of the operating table and screamed “SHARRRRRK NIIIIIIIGHTT!!!” while lightning crashed and the guy who made SNAKES ON A PLANE stood in front of a stained glass window, maniacal muttering, “Finally, they’ll see. I’ll make them all see.”
Sadly a beautiful monster like this won’t be popular in a world where people mistake its on-the-nose dialogue and batshit insane plot for bad screenwriting. The reality is it’s not bad screenwriting at all (how can it be if it has you laughing and cheering at every point it wants you to?), it’s just that it operates with a heightened sense of self-awareness that a lot of people aren’t ready for. They think they’ve got the movie figured out. They think if they laugh at a super cheesy line of dialogue or a ridiculous action piece, they’ve somehow beaten the movie. But what people don’t realize is that this movie was onto you first. This is the velociraptor of killer shark movies. Stare it right in the eyes and then the attack comes from the sides.
Names like SHARK NIGHT 3D don’t happen by accident. Nothing in this movie happens by accident. Everything from the first mention that Sara hasn’t been back to the lake in three years to the way it treats the dog to the choice of prosthetic teeth Joshua Leonard’s wackjob local wears is by inspired design. The first third of it is written to exploit a collective pop culture memory of what these kind of movies are like. Ellis establishes the characters and the setting as efficiently and superficially as possible. I mean, we’re talking about a movie that features CLARISSA EXPLAINS IT ALL style high speed running around. And while it’s hilarious when that hits you, it’s not done solely to make you chuckle. It’s done because SHARK NIGHT, like some omnipresent viewer that is watching you watch the movie, literally needs to fast forward through all the bullshit we all knew would be in this movie.
But then SHARK NIGHT gets to the stuff we didn’t know would be in this movie. And it’s wild. It’s smart, it’s nothing you’ve ever seen before and the rationale behind what some of these characters do will make you question if the movie somehow loosened your grip on reality. You’ll stare at the screen doubting this world is the same world you walked into an hour earlier, because surely an alternate reality is the only explanation for how a screenplay like this becomes an actual movie.
We’re talking about a movie that has a character who is missing an arm, walk into a lake with a spear to kill a shark because, and I’m paraphrasing here, “This is how we do it in Baltimore. You take one of ours, we take one of yours.” We’re talking about a killers-in-the-water flick that has its boat vs dock explosion by the 25-minute mark. We’re talking about a movie that refuses to allow Sara Paxton to change out of a bikini no matter what. Hell, that alone should tell you what kind of movie you’re dealing with. It has Sarah Paxton as its bikini-clad final girl. Not Kelly Brook. Not Jessica Biel. Not some Maxim cover model. We’re talking about a girl-next-door type actress who is indeed very talented (have you seen THE INNKEEPERS?) and who plays everything with a straight face.
And ultimately that’s what makes SHARK NIGHT so damned satisfying. There’s no garish winking at the audience until after the credits roll (Note: I didn’t realize there was a post-credits clip and, now knowing what it is, I am deeply sad I missed it). Even when things get very silly, and they do, Ellis knows how to have fun with the audience. He knows how to cast off pretense. He knows you’ve seen JAWS and DEEP BLUE SEA and wants to give you a killer shark movie that doesn’t bother with putting the shark and our fear of it on a pedestal.
All Ellis cares about is subverting expectations and I’m more than happy to admit he pulled the rug right out from under me. One of the biggest ways he did that was with the PG-13 rating. Forget the premise, forget who made it, the number one reason people like me were gunning for SHARK NIGHT 3D is because it wasn’t R rated, but there’s absolutely nothing that would be improved here by adding in extraneous material just to get a more adult rating. It’s sexy without having nudity, it’s angry without having its characters cursing constantly, and it’s mean without having lingering close-ups of ravaged limbs. People may not want to give SHARK NIGHT the credit it deserves, but those aren’t easy things to do.
Take it from someone who has watched a lot of bad movies, it’s not easy to make a low-brow movie that’s self-aware. Sure, anyone can make a Syfy channel movie that’s “so bad it’s fun,” but it takes an actual vision to turn a ludicrous plot into a legitimately enjoyable movie. The most labored moments, say when characters are supposed to be having emotional breakthroughs, aren’t hilarious because the actors aren’t selling the material, they’re hilarious because the actors know you’re the one who wants to buy it. SHARK NIGHT plays everything like it A) knows exactly what you’re thinking and B) doesn’t give a shit what you think, and I don’t think audiences are ready for a movie that treats them that way.