Shark movies are tough to get right, because it’s near impossible to present realistic-looking footage of these terrifying creatures in action. Even animatronics tend to be tougher to control in the water, as Steven Spielberg discovered on the set of Jaws, which remains the benchmark for the subgenre despite being released several decades ago. Deep Blue Sea also winningly utilized animatronics to create a more tangible threat, while The Shallows boasted cutting-edge CGI, cleverly and prudently deployed only at the most opportune moments so we didn’t focus on the joins. Sometimes the VFX don’t even necessarily need to be good. The Sharknado franchise leaned into how dodgy everything looked to varyingly entertaining effect. And then there are movies like Maneater. The creative team behind this movie seemingly assumed there was nothing easier than pulling off a shark movie and man, were they mistaken.
Writer-director Justin Lee has 21 credits to his name, at the time of writing, most of which weren’t titles I recognized. Maybe Maneater was a passion project for him and his crew, but it really doesn’t feel like it. The best photography in this movie constitutes the establishing shots of the island, which are either stock footage from a travelogue or were completed by an entirely different DP to Eamon Long, who shot everything else (either that or he had some kind of dissociative episode midway through shooting). They’re so lovely it’s actually quite jarring, because the rest of the movie looks like an episode of Home and Away. There’s so much about this that makes no sense, from insert shots where the camera is underneath someone’s chin to the cheap, ugly, and utterly unconvincing VFX. I’m shocked there’s a credited production designer on this movie since so much of it seems like an afterthought.
It’s clear from the opening moments that Maneater isn’t particularly well-considered. A diver investigates a dark, underwater cave only to be immediately eaten by the titular beast, who pops up way too quickly, without even a moment’s pause for us to get our bearings or, crucially, create tension. Their whole approach is just rush, rush, rush and hope for the best. At least the shark is barely seen, which is lucky for all involved because it looks terrible. Beat up like Michael Myers – possibly because of a lava spill, though it’s never explained – it pops up out of nowhere, never in a scary way, and chomps on people so quickly and with so much bloodshed that it’s baffling when they appear to still be alive. But then they quickly die anyway. Is this how the filmmakers think sharks behave? Is this how they think people behave? The best shot in the whole movie is, bafflingly, some poor dude jumping off a cliff and somersaulting straight into the shark’s mouth, even though it looks awful, like every other kill, and makes absolutely no sense.
Maneater does have a high body count, to be fair. There’s some decent injury detail too, albeit inexplicably contained to a single scene because of course it is. But there’s no weight to any of the deaths because the characters are so thinly drawn, and the script is so unbelievably clunky, making their motivations murky at best. At one point, the shark is accused of “hunting for SPORT!” with complete seriousness. It’s truly bizarre. The cops are tasked with hunting the shark after it kills a local’s daughter, as though that’s somehow part of their purview – is the ocean even under their jurisdiction!? The gravel-voiced Trace Adkins is believable in the role of grieving father Harlan, though the part would rightfully have gone to Kane Hodder (give Kane more work!) if there was any justice in the world. Maybe he’s above this dross, who knows? The cast works hard to sell it, to their immense credit, even if lead Nicky Whelan’s Aussie accent pokes through every now and again. Elsewhere, former teen star Shane West, the biggest name on the cast-list, has aged well and doesn’t embarrass himself, jaunty pirate hat aside.
The movie isn’t exactly detail-orientated. Much of the dialogue is inaudible because the score – which seems to be exclusively comprised of terrible royalty free music, making it sound like you’re in the supermarket the whole time – is much too loud and the dialogue is too low. The mixing might be wrong or maybe they didn’t want to pay for ADR, but at one point a plane flies overhead and muffles everything and, again, that’s the take they used. Also, the boat captain is clearly wearing a wedding ring, which is a small detail but easily fixed by swapping it to a different finger, so it feels incredibly lazy. Moreover, the size and scale of the shark changes from scene to scene. Hilariously, at one point, its fin looks to be as big as a boat, making it larger than The Meg. Worse, the beast is beaten far too easily, while the final, brazened reference to Jaws is wild considering just how incompetent Maneater is in comparison, in every conceivable way. Seriously, this is a How Did This Get Made? episode waiting to happen. Avoid at all costs unless, like me, you’re a sharksploitation completist with masochistic tendencies.
Catch Maneater in theaters, on Demand and on Digital from August 26, 2022
WICKED RATING: 3/10
Director(s): Justin Lee
Writer(s): Justin Lee
Stars: Shane West, Trace Adkins, Nicky Whelan
Release date: August 26, 2022
Run Time: 86 minutes